Spiritual but not religious

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"Spiritual but not religious" (SBNR) is a popular phrase and initialism used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that takes issue with organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Spirituality places an emphasis upon the wellbeing of the "mind-body-spirit,"[1] so "holistic" activities such as tai chi, reiki, and yoga are common within the SBNR movement.[2] In contrast to religion, spirituality has often been associated with the interior life of the individual.[3]


The spiritual but not religious phenomenon has been thought to emerge as a result of a new Romantic movement that began in the 1960s. The relationship between the two has been linked to William James’ definition of religious experience, which he defines as the “feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”[4] Romantic movements tend to lean away from traditional religion and resemble spiritual movements in their endorsement of mystical, unorthodox, and exotic ways.[5] Owen Thomas also states that the ambiguity and lack of structure present in Romantic movements are also present within spiritual movements.

According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2012, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has increased from 15% in 2007 to 20% in 2012, and this number continues to grow. One fifth of the US public and a third of adults under the age of 30 are reportedly unaffiliated with any religion, however they identify as being spiritual in some way. Of these religiously unaffiliated Americans, 37% classify themselves as spiritual but not religious, while 68% say they do believe in God, and 58% feel a deep connection to the earth.[6]

Generational replacement has been understood as a significant factor of the growth of religiously unaffiliated individuals. Notable differences were found amongst the percentage of those considered younger millennials (born 1990-1994, with 34% reporting to be religiously unaffiliated; when compared to Gen Xers (born 1965-1980) with 21% reporting to be religiously unaffiliated.[7]

Demographically, research has found that the religiously unaffiliated population is younger, predominately male, and 35% are between the ages of 18-29. Conversely, only 8% of religiously unaffiliated individuals are 65 and older. Among those unaffiliated with organized religion as a whole, 56% are men and 44% are women. [8]

Another possible explanation for the emergence of SBNR is its linguistic. Owen Thomas highlights the fact that spirituality movements tend to be localized to English and North American cultures. The meaning of the term “spirit” is more narrow in English than that of other languages, referring to all of the uniquely human capacities and cultural functions.[9]


SBNRs are made up of heterogeneous and differing typologies. While no individual fits exhaustively into or remains permanently in one type, Linda A. Mercandante categorizes SBNRs into five distinct categories: (a) Dissenters, (b) Casuals, (c) Explorers, (d) Seekers, and (e) Immigrants.

  1. Dissenters” are the people who, for the most part, make a conscious effort to veer away from institutional religion. “Protesting dissenters” refers to those SBNRs who have been ‘turned off’ religious affiliation because of adverse personal experiences with it. “Drifted Dissenters” refers to those SBNRs who, for a multitude of reasons, fell out of touch with organized religion and chose never to go back. “Conscientious objector dissenters” refers to those SBNRs who are overtly skeptical of religious institutions and are of the view that religion is neither a useful nor necessary part of an individual’s spirituality.
  2. “Casuals” are the people who see religious and/or spiritual practices as primarily functional. Spirituality is not an organizing principle in their lives. Rather they believe it should be used on an as-needed basis for bettering their health, relieving stress, and for emotional support. The spirituality of “Casuals” is thus best understood as a “therapeutic” spirituality that centers on the individual’s personal wellbeing.
  3. “Explorers” are the people who seem to have what Mercandante refers to as a “spiritual wanderlust.” These SBNRs find their constant search for novel spiritual practices to be a byproduct of their “unsatisfied curiosity,” their desire for journey and change, as well as feelings of disappointment. Explorers are best understood as “spiritual tourists” who take comfort in the destination-less journey of their spirituality and have no intentions of ultimately committing to a spiritual home.
  4. “Seekers” are those people who are looking for a spiritual home but contemplate recovering earlier religious identities. These SBNRs embrace the “spiritual but not religious" label and are eager to find a completely new religious identity or alternative spiritual group that they can ultimately commit to.
  5. “Immigrants” are those people who have found themselves in a novel spiritual realm and are trying to adjust themselves to this newfound identity and its community. “Immigrants” can be best understood as those SBNRs who are “trying on” a radically new spiritual environment but have yet to feel completely settled there. It is important to note that for these SBNRs, although they are hoping to become fully integrated in their newfound spiritual identities, the process of acclimation is difficult and often disconcerting.[10]


Eastern Influences[edit]

