One hears occasionally, especially in the left-hand part of the country, a comment on the order of “I am spiritual, but not religious.” This is a relatively new formulation. What does it mean? And why is it increasingly popular?
Religion and spirituality usually imply one another. Most Americans by far describe themselves as both spiritual and religious. The small yet growing number of spiritual-but-not-religious people seem to mean a variety of things by this declaration. But it is not so much a rejection of faith as a rejection of organized religion. Most spiritual-but-not-religious Americans say they believe in God and 40 percent of them believe without any doubt.* In the last generation, many Americans have lost confidence in churches, denominations, and clergy. For some, saying they are “spiritual but not religious” expresses this alienation.
The Coming of the Spirituals
Scholars of religion started noticing the new formulation in the 1990s. (A good source is Ch. 3 of Mark Chaves’s American Religion; see also here and here ). Systematic survey data show that the vast majority of Americans consider themselves religious and spiritual, but, according to the General Social Survey, 9 percent of adult Americans in 1998 and 16 percent of them in 2010 described themselves as spiritual-but-not-religious. They tend to be more often white, under 65, well-educated, unmarried, and non-southerners (particularly likely to live in the Pacific region) than other Americans.
Two social forces seem to be have initiated this trend. One is Americans’ growing interest in spiritual ideas. A higher percentage of Americans believe in life after death now than did 40 years ago; the sorts of people who have more recently adopted this belief are the kind who were and are not regular church-goers. Also, growing exposure to eastern ideas such as karma, yoga, and reincarnation has stimulated discussions of spirituality. So does the belief, which more and more Americans hold, that there are many equally valid roads to virtue and salvation, not just their own faiths’.
The second, and I think key, impetus to becoming spiritual-but-not-religious rather than spiritual-and-religious is the conviction that formal religious institutions are unnecessary for or even hinder spirituality. Many have become disaffected with organized religion.
Two developments in particular appear to have generated this disaffection. One is the sex abuse scandal of the Catholic priesthood, which, among other things, has driven down Americans’ respect for clergy in general. Another development, suggested in 2002 by Michael Hout and me (here; and extended by Robert Putnam and David Campbell here), is the political mobilization of conservative Protestant denominations. Some political moderates and liberals have responded to the rise of the Religious Right by turning away from their own religious identities. These are people who were probably not that religious to start with, but now cultural politics has tainted any religious identity for them. To call themselves “religious” seems like calling themselves “conservative.” By announcing instead that they have no religion or that they are spiritual-but-not-religious, they are saying, “I’m not one of them.”
It is obvious that scandals like the priest pedophile horror undermine religious affiliation. It is, I think, becoming clearer to religious leaders that political involvement might do the same.
In some eras, political activism may attract Americans. Nineteenth-century temperance politics probably mobilized many American women into the new evangelical movements. But it can do the opposite. The recent alignment of fundamentalists with the GOP has led to odd positions, such as an embrace of laissez-faire economics that would have shocked their nineteenth-century forebears. And the politicization of issues about gays seems to have turned off many young Americans. The souls of political moderates and liberals who might have been saved in the church are drifting away to the spiritual-but-not-religious “congregation.”
* These numbers come from my analysis of the General Social Survey, 1998-2010. The spiritual-but-not-religious are defined as those who said they were “very” or “moderately” spiritual and who also said that they were only “slightly” or “not” religious.
(Cross-posted on the Berkeley Blog on September 7, 2012.)