What Does It Mean to Be Spiritual but Not Religious?

Via Philip Goldberg
on Feb 6, 2013
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Source: awakeningpublications.blogspot.com via Communiqués on Pinterest

Clearing Up Some Misconceptions.

That ever-expanding group of Americans who check “none” when asked about their religious affiliations continue to mystify scholars, cleric and media commentators. One segment of “nones,” the folks who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR)—and I’m guessing almost everyone reading this—now constitute at least 20 percent of the population, and 30 percent of those under 30 years of age.

I have interviewed hundreds of this important cohort for my books, and I find that they are egregiously misunderstood, even by those who are not condescending or dismissive of them (or should I say “us”?).

One common misconception concerns the reason people disconnect from their birth religion in the first place.

The most prevalent explanation is the one favored by scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. They attribute disaffiliation mainly to the perceived link between religion and conservative politics—a turnoff to liberal-minded youth in particular.

I don’t buy it. There is no doubt that the judgmental moralizing of right-wing preachers has alienated a great many Christians, but that doesn’t explain the SBNR phenomenon. Believers who disdain fundamentalism have plenty of left-leaning denominations and apolitical congregations to turn to if they want to remain affiliated with their religious tradition. No, it’s mainly a spiritual issue, not a political one. The “S” in SBNR means something.  It’s what drives the designation; the other four words are merely modifiers.

In varying degrees, SBNRs are serious about their spiritual development, and they wish to pursue it wherever it leads them, on their own terms, free of external pressure and unbeholden to dogma. For them, the search itself is the chief identifier. It’s the questing, not the nesting. If traditional religion gave them the numinous experience they yearn for, if it answered the big existential questions in a satisfying way, if it truly nourished their desire for spiritual growth, they’d stay instead of stray.

Which brings me to another misconception: that SBNRs are dilettantes, like serial daters who can’t commit to a relationship.

To be sure, there are plenty of superficial dabblers who call themselves spiritual, but not as many as commentators assume. In fact, I would wager that, on average, they spend far more time in meditation, prayer, study of sacred texts, devotional activities, group discussions and other actual practices than people who are conventionally religious. Let’s face it, a large percentage of those who call themselves religious engage their faith for a couple of hours a week at most, and many of them show up only on holidays.

As someone once said, sitting in church and thinking you’re spiritual is like sitting in a garage and thinking you’re a car.

SBNRs who devote time to their spirituality are basically mystics—pragmatic, in-the-world mystics who probe the great mysteries from the inside out, seek transformation diligently, and try to live up to their spiritual standards.

Here’s some evidence: a 2009 Pew survey found that people report having spiritual experiences, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening,” much more frequently now than they did in 1962, 1976 or 1994, when similar studies were done. That tracks with the rise of the SBNR phenomenon, which basically started when Baby Boomers matured, and the report said that “these kinds of experiences are particularly common among the ‘religious unaffiliated.’”

Which leads to another misconception: that SBNRs are spiritual anarchists who reject all spiritual authority.

Not so. They recognize the need for guidance, but they get it from multiple sources, and they take full advantage of today’s rich diversity and easy accessibility. They want wisdom, not dogma. They want a free flow of ideas they can question, doubt, and ponder, not a rigid ideology. A modern seeker can be, as anthropologist Richard Schweder put it, “the student and beneficiary of all traditions, and the slave to none.”

Finally, there is the assumption that SBNRs suffer from a lack of community.

There is truth in this: clearly, one price of spiritual independence is the loss of fellowship, which the venerable religions do a good job of providing. Two things must be said about this. First, a great many SBNRs acknowledge that missing ingredient and try to fill the gap with informal, often leaderless and heterogeneous groupings, in person and online.  Interesting new forms of spiritual community will no doubt develop over time.  Second, many SBNRs are connected to communities, only they revolve around a yoga studio, or a Hindu guru, or a Buddhist lineage.

This alludes to an important, but seldom recognized fact: SBNRs are heavily oriented to Eastern ideas and practices, only they’re more likely to check the None or SBNR box than the Hindu or Buddhist box. There are many reasons for this, among them the fact that the gurus, roshis, swamis, and lamas who brought their traditional teachings to the West never asked anyone to convert, or to give up their own religions, or even to view their involvement as a religious rather than a secular pursuit.

SBNRs are as diverse and complex as any other spiritual cohort. They are here to stay, and their numbers will surely grow as pluralism evolves and access to the world’s wisdom becomes even easier. It could be the most important religious development of our time, so let’s make sure we understand it.


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Ed: Brianna Bemel


About Philip Goldberg

Philip Goldberg is the author or coauthor of nineteen books, including “The Intuitive Edge," “Roadsigns: On the Spiritual Path,” and his latest work, "American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West.” Based in Los Angeles, he is an ordained interfaith minister, a public speaker and seminar leader, and the founder of Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates. He also blogs regularly on the Huffington Post. Visit philipgoldberg.com or americanveda.com for more information.


12 Responses to “What Does It Mean to Be Spiritual but Not Religious?”

  1. Dea says:

    Thanks for this article, clarification is needed! I was thoroughly put off and driven away by the christian (catholic) church, with their exclusion of women, and the rigid, authoritarian manners, and ''thou shall not this and thou shall not that''. The pedophile scandals of late haven't helped either to find trust in ''the Church'' . I became interested in a diversity of spiritual paths and became a yogi. Only lately, I am tentatively coming back to my spiritual roots, acknowledging the rich spiritual heritage that we have in Christianity, understanding that the Church does not equal God. Just scraping on the surface, reading some of the christian mystics, I was astounded, not much different to a daoist text of how we can, or rather can not experience God!!

  2. kosokun says:

    A great, timely, and well written piece! Love to hear more on this topic. Personally, I believe that most organized religions require too much active ignorance from their congregations to survive in this age of knowledge. And they are too slow to apologize for the atrocities committed in their name, both historical and contemporary. Organized can fill a void for many people, but at this point they've lost all credibility.

  3. @Crommunist says:

    You use the word "spiritual" and "spirit" repeatedly without defining what they mean. As someone who is deeply condescending to and dismissive of SBNR folks, this is my primary objection (one that I notice doesn't make it into your FAQ list) – that "spirituality" is nothing more than a buzz-word that seeks to define into existence a "spirit" that has no basis in reality. Essentially what you are describing is a secular humanism that isn't thorough (op brave) enough to ditch the idea of a soul.

  4. John Norvell says:

    I would also like to know (without Crommunist's condescension and dismissal) what you have observed SBNRs to share in terms of the meaning of "spiritual." Even though I happily identify myself as an atheist, I always feel a twinge of guilt in saying or implying that I am not spiritual, even though I would say that mostly because I don't know what it means. Not to be "spiritual" implies that one is an antisocial, cold-hearted rationalist, or something similar.

  5. jill says:

    i like the word "mystic". a person who follows their own path and does not presume to know anything and is in a continual mode of learning. a person who is not trying to convince anyone of anything. i think we are all here on our own soul journeys and if we are listening and aware, we are able to connect with other like minded souls to learn and take us to the next level.

  6. Timmy_Robins says:

    Lol, good point.

    I think "spiritual" is just an euphemism for religious. Hinduism and Buddhism are religions too so SBNR's are just switching one belief system and set of deities for another. The spirit , soul, essence, energy, whatever you want to call it is the central dogma of all religions , sects , spiritual "traditions" , etc so bottom line spirituality, religiosity = belief in the supernatural, same thing really.

    What would be interesting to know is why SNBR's think they are special or somehow different from their religious "counterparts".

  7. Nils Montan says:

    This is a good piece. I have found that many SBNR folks were, in fact, initially turned off to the religion of their birth because of the conservative nature that religion coupled with an increasingly powerful lack of any scientific or experiential basis to believe in a "deity" or God of some kind of personal nature. Many of these people are attracted to Eastern Religions, particularly to Buddhism, which deals neatly with the God problem. Initial infatuation with Buddhism or Hinduism often fades with age, however, as these religions are also inherently conservative and often there are "problems" with the teacher/student relationship. What the SBNR movement needs, in my opinion, is some form of "basket" or set of principles which could act as a form of attraction and coherence for people who have mystical experiences, but who do not feel comfortable in any form of tradition.

  8. Farah says:

    Very well-written!

  9. Helly says:

    I'm just glad that someone is doing research about it although sadly I'm not so convinced that "they are the future" – even in the US where the research is being conducted. (Or has been?).

  10. matt says:

    I once heard a Swami say this about the question you asked:
    Spirituality is like shooting at a black cat inside a dark room.
    Religion is like shooting at a black cat inside a dark room and saying, "I hit it!"

  11. Auki says:

    Yes, Matt's Swami story is right on!

    I appreciate Philip's article. It's the type of article that keeps me returning to EJ even whist feeling disillusioned with the standard of journalism here.

    I don't think the word "spiritual" can be defined to anyone's satisfaction. One is either AWAKE and having a spiritual experience or one isn't. In this age of scientific materialism and agnostic rationalism how can one adequately explain the meaning of a word that is entirely experiential? I think it would be like trying to explain what sex is to a child who hasn't reached puberty or had sex. It would be impossible to win a debate about what the word "spirituality" means with an atheist or a religious fundamentalist.

    Spirituality is a kind of deep seated intuition or heart-centered understanding which cannot be intellectualized… at least not to the satisfaction of the mind.

  12. […] is simply a state of consciousness, like thinking, dreaming or deep sleep. You don’t have to change your religion (or even have a religion) in order to meditate. It’s easy to learn and—unless you opt to pay for private instruction—free of […]