The politics of spirituality:

Who are the “spiritual but not religious”?

posted by Laura R. Olson

An increasing variety of scholars and other observers seem to be noticing the growing social significance of Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious” (hereafter SBNR). SBNR individuals insist on carving out their own approaches to understanding the divine and the transcendent, refusing for the most part to participate in culturally hegemonic religious traditions. Rejection of organized religion by some Americans is hardly a new phenomenon, but the degree to which it has become socially acceptable is a rather recent development. The extent to which eschewing traditional religious teachings and practices has become “cool” in the present era is in part a legacy of the 1960s (when being countercultural became oddly de rigueur in certain circles), as well as a disorganized but palpable backlash against the moral absolutism of the religious Right.

Who are the Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious”? What unifying characteristics, qualities, and beliefs might they share? And to what extent might their distinctive approach to religion, or to systems of meaning, have relevance to political discourse, electoral campaigns, and public policy? As many other contributors to this blog have noted, these questions elude easy answers, because defining spirituality is, as Courtney Bender aptly puts it in her brilliant book The New Metaphysicals, “like shoveling fog.” Nevertheless, perhaps we can obtain just a slight bit of traction by investigating some of the characteristics shared by SBNR Americans.

I took a quick statistical peek at some of the religious, demographic, and attitudinal attributes of respondents to a 2005 survey (conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the PBS television series Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly) who self-identified as “spiritual but not religious.” Out of a sample of 1,131 respondents, 387 (34.2 percent) selected this label for themselves (49.8 percent chose “religious,” 10.1 percent chose “neither,” and the small remainder gave other responses). I found that SBNR respondents are (not surprisingly) significantly less likely than religious respondents to say “religion is important in [their lives],” to attend religious services (90 percent never attend), or to engage in other traditional religious practices. Surprisingly, religious and SBNR individuals do not differ significantly from one another in terms of age, race, gender, marital or parental status, employment status, education, or income.

How might SBNR individuals translate their belief systems, values, and practices into political attitudes and behaviors? I would like to posit several working hypotheses on this front, but first I wish to echo Joel Robbins’s assertion that the “metaphysicals” about whom Bender writes “understand their social lives in non-social terms.” We must approach the study of SBNR Americans with the understanding that (for the most part) they forego participation in the most common mode of social interaction in the United States: conventional religious worship. Thus, they voluntarily absent themselves from the social networks fostered in and by congregations and hence fail to receive the politically charged messages that many clergy deliver. This lack of connectedness, combined with the evident desire of SBNR persons to forge their own way in the world, outside of the rigid social and cultural boundaries that traditional religion tends to erect, suggests to me that SBNR Americans are unlikely to have any semblance of a clear or systematic political agenda.

Nevertheless, it makes sense to hypothesize that SBNR Americans would place themselves to the left of center politically, at a bare minimum because the Republican Party today is so widely identified as being “friendly” to organized religion. The data I analyzed bear this hypothesis out: SBNR respondents were significantly more Democratic in their party identification and liberal in their ideological orientation than their religious counterparts. Following the work of George Lakoff, we might also hypothesize the SBNR individual to be less authoritarian than one who is traditionally religious. The data support this assertion as well: SBNR survey respondents were significantly less likely than religious respondents to agree with the statement, “It is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good hard spanking.” On a related note, definitions of morality might also be hypothesized to differ between religious and SBNR Americans, and, again, the data show that the two groups do differ significantly. Religious survey respondents are more likely to define “moral values” as “social issues, such as abortion or gay marriage,” “family values, such as trying to protect children from sex and violence on TV and the Internet,” and “compassion and concern for the sick and needy,” while SBNR Americans are more likely to define moral values as “social justice, such as preventing human rights abuses or discrimination,” and “personal values, such as honesty and responsibility.”

The small descriptive analysis presented here scarcely scratches the surface of the empirical work that will need to be done to achieve even a modest understanding of SBNR Americans and politics. Which issues, if any, do they prioritize? Do they take part in organized political action, and if so, around which causes? Do they wish to affect political outcomes or not? In closing, I wish to note an additional way in which SBNR survey respondents differ from religious respondents: SBNR respondents are significantly more likely to report being unhappy with their “life in general [. . .] on the whole.” If mobilization efforts were to succeed, perhaps it is this dissatisfaction that could give rise to meaningful political advocacy by Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” The difficulty inherent in such a mobilization effort, however, cannot be overstated.