Twentieth-century Americans have become enthralled by the mysteries of the East, with Jiddu Krishnamurti and D. T. Suzuki representing two of the dozens of Asian gurus who ushered in a “New Age” of religious awareness and spiritual understanding for Westerners. Krishnamurti introduced Americans to an eclectic fusion of occultism consisting of “Vedanta teachings of the divinity of the self” infused with Western psychologies of self-reliance. D. T. Suzuki provided Americans with a foundational knowledge of Zen, a central aspect of Buddhist teachings. Both Krishnamurti and Suzuki provided SBNRs with the understanding that the essence of spirituality is comprised in the immediate, temporal and highly mystical experiences of human reality that paradoxically transcend the triviality of everyday existence. The goal of Zen is not to cause individuals to perceive a different sense of “reality” from their current one, but rather to awaken its practitioners to the sacred nature of temporality. Many SBNRs were drawn to Zen ideologies because their actualization can only be achieved through personal spiritual experiences rather than logical thought or rationality.
Another common practice of SBNRs is mindfulness meditation, which is based on the writings of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. The most successful Eastern-based meditation movement to be transported to and reformulated for a Western audience is Transcendental Meditation. Founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Transcendental Meditation is based on a simplified form of yoga consisting of two fifteen- to twenty-minute periods daily where the practitioner is taught to sit comfortably, relax, and chant a one-syllable mantra. The purpose of this mantra is to help practitioners let go of their attachment to the external world and focus their spiritual energy inwards.

Feminist and Ecological Spiritualities[edit]

Spiritualist and New Thought movements such as Spiritual but not Religious created new opportunities for women to veer away from the androcentrism of Abrahamic traditions and blaze their own spiritual paths.[citation needed] Many of the themes that are quintessential to feminist spiritual and religious thought are also embodied in ecological spiritualities.[citation needed] Ecological spiritualities are best understood as being rooted in the belief that the natural world is a medium for divine revelation and that nature possesses a spiritual worth that goes beyond the functional utility it might have for humans. The considerable overlap between ecological and feminist spiritualities can be seen in their shared central tenets of “inner growth, ecological wisdom, gender equality, and social responsibility.”[citation needed]

Neo‐Paganism and Witchcraft[edit]

Neo-Paganism refers to the renewed interest in pre-Christian nature-oriented beliefs. Gerald Gardner’s publication of Witchcraft Today was foundational in the promulgation of nature-based religions, most popularly Wicca. Shamanic, Druidic, Gaian and ceremonial magic practices are all forms of spirituality that have resurfaced in modern times. Witches#Wicca understand the God of biblical monotheism to be inextricably bound to sexism, racism, ecological exploitation, as well as the exercise of power over others. Modern witchcraft seeks to encourage individuals to tap into their “mysterious reservoirs of inner power and use the magic of their own minds to focus this energy into healing activity within the world.” These New Age religions also extend to a wide and multifarious spectrum of interest in the supernatural. Some New Age spiritual practices include astrology, Ouija boards, Tarot cards, the I Ching, and science fiction.[11]

Music and Meaning[edit]

Musicologist David Carr explains how many individuals have sought to develop secular or “religiously untethered” senses of spirituality through the spiritual power of music.[citation needed] Forms of artistic expression, such as painting and music, are said to evoke a sense of awe and wonder, where the individual is temporarily transported to another dimension far-removed from the trivialities of everyday existence. Musician and theologian June Boyce-Tillman emphasizes how music “takes us out of ‘everyday’ consciousness with its concerns for food, clothing and practical issues” and moves us into a self-transcending experience.[citation needed] For many SBNRs, music has become the basis of their spirituality as opposed to a partner to it.[12]

Spirituality in Religion[edit]

Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion.[13][13]

What is Spirituality?[edit]

Increased popular and scholarly attention to "spirituality" has been related by scholars like Pargament to sociocultural trends towards deinstitutionalization, individualization, and globalization.[14] According to the authors of the studies included in the edited volume Social Identities Between the Secular and the Sacred, some of those who are critical of religion see it as rigid and pushy, leading them to use terms such as atheist, agnostic to describe themselves. [15] For many people, SBNR is not just about rejecting religion outright, but not wanting to be restricted by it.[16] Many of those studied who identify as SBNR feel a tension between their personal spirituality and membership in a conventional religious organization. Most of them value curiosity, intellectual freedom, and an experimental approach to religion. Many go as far to view organized religion as the major enemy of authentic spirituality, claiming that spirituality is private reflection and private experience—not public ritual.[17] To appreciate the "god within" is not a twentieth century notion linked to the 1960s counterculture with its eastern-mystical or hippie drug scene or even the 1980s New Age movement for that matter.[18] Spirituality is made up of three parts: nature, divine wisdom from a high power, and the self.[18]

