"Spiritual but not Religious"

SBNR kayaking As the religious landscape of the United States is under constant fluctuation, an increasing number of people have begun identifying as spiritual but not religious. In doing so, they seek to distance themselves from “organized” religion. Although described as a new movement, the ideas that spiritual but not religious people engage with have deep roots in American history.

Over the past few decades, a new identity has gained popularity in the United States: being spiritual but not religious. A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that 1 in 5 Americans is spiritual but not religious, and that number appears to be rising. Challenging the typical categories by which many people define “religion,” spiritual but not religious people show the complexity of religious identity.

On one hand, this identity is not new. Spirituality is not a modern invention; people have long described themselves as spiritual. But the tendency to separate “spirituality” from “religion” has become more prevalent since the 1970s. Since then, scholars and religious leaders have noted popular resistance toward “organized religion.” Many people today decide to reject the religious upbringing of their childhood to begin a process of “spiritual seeking.” Today’s spiritual but not religious people are mostly young, having grown up in what some have called an increasingly “unchurched” United States.

Spiritual but not religious people sometimes think of religion as restrictive and choose to explore various practices and belief systems from the world’s many different traditions. Therefore, they aspire to be “spiritual” by living in a meaningful way, but they do not want to be “religious” by adhering to the dogma of any one religion. Beyond “spiritual but not religious,” there are many terms that represent this trend in American society: religious nones, the religiously unaffiliated, spiritual seekers, agnostics, and atheists.

The term “spiritual but not religious” is relatively new, but it comes from a long line of new religious movements that have challenged organized religion and described religion as a matter of personal experience. Unlike some branches of atheism, spiritual but not religious people do not necessarily reject religion in favor of rationalism or science. But the phrase “spiritual but not religious” is similar to secular, rationalistic branches of thought because it can be used to critique organized religion for its perceived preoccupation with doctrine. Many emerging spiritual movements begin because people of certain identities feel barred from traditional religion; for example, some spiritual but not religious communities point out how organized religion can limit the rights of women or LGBTQIA+ people.

As spiritual but not religious people attempt to situate themselves within the American religious landscape, they face challenges with being accepted. Some scholars and religious leaders accuse spiritual but not religious people of being self-centered or inconsistent in their engagement with spirituality. Critics claim that being spiritual but not religious means cherry-picking the more palatable parts of religion without feeling the weight of responsibility and sacrifice that belonging to a certain religious tradition can
carry. To these criticisms, spiritual but not religious people respond that all forms of religious engagement involve selecting tenets that resonate with the practitioner. Choosing a unique, thoughtful way of moving through the world allows them to be better human beings. By seeking their own way of being, spiritual but not religious people often see themselves as carving a new path in which religion can be freely chosen
rather than inherited. In this way, spiritual but not religious people are representing and molding an understanding of religion that emphasizes individual choice.

Because spiritual but not religious identities are fluid, rituals and practices vary from person to person. Many spiritual but not religious people draw from various traditions to create their own unique approach to spirituality: common rituals include yoga, Buddhist meditation, or Pagan practices like tarot card reading. Rituals often center meaning-making and personal experience. Some spiritual but not religious people look toward certain books as spiritual guides: two popular texts for this purpose are Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Because spiritual but not religious people draw from such different spiritual sources, many people have expressed concerns over cultural appropriation, and recent scholarship has criticized how whiteness is often centered in spiritual but not religious communities.

Ultimately, by engaging in diverse practices, spiritual but not religious people challenge the idea that religion is about belief alone, because they share a religious identity but do not necessarily share a moral code. These discrepancies also highlight inter-denominational pluralism within organized religion; just as not all spiritual but not religious people agree on a certain way of living, people who belong to the same
religious tradition can disagree over their personal beliefs.