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4 Responses to “Who are the “spiritual but not religious”?”

  1. One of the problems with the SBNR label—and it has been a problem for any systematic, empirical study of the phenomenon, as far as I can tell, since 1945—is that the term “spiritual” has even less coherence in common usage than the term “religious.” That is not to say that there is nothing actually there to investigate, as William James quite elegantly demonstrated over a century ago. But it is to say that some set-up questions probably need to be asked before the one about spirituality, if this can be done without priming the pump too much. That is, do the people responding to this survey feel, right off the bat, that they reveal something terribly negative, depressing, or perhaps callous and cynical about themselves if they say they are not “spiritual” at all? For many, denying spirituality may be more akin to denying deep feeling, sincere emotion, perhaps the capacity for love of another, rather than denying anything we would call religious or transcendent or eschatological. It is quite possible this sort of reaction is tied to the finding in the surveys that people who describe themselves as “spiritual” also note a greater degree of unhappiness in their lives. I should note for example that, both in big cities like Los Angeles and smaller ones like Salt Lake, one finds large degrees of claimed “spirituality” within the psycho-therapeutic communities, with the strong secular dissent often emerging from the harder core (but also much smaller) psychoanalytic community. Unless we can find ways of getting at how people—and especially Americans—connect the the spiritual with the psychologically healthy (or, at least, the desire for greater psychological health then they feel) we may miss something important about the SBNRs among us. Of course, this is a question to be asked of all religious belief too. But the SBNR cohort seems to me to foreground the link far more than organized religion does. There are now often non-denominational chaplains in business offices, where one might expect a psycho-therapist. They are there not to push any beliefs, but to make people happier (that is, more productive) employees. It is an interesting development.

  2. I appreciate Laura’s post and the attention it brings to the ways that Americans answer survey questions about spirituality (in this regard, Vincent Pecora’s comments are also valuable). As a point of clarification however: The New Metaphysicals does not argue that the people I met in Cambridge think of their religious or spiritual aspirations in non-social terms. I emphatically argue the opposite, and my book presents ample material that challenges this common sociological representation (and also provides some reasons for why this incorrect representation endures). Four chapters directly address the ways that spirituality is institutionally organized and how spiritual practitioners understand their social ties to others, both locally and globally.

    Thus, while I agree with Laura that many metaphysical practitioners do not view congregational religion as necessary as they pursue their religious goals, this is quite a different thing than saying they view their religious lives in non-social terms or that they lack social ties to co-religionists.

    My book does not weigh in directly on whether metaphysicals’ social organizational forms are conducive to political mobilization or not, or for that matter under what social conditions they have been or could be. This is necessary to discuss further. I would, however, urge scholars who are studying the political lives of spiritual not religious Americans to ground their observations in historically and empirically grounded study of the varieties of American religious organizations and institutions that extend well beyond congregational religion.

  3. avatar Martha Murphy says:

    I am among those who might describe myself as “spiritual but not religious.” In my case, I am a Christian believer who has become disaffected from the organized religious tradition i which I grew up. I am very offended by the “religious right” and their tendency to view right wing political beliefs as synonymous with Christianity. Many church leaders today are blaspheming the name of Christ on a regular basis.

    I miss the social environment of church and belonging to a group with similar beliefs, because I my more liberal associates often do not share the deep Christian spiritual beliefs I hold.

    Incidentally, a survey I took told me my beliefs most resemble those of a traditional Quaker. I hold a reverence for God and God’s creation that guides my everyday actions.

    My guess is that “spiritual but not religious” means very different things to different people. “Religous,” to me, means that one follows the traditional tenets and rituals of a particular religion on a regular basis.

  4. avatar Aumlan Guha says:

    I am among those who identify as SBNR. But, the term spiritual in this context probably means different things to different people. I use it for instance to indicate that I do believe in a Higher being, a Divine power, but I personally do not differentiate amongst religions; I aver that all of them have a large number of similar tenets and principles. What I oppose are rigid practice and rituals of any kind. Also, though I am extremely God-fearing, it does not matter to me what label or nomenclature is used – I am not particular about that.

    P.S.: I may place on record here that I was born in a Hindu family and had my schooling at a Christian missionary school, but prefer to remain distant from all organized religion. I feel stable and at peace when I communicate with the Divine internally, but do not feel comfortable when it comes to organized religion…

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