What It Means To Be Spiritual But Not Religious

Authored by Caroline Kitchener

growing contingent of Americans—particularly young Americans—identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Masthead member Joy wanted to understand why. On our call with Emma Green, The Atlantic’s religion writer, Joy asked, “What are they looking for?” Because the term “spiritual” can be interpreted in so many different ways, it’s a tough question to answer. I talked to people who have spent a lot of time mulling it over, and came away with some important context for the major shift happening in American faith.

Americans Who Want Faith, Not a Church

Kern Beare, a Masthead member from Mountain View, California, believes in God and studies the teachings of Jesus. But does he identify with a particular religion? “Never,” he told me. The structure and rigidity of a church, Beare believes, is antithetical to everything Jesus represents. Instead of attending services, he meditates every morning.

Americans are leaving organized religion in droves: they disagree with their churches on political issues; they feel restricted by dogma; they’re deserting formal organizations of all kinds. Instead of atheism, however, they’re moving toward an identity captured by the term “spirituality.” Approximately sixty-four million Americans—one in five—identify as “spiritual but not religious,” or SBNR. They, like Beare, reject organized religion but maintain a belief in something larger than themselves. That “something” can range from Jesus to art, music, and poetry. There is often yoga involved.

“The word ‘church’ means you need to put on uncomfortable shoes, sit up straight, and listen to boring, old-fashioned hymns,” said Matthew Hedstrom, a professor of religion at the University of Virginia. “Spirituality is seen as a larger, freer arena to explore big questions.”

Because over 92 percent of religiously-affiliated Americans currently identify as Christian, most “spiritual-but-not-religious” people come from that tradition. The term SBNR took off in the early 2000s, when online dating first became popular. “You had to identify by religion, you had to check a box,” Hedstrom told me. “‘Spiritual-but-not-religious’ became a nice category that said, ‘I’m not some kind of cold-hearted atheist, but I’m not some kind of moralizing, prudish person, either. I’m nice, friendly, and spiritual—but not religious.’”

Religion—often entirely determined by your parents—can be central to how others see you, and how you see yourself. Imagine, Hedstrom proffered, if from the time you were born, your parents told you that you were an Italian-Catholic, living in the Italian-Catholic neighborhood in Philadelphia. “You wouldn’t wake up every morning wondering, who am I, and what should I believe?” That would have already been decided. Young people today, Emma said on our call, “are selecting the kinds of communities that fit their values,” rather than adhering to their parent’s choices.

“Spiritual is also a term that people like to use,” said Kenneth Pargament, a professor who studies the psychology of religion at Bowling Green State University. “It has all of these positive connotations of having a life with meaning, a life with some sacredness to it—you have some depth to who you are as a human being.” As a spiritual person, you’re not blindly accepting a faith passed down from your parents, but you’re also not completely rejecting the possibility of a higher power. Because the term “spiritual,” encompasses so much, it can sometimes be adopted by people most would consider atheists. While the stigma around atheism is generally less intense than it used to be, in certain communities, Hedstrom told me, “to say you’re an atheist is still to say you hate puppies.” It’s a taboo that can understandably put atheists, many of whom see their views as warm and open-minded, on the defensive. “Spiritual” doesn’t come with that kind of baggage.

For people who have struggled with faith, embracing the word “spiritual” might also leave a crucial door open. Masthead member Hugh calls himself “spiritual,” but sees the designation as more of a hope or a wish than a true faith. “I hope there is more to this wonderful world than random chemistry… Nonetheless, I do see all of that as an illusion…That does not stop me from seeking something as close to what I wish for as I am able to find.” In his class, “Spirituality in America,” Hedstrom tells his students that the “spiritual-but-not-religious” designation is about “seeking,” rather than “dwelling:” searching for something you believe in, rather than accepting something that, while comfortable and familiar, doesn’t feel quite right. In the process of traveling around, reading books, and experimenting with new rituals, he says, “you can find your identity out there.”

Source:  Spiritual But Not Religious



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4 thoughts on “What It Means To Be Spiritual But Not Religious”

  1. Hello and good day to you! Want to be spiritual without religion involved? In my perception, it’s welcoming the physical world and body as much as the etheric forms of life.

    It’s on this page that I choose to leave an exercise for those of you who work with energy and clearing one’s energetic playground, just like cleaning your room. Taking a shower is a form of cleaning as well, or a jump in the waves at sea. Here’s an exercise I’ve created, with images of pictures I’ve made, called:
    “The Whirlwind of energy that matters and all that matters not”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnKv9LSQ2og&t=1s

    Reply
  2. Krishna, who is the Supreme Godhead, Himself, famously declares in the Bhagavad-Gita (song of God) “Give up all varieties of religion (philosophy or creed) and just surrender unto Me. I will deliver you from all sin, do not fear.”

    Lazy, insincere and foolish persons turn to the ideas of men to save them from peril. The most intelligent go directly to the source of all, humbly submit and serve.

    God is the Supreme Spirit, we are tiny spirit sparks. Spiritual means pertaining to God, in the most correct definition. Religious just means following an ideology, that may derive from God’s teachings, but also includes elements based on hierarchical power structures that have nothing to do with God. Religion gives you a tiny taste of God while rendering you submissive to ambitious men. Only pure spiritual activities can activate your “ascension” to spirit.

    Human choice, or free will is the ability to ponder which course we will follow.

    Reply
    • Hello Lynn Walker, I can’t help but notice that your righteous, or zealous, dogma shines through your comment, while you end it with a Universal truth. Quite peculiar, for these two sentences, copied from you comment, show how they contradict each other.

      – Lazy, insincere and foolish persons turn to the ideas of men to save them from peril.
      – uman choice, or free will is the ability to ponder which course we will follow.

      Please, keep in mind that your choice of a religious stance is equal to all other choices around you, in that you’re as human as all those others. Who’s to say, that you’re lazy, insincere and foolish? You can’t step outside of your box and observe yourself, can you?

      Reply
  3. “We are not a faith… religion has been used as another mode of conquest everywhere in the world.” -Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev
    This is why the Indian subcontinent held their Dharma for so long despite interference with Abrahamic faiths.

    Reply

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