Although spiritual but not religious people are often portrayed as inherently solitary, communities for them exist. In her 2010 book The New Metaphysicals, sociologist Courtney Bender explores social gatherings of spiritual but not religious people in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ironically, many of the groups she spoke with meet in church basements, which serve as convenient rental spaces. In practice, these groups
become interfaith spaces in which members do not fit into traditional religious categories. Beyond groups specifically designated for spiritual but not religious people, Unitarian Universalist and Pagan organizations frequently become comfortable spiritual homes for the religiously unaffiliated. Spiritual but not religious people may also find community online in places like the Facebook group Spiritual But Not Religious, where members post reflections on how to live a meaningful life.

As the internet becomes a more popular space for religious communities to engage their congregants, spiritual but not religious people challenge the idea that religion must be confined to a brick and mortar building. They are at the front lines of new spiritual movements, innovating ritual and creating their own paths. In today’s changing spiritual landscape, spiritual but not religious people are pushing the bounds of what it means to be religious and challenging conceptions of religious identity.

Additional Content

Pew Research Study on Spiritual but not Religious

Pew Research Center
September 6, 2017

Michael Lipka and Claire Gecewicz

Some people may see the term “spiritual but not religious” as indecisive and devoid of substance. Others embrace it as an accurate way to describe themselves. What is beyond dispute, however, is that the label applies to a growing share of Americans.

About a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 25 and June 4 of this year. This growth has been broad-based: It has occurred among men and women; whites, blacks and Hispanics; people of many different ages and education levels; and among Republicans and Democrats. For instance, the share of whites who identify as spiritual but not religious has grown by 8 percentage points in the past five years.

[For full report, visit “More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious.”]


The Growth of SBNRs

The New York Times
July 18, 2014

Mark Oppenheimer

“Spiritual but not religious.” So many Americans describe their belief system this way that pollsters now give the phrase its own category on questionnaires. In the 2012 survey by the Pew Religion and Public Life Project, nearly a fifth of those polled said that they were not religiously affiliated — and nearly 37 percent of that group said they were “spiritual” but not “religious.” It was 7 percent of all Americans, a bigger group than atheists, and way bigger than Jews, Muslims or Episcopalians.

Unsurprisingly, the S.B.N.R.s, as this growing group is often called, are attracting a lot of attention. Four recent books offer perspectives on these Americans who seem to want some connection to the divine, but who don’t feel affiliated with traditional religion. There’s the minister who wants to woo them, two scholars who want to understand them and the psychotherapist who wants to help them.

[For full article, visit “Examining the Growth of the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’.”]

Cultural Appropriation and Whiteness among SBNRs

Canopy Forum on the Interactions of Law & Religion
September 24, 2020

Amanda Lucia

When I was conducting research for my new book I spent nine years in multiple field sites with people who largely identified as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). These people were seeking expansive spiritual experiences, and I followed them through networks of transformational festivals, like Bhakti Fest, Wanderlust yoga festivals, Lightning in a Bottle, and Burning Man. What surprised me (at the time) was that these spiritual seekers were exploring powerful and transformational experiences by practicing the religious forms of non-white cultures, but overarchingly they were fostering communities that were nearly all white. To uncover the ways, methods, and possible reasons for this, I focused specifically on the practice of yoga as a generative space for SBNR values and I started thinking deeply about the politics of representation and how race and belonging intersect with religion and spirituality. The impetus behind the book was, in fact, a question of representation at its heart. As a specialist in the field of guru studies, I had witnessed over the years, in multiple research fields, how guru communities tended to divide into separate categories of Indian and Western devotees. In fact, I had written about that phenomenon in my first book and had come to the conclusion that it was the different socio-cultural needs and desires of these communities that made them divide into ethnically homogenous de facto congregations.

But I was unsatisfied with that semi-functionalist conclusion and so I delved deeper, focusing specifically on yoga and transformational festivals as institutions of SBNR religiosity. I followed yogis, kīrtan (devotional music) artists, Tantrics, sound-healers, meditators, visionaries, and barefoot walkers into the global field sites of transformational festivals. I saw how these festivals were sites of community-building, educational sharing, ethical formation, spiritual growth, and wonderous release. I attended hundreds of yoga classes and workshops that taught breathwork, neo-Tantric sexual awakening, Tibetan bowl sound therapy, chanting-prayer practices from both Indigenous and Indic traditions, Sanskrit 101, mandala making, and meditative labyrinth walking. These classes and workshops supplied the initial layer of an infinite field because my fellow participants in these spaces would lead me into their own self-designed spiritual worlds and in contact with them, I would learn about their latest Ayahuasca trip, their encounter with shamanic healing, or their recent stay at a yoga center in Bali. My informants were creators, building spiritually-conscious worlds by invoking wisdom from non-Western sources. In so doing, they were rejecting the modalities of their home identities (some conglomeration of white, Western, Christian, capitalism) and embracing that which they conceived as radically other – exotic (mostly Indic and Indigenous religions). While each transformational festival and each person therein has a distinctive identity, purpose, and vision, their commonality lies in that they are predominantly white (80 – 100 percent), and the festivals are exponentially whiter than the demographics of the surrounding regions in which they are held. In fact, they seemed to be attracting whites, almost exclusively, and at a higher rate than other events and sub-communities. Despite their commitments to inclusivity and their attractions to non-white cultures, I found that these spiritual seekers, yogis, and bhaktas (devotees) were separating into largely homogenous white communities – once again.

[For full article, visit “Representation and Whiteness among the 'Spiritual but not Religious'”]

Spiritual Communities: The New Metaphysicals

The New Metaphyscials: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination
The University of Chicago Press, 2010

Courtney Bender

American spirituality—with its focus on individual meaning, experience, and exploration—is usually thought to be a product of the postmodern era. But, as The New Metaphysicals makes clear, contemporary American spirituality has historic roots in the nineteenth century and a great deal in common with traditional religious movements. To explore this world, Courtney Bender combines research into the history of the movement with fieldwork in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a key site of alternative religious inquiry from Emerson and William James to today. Through her ethnographic analysis, Bender discovers that a focus on the new, on progress, and on the way spiritual beliefs intersect with science obscures the historical roots of spirituality from its practitioners and those who study it alike—and shape an enduring set of modern religious possibilities in the process.

[For more information about the book, visit “The New Metaphyscials.”]

"Spiritual" versus "Religious"

Harvard Divinity Bulletin
Winter/Spring 2010

Amy Hollywood

MOST OF US WHO write, think, and talk about religion are by now used to hearing people say that they are spiritual, but not religious. With the phrase generally comes the presumption that religion has to do with doctrines, dogmas, and ritual practices, whereas spirituality has to do with the heart, feeling, and experience. The spiritual person has an immediate and spontaneous experience of the divine or of some higher power. She does not subscribe to beliefs handed to her by existing religious traditions, nor does she engage in the ritual life of any particular institution. At the heart of the distinction between religion and spirituality, then, lies the presumption that to think and act within an existing tradition—to practice religion—risks making one less spiritual. To be religious is to bow to the authority of another, to believe in doctrines determined for one in advance, to read ancient texts only as they are handed down through existing interpretative traditions, and blindly to perform formalized rituals. For the spiritual, religion is inert, arid, and dead; the practitioner of religion, whether consciously or not, is at best without feeling, at worst insincere.

You hear this kind of criticism of religious belief and practice not only among those who call themselves spiritual, but also within religious traditions. For centuries now, Christians have fought over the interplay between authority and tradition, on the one hand, and feeling, enthusiasm, and experience on the other. They have also fought over what kind of experience is properly spiritual or religious. What all sides in these debates share, and what they share with those who understand themselves as spiritual rather than religious, is the presumption that authority and tradition will kill—or, if you are on the other side of the debate, reign in or properly temper—experience. Whereas some American Protestants, for example, insist that one can best know, love, and be saved by God without extraordinary experiences of God’s presence—or with inward experiences rather than with those marked by bodily signs such as tears, shouts, convulsions, outcries, or visions—various revivalist, Holiness, and Pentecostal movements argue that without an intensely felt experience of God, one knows and feels nothing of the divine and so cannot be saved.

[For full article, visit “Spiritual but not Religious.”]