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The Reality Behind “Spiritual But Not Religious”

Question: I hear a lot about people being “spiritual, but not religious.” What does that mean?

“I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious” is a common refrain in contemporary conversations.  Many people seem eager to claim a connection with something they can call “spiritual,” but wary of the beliefs, traditions, and communities they think of as “religious.”

Are religion and spirituality really at odds with each other?  Are traditional congregations really doomed to extinction as each person invents his or her own spiritual path?

Those were the sorts of questions that I was curious about a few years ago, and to find some answers, my research team and I asked a broad cross-section of Americans to tell us stories about their everyday lives — first in a life-history interview, then as they described photos they took of the important places in their lives, and finally in oral diaries they recorded.  Some of these people were active religious participants; some were pretty typical once-a-month attenders; some hardly ever attend; and some were avowedly non-religious.  They included all the major branches of the Christian tradition, plus Neopagans, Mormons, and Jews, and of course, the “nones.”

When people identify a part of their life or an experience they have as “spiritual,” what do they mean?  Rather than starting out with our own definition, we insisted that our participants supply their own, and we listened to how they used words like “spiritual” and “religious” in describing their everyday lives.

We discovered that “spirituality” is not as clearly definable as the religious traditions that have creeds and liturgies and hierarchies, but it is not merely an invention of each individual seeker.

There were themes and experiences our participants routinely put in that category, and it always pointed to something transcendent or beyond the ordinary.

  • Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the most consistent connections was between spirituality and God (or goddesses).
  • It was also common to identify spirituality with particular Practices in which people engage, disciplines and activities such as study and prayer and meditation, that people see as links to the spiritual domain.
  • Roughly half of our respondents specifically linked spirituality with Mystery, with miraculous or unexplained happenings that they saw as signaling something more than everyday reality.
  • Another common use of spirituality was to indicate a sense of Meaning and Purpose in life.
  • Participants also talked about spirituality in terms of a transcendent sense of Connection to others and to the world, being part of something larger than oneself.
  • Popular treatments of “spirituality” often mention experiences of Awe in the face of the natural world or things of beauty, and our participants picked up that theme, as well.
  • Instead of looking to things beyond ourselves, some talk about spirituality as about cultivating the true Inner Self.
  • Finally, a consistent theme among all kinds of people was that true spirituality means living a life of caring and service, being a good person who lives by the Golden Rule.

Running through these themes are three underlying assumptions about spirituality.  A Theistic Spirituality personifies the experience of the non-ordinary.  Extra-Theistic Spirituality sees spirituality in things that are not personified in a deity, and Ethical Spirituality focuses on action and practice. While Ethical Spirituality is a strong common theme for everyone, people in Conservative Protestant and Mormon communities stick pretty closely to Theistic ways of talking about spirituality.  Non affiliates and Jews, on the other hand, almost never used Theistic categories. When they talked about spirituality at all, it was the Extra-Theistic variety.  People in Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, and Neopagan communities, however, freely embraced both Theistic and Extra-Theistic understandings of spirituality.  They are not choosing one form of spirituality over another, but looking for the nonordinary in a variety of ways.

Finding those differences is the first clue that “religion” may not be unrelated to “spirituality.” Traditions are shaping how people think about what spirituality is.

We not only wanted to map this terrain, however, we also wanted to know where and how often spirituality shows up and why.  Is everyday life largely secularized, with spirituality kept private and individualized?

As we listened for the presence or absence of a spiritual consciousness in everyday life stories, it became clear that faith is partly a matter of the place the story is about, partly a matter of the person in the place.  Some places are more secular than others.  Both the things we do and the people we do them with in those places (neighborhood or work, for instance) sometimes make it hard to notice any spiritual presence or note any religious significance.  But no domain of social life is completely without sacred stories, so it is not just about place.  It is also the person.  Some people are more spiritually attuned than others.  They work harder at maintaining practices that keep them attuned to the spiritual dimensions of everyday life.

So yes – some places are more conducive to spiritual life than others.  And yes, people who work harder at deepening their spiritual lives have a broader range of everyday life where they recognize things they see as not merely ordinary.  What that leaves out, however, is that people who work harder on their individual spiritual lives are also very likely to be involved in organized religious communities.  People who do not have a religious community or some circle of focused spiritual conversation do not do very well at maintaining a spiritual outlook on life.  Engagement in spiritual practices, pursuing some sort of active connection to a power beyond oneself, is not something people do instead of participating in a religious community.  Engagement in organized religion and engagement in spiritual practice go together.

What became clear in this research is that seeing the world through a spiritual lens is something that is created and carried in conversation — in places where people tell each other stories.  When we talk with others we hear them speak of God’s presence in the world.  When we name something out loud as a spiritual presence in our lives, it becomes so.  Those conversations happen among the people I came to call “spiritual tribes” — circles of companions who tell each other sacred stories.  These tribes can convene in all sorts of places, and it is important to pay attention to the variety of ways people “congregate.”

One of the most striking results of our research, however, is the degree to which participation in organized religion matters.  The notion that spirituality exists as some sort of individual path or arrives fully formed out of the cultural ether is utterly absurd.

People who participate more frequently in a religious community are simply more likely to see life in spiritual terms, no matter which tradition they are in or even how devoted they are to their individual spiritual practices.

If they do not learn the language of spirituality in a religious community, it does not shape their way of being in the world.  It is not that they have learned a set of doctrines or subscribed to a set of behavioral prescriptions.  It is that they have learned to “speak religion” as one of their dialects.

Within a religious community, people develop a way of talking about life that carries within it expectations about the presence of divine actors and the realities of mysteries beyond human comprehension and the normative goodness of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  As they chat over a potluck dinner or pray during a meeting of a women’s group, the everyday stories they tell foreground spiritual interpretations.  They come to think of sacred and secular as intertwined.

In fact, that is one of the keys.  Religious communities are not “enclaves” keeping the secular world at bay. The conversations inside the community are full of the stuff of “secular” everyday life, with mundane and sacred realities intermingling.

People are going to the doctor and praying for healing, exchanging babysitting services and reinforcing religious ideals of family life, weeping over the injustices in the world and mobilizing petition drives.  That mixture is part of what makes the themes and language of those conversations portable.

The most broadly spiritually engaged people in our project not only maintain an active individual spiritual life, but they are also deeply engaged in their religious communities.  They attend and enjoy the worship services in those communities, but more importantly, they participate in adult education programs and other opportunities for relationships and caring.  They engage in intimate conversations about everyday life, and they depend on the community when they are making decisions.  They are more likely to talk to others about the friends they have in their religious community, and they are more likely to be married to someone who attends with them.  These are social dimensions of congregational life that should be taken into account by anyone wanting to understand congregational culture.

What we discovered, in other words, is a reality where spirituality is deeply embedded in close social relationships, relationships most often anchored by participation in organized “religion.”  “Spiritual but not religious?”  Probably not.

This research was funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and production of publications from it was funded by a sabbatical grant from the Louisville Institute.  A fuller discussion of why we shouldn’t assume that “spiritual” and “religious” are opposites is contained in Ammerman’s 2013 article, “Spiritual but not Religious?:  Beyond Binary Choices in the Study of Religion.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52 (2):258-278.

Nancy Ammerman
About the Author
Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Sociology and School of Theology at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of StudyingCongregations.org