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Spiritual and/or religious

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | September 7, 2012

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’.

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica (CL Anderson via

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.”

Possible implications

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 from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Spiritual and/or religious

  1. My feeling is that spirituality is about truly practicing the beautiful qualities of love, kindness and selflessness and expressing our true nature. And religion can be a very beautiful means of bringing people together to achieve that practice. But at the same time, perhaps because things have been done in the name of religion that are counter to the true values of religion and spirituality, this may be why people are identifying less with religion.

    I just find that it’s beautiful listening to the teachings of the great spiritual masters like Jesus and the Buddha, and more modern day with the Dalai Lama or gurus like Amma (or her disciple Master Sri Avinash who I’ve seen recently These teachers know that what is most important is living a life of love and compassion, not religious ideas. Amma herself says, “My religion is love”, and that seems like the true value of spirituality and religion to me.

    Thanks for the nice article.

  2. Religion can be defined as “belief in God or gods to be worshiped, usually expressed in conduct and ritual” or “any specific system of belief, worship, etc., often involving a code of ethics.” Spirituality can be defined as “the quality or fact of being spiritual, non-physical” or “predominantly spiritual character as shown in thought, life, etc.; spiritual tendency or tone.”

    To put it briefly, religion is a set of beliefs and rituals that claim to get a person in a right relationship with God, and spirituality is a focus on spiritual things and the spiritual world instead of physical/earthly things.


  3. The inherent contrast between those who attend religion services and those who practice a spiritual life, is well established in all faiths. I wonder if the movement away from religion and towards “spirituality” can be seen as a way of practicing faith more directly.

    We have an understanding that being a good or bad person is dependent on our actions not our membership in a particular religion or political affiliation. Maybe we are developing a spirituality that does not depend so heavily on dogma.

    Joel Stottlemire, author,

  4. HMM True, I believe the damages to the church caused by the immoral acts of a few clergy and Rome’s choice to overlook the matter is evident. However, the Pacific Rim does not jam the idea of a particular religion into the minds of young people, like they do in the Bible Belt communities and so people can freely look into any and all religions as a source of guidance that suits themselves. It is free thinking and access to true information is why people are walking away from orthodox religions and cultural superstitions like Christianity.

  5. A very interesting post. Thank you for writing it. I think there’s another interesting element to look at, which is the belief of being able to have a personal relationship with God. This idea really got introduced during the Protestant Reformation as part of a reaction to Catholic Church abuses in that time, and I think we are still feeling its effects. Along with some of these other influences that you’ve mentioned in this post, I think that mindset has been further encouraged, and hence the connection to organized religion has been viewed as less necessary to being a spiritual being.

  6. Spiritual but not religious? This seems to further indicate the latent atheism of this generation. Atheists cannot agree on anything except “against religion.” Spirituality presents a problem for atheists. Atheists cannot agree on whether to support spirituality or not. And spirituality morphs into relative humanism when understood as “not-religious.” There is a fitting and proper way to worship God…that way is Jesus Christ, not simply minimized to “in church” but specifically through Mass, the Eucharist.

  7. Perhaps Terry Chi (commenting above) would attract more fellowship if she dropped the condescending tone and the references to non-religious people behaving like children. Perhaps also if she quit assuming the repellant attitude that she KNOWS how spirituality WORKS and that others who do not follow her religion do not. This is EXACTLY why people say they aren’t religious. This is the type of scolding schoolmarm attitude that drives people away from churches in droves. Spirituality can certainly be solitary.

  8. The human interest in the “spiritual and religious” most likely stems from a need to understand and cope with emotions. We often hear that the holistic approach to health and well-being includes the spirit, mind, and body. The ‘spirit’ is the emotional state. As an atheist, I advocate focusing on understanding human emotional states and moving away from “spirituality”.

  9. Being spiritual but not religious seems to be a tacit way to say that one is free to be however spiritual, without kowtowing to any organized institutional way of worshipping a supreme being. Yes, that may be so…being on the left hand of continental US is quite like that.

    That was a stereotypical comment, I know.

    That statement is like my child wanting to eat, but only whenever and however, and whatever she wants. Sorry, it doesn’t work this way. Spirituality, is not a solitary thing…whatever it is, fellowship is required, otherwise it is just narcissistic self-focus, a kite untethered, a train derailed. Free and unrestricted…toward doom, usually.

    Also, like the comparison to my toddler’s eating wants vs. needs. We want this “spiritual but not religious” – but we need Jesus Christ and the fellowship of Christian believers.

    I’m a long way from 2002, when I received my PhD in psychology from Cal-Berkeley. No longer lost, but found.

    Terry Chi
    Northwestern College
    Orange City, IA

    P.S. Why did I decide to write this loquacious diatribe? Well, I was looking for a prof in psych dept. who gave me this great book, “To Know a Fly” and while I was checking out Cal’s home page, I saw your page.

  10. The biggest problem that humanity has is our failure to believe in and practice a universal morality.

    With our current conditions of worldwide political and social chaos, the human race shall not be able to survive without universal morality.

    Fusion power would give us more time, but we must also provide universal education to enable the creativity and brainpower that can save our civilization from the failure modes that destroyed all previous civilizations.

    With the current political attacks against public education, survival of the human race has become an impossible dream as long as the attackers are allowed to control our democracy.

  11. I think that america would not to be as Iran or countries in the middle est : a state with a federal religion.

  12. If you are looking for a label, you can use ChristianLeft. There are many of us, who have had our doubts and bouts of disbelief with Democrats and Christians. Now, after a lifetime of experiences, I can firmly state that I do believe in God the Father, Son & Spirit. And, after years of ambivalence and living only for myself, I am also a true blue Democrat but prefer the term ChristianLeft instead of Christian Democrat.

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