Spirituality in Religion[edit]

According to Philip D. Kenneson, to be "religious" conveys an institutional connotation: to attend worship services, to say Mass, to light Hanukkah candles. To be "spiritual," in contrast, connotes personal practice and personal empowerment having to do with the deepest motivations of life.[17] As a result, in cultures that are deeply suspicious of institutional structures and that place a high value on individual freedom and autonomy, spirituality has come to have largely positive connotations, while religion has been viewed more negatively.[17] Abrahamic traditions emphasize that one’s best bet is to look outside to a higher power that can guide and correct your corporeal misjudgements. In these traditions, God above is the source of wisdom and illumination.[18] Spirituality is about much more than going to church and agreeing or disagreeing with church doctrines. Spirituality is the shorthand term we use in our society to talk about a person’s relationship with God.[19] For many people, how they think about it is certainly guided by what they see and do in their congregations.[19] At a deeper level, it involves a person’s self-identity—feeling loved by God, and these feelings can wax and wane.[19] The concept of religion is a social construct, since in other eras, religion, culture, and even national identity were often inseparable. And as for spirituality, this is an old concept with a new usage.[13] Previous to today’s era, what people today call spirituality was often called piety.[13] Religion is seen as a complex adaptive network of myths, symbols, rituals and concepts that simultaneously figure patterns of feeling, thinking, and acting and disrupt stable structures of meaning and purpose.[13] When understood in that way, religion not only involves ideas and practices that are manifestly religious but also includes a broad range of cultural phenomena not ordinarily associated with religion.[13] Many people use spirituality to refer to their interior life of faith and religion to mean the necessary communal and/or organizational part.[13] Both spirituality and religion consist of four basic components: beliefs, desire, rituals, and behavioural expectations.[13] When Mercandante has spoken with SBNRs, they take a decidedly anti-dogmatic stance against religious belief in general. They claim not only that belief is non-essential, but that it is potentially harmful or at least a hindrance to spirituality.[13]


According to some scholars, what both religion and spirituality have in common is a sense of the supernatural.[20] In colonial America, some people had a supernatural curiosity that was often combined with free-thinking rationalism advocated by intellectuals such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.[21] Robert Fuller has characterized the SBNR phenomenon as a mix of intellectual progressivism and mystical hunger, impatient with the piety of established churches.[22]


Some representatives of organized religion have criticized the practice of spirituality without religiosity. Reverend Lillian Daniel, a liberal Protestant minister, has characterized the SBNR worldview as a product of secular American consumer culture, far removed from community and "right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating".[23] James Martin, a Jesuit priest, has called the SBNR lifestyle "plain old laziness",[24] stating that "[s]pirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community".[25]

Other critics[who?] contend that within the "Spiritual but Not Religious" worldview, self-knowledge and self-growth have been problematically equated with knowledge of God, directing a person’s focus inward. As a result, the political, economic, and social forces that shape the world are neglected and left untended.[26] Further, some scholars[who?] have noted the relative spiritual superficiality of particular SBNR practices. Classical mysticism within the world’s major religions requires sustained dedication, often in the form of prolonged asceticism, extended devotion to prayer, and the cultivation of humility. In contrast, SBNRs in the Western world are encouraged[by whom?] to dabble in spiritual practices in a way that is often casual and lacking in rigor or any reorganization of priorities. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow suggests that these forms of mysticism are "shallow and inauthentic."[27] Other critics[who?] take issue with the intellectual legitimacy of SBNR scholarship. When contrasted with professional or academic theology, spiritual philosophies can appear unpolished, disjointed, or inconsistently sourced.[28]

Wong and Vinsky challenge SBNR discourse that posits religion as "institutional and structured" in contrast to spirituality as "inclusive and universal" (1346).[29] They argue that this understanding makes invisible the historical construction of "spirituality," which currently relies on a rejection of EuroChristianity for its own self-definition. According to them, Western discourses of "spirituality" appropriate Indigenous spiritual traditions and "ethnic" traditions of the East, yet racialized ethnic groups are more likely to be labeled "religious" than "spiritual" by white SBNR practitioners.[29] Wong and Vinsky assert that through these processes, colonial othering is enacted through SBNR discourse.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Heelas, Spiritualities of Life, 63.
  2. ^ Heelas, Spiritualities of Life, 64.
  3. ^ Carette and King, Selling Spirituality, 41.
  4. ^ Kenneson, Philip D. (July 2015). "What’s in a Name? A Brief Introduction to the “Spiritual But Not Religious”". Liturgy 30 (3): 8. 
  5. ^ Thomas, Owen (January 2006). "Spiritual but Not Religious: The Influence of the Current Romantic Movement". Anglican Theological Review 88 (3): 397. 
  6. ^ Funk, Cary; Smith, Greg. "“Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation" (PDF). pewforum.org. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 
  7. ^ Funk, Cary; Smith, Greg. "“Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation" (PDF). pewforum.org. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 
  8. ^ Funk, Cary; Smith, Greg. "“Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation" (PDF). pewforum.org. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 
  9. ^ Thomas, Owen (January 2006). "Spiritual but Not Religious: The Influence of the Current Romantic Movement". Anglican Theological Review 88 (3): 398. 
  10. ^ Mercadante, Linda A. "The Interviewees." Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. 35-67. Oxford Scholarship Online.
  11. ^ Fuller, Robert C. "Exotic Messages, Familiar Themes." Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 76-100. Oxford Scholarship Online. Web.
  12. ^ Anderson, E. Byron. “Music and Meaning for the “Spiritual But Not Religious”.” Liturgy 30.3 (2015): 14-22. The Liturgical Conference. Routledge, July 2015. Web.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mercandante, Linda A. (2014). Belief without borders : inside the minds of the spiritual but not religious. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199931003. 
  14. ^ Marler, Penny Long; Hadaway, C. Kirk (June 2002). ""Being Religious" or "Being Spiritual" in America: A Zero Sum Proposition?". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41 (2). 
  15. ^ Day, Abby, ed. (2013). Social identities between the sacred and the secular (New edition. ed.). Burlington: Ashgate. ISBN 978-1-4094-5677-3. 
  16. ^ Day, Abby, ed. (2013). Social identities between the sacred and the secular (New edition. ed.). Burlington: Ashgate. ISBN 978-1-4094-5677-3. 
  17. ^ a b c Kenneson, Philip D. (12 May 2015). "What’s in a Name? A Brief Introduction to the "Spiritual But Not Religious"". Liturgy 30 (3): 5. doi:10.1080/0458063X.2015.1019259. 
  18. ^ a b c Chandler, Siobhan. Bryant, D, ed. Ways of the Spirit. 
  19. ^ a b c Wuthnow, Robert (2007). After the baby boomers how twenty- and thirty-somethings are shaping the future of American religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400831227. 
  20. ^ Craythorne, Jennifer (2014). "CHAPTER 16: SPIRITUALITY, RELIGION, AND THE SUPERNATURAL". Earthlink. Earthlink. Retrieved 27 November 2015. 
  21. ^ Fuller, Robert C. (2001). Spiritual, but not religious understanding unchurched America. ([Nachdr.]. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 11. ISBN 0195146808. 
  22. ^ Fuller, Robert C. (2001). Spiritual, but not religious: Understanding unchurched America. ([Nachdr.]. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 12. ISBN 0195146808. 
  23. ^ "Why Christians need the church: An interview with Lillian Daniel". On Faith & Culture. Retrieved 2015-11-09. 
  24. ^ "Are there dangers in being 'spiritual but not religious'?". CNN.com. 2010-06-09. 
  25. ^ Martin, James (2010-03-11). "Spiritual but not religious - Not so fast!: Making the case for moving beyond your own personal God". Busted Halo: an online magazine for spiritual seekers. Retrieved 2010-09-19. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community. 
  26. ^ Fuller, Robert (2001). Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford. pp. 158–159. 
  27. ^ Fuller, Robert (2001). Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford. p. 160. 
  28. ^ Fuller, Robert (2001). Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford. p. 161. 
  29. ^ a b Wong, Yuk-Lin Renita; Vinsky, Jana (2009). "Speaking from the Margins: A Critical Reflection on the ‘Spiritual-but-not-Religious’ Discourse in Social Work". British Journal of Social Work: 1352–1354.