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“I think in a way that kind of cliche ‘spiritual but not religious,’ which apparently is a thing more and more people say to describe themselves, is in a way an attempt to reconcile in some cases with science. In other words…if I say I believe in this highly anthropomorphic God, if I’m religious and too old-fashioned in a sense, or buy into specific claims of revelation, that might not sit well with the modern scientific intelligence.”
—Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God (February 2, 2010)


Young People Less Religiously Affiliated
(graphic: Pew Research Center)

New research from the Pew Forum on Public Life reveals that a sizable slice of the Millenial population (people born after 1981) does not affiliate with a particular religious denomination or faith. We’re aware that people of all ages are defining themselves under the expansive umbrella of “spiritual but not religious.” We see this, in part, through the weekly listener emails that flow into our inbox.

Our contact form includes a question: “What faith tradition, if any, do you belong to?” Here are examples of some recent responses we’ve received:

  • mindfulness
  • none now
  • I defy labels ;)
  • Christian, Baptist… though I refer to myself as a “recovering evangelical” currently not affiliated
  • atheist, with emerging theory of spirituality
  • the teachings of Christ, the Buddha, and my dog, not necessarily in that order


As you can see, it’s quite a spread. In his recent public conversation with Krista, Robert Wright provided some helpful insights about how this “spiritual but not religious” trend might relate to a concern with what he calls “modern scientific intelligence.”

If you consider yourself “spiritual but not religious,” can you help us understand what this term actually means to you? Does science have something to do with it? Is it primarily a youthful Millennial trend, as the Pew Forum report suggests? Are there other terms that you would add to the list above to describe yourself on this “spiritual but not religious” continuum?

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81 Comments

Religion has always been nothing more than an attempt to describe the spiritual experience. Each time a person has a spiritual experience, they attempt to describe it and thus a religion is born. For those who have a profoundly significant and very deep spiritual experience, they are the creators of major religions. But the fact is there are as many personal minor religions as there are people on the planet. Notwithstanding your affiliation with another religious group, your own interpretation is unique to your self. If you look at the derivation of the word religion, you see that it means to tie up, to tie fast, to connect, in other words to validate your particular belief and create a sense of certainty in life. Even the atheist is professing a religion of denial of primal cause. Science in a way is also a religion, just couched in carefully prescribed creeds and rituals to give it the appearance of more objectivity. Double cross over, randomized, reproducible just illustrate that if you consistently believe something, you will get consistent results. Most scientists like to kid themselves that they can perceive something without any of their own beliefs and thoughts being involved. Only a truly spiritual person can do that, and when you do, you discover the difference between religious and spiritual.

The term means that I believe deeply that God exists and cares about all life, including human beings; that "God" is a term we use to describe a universal force bigger than ourselves and vastly greater than we can imagine; that any doctrine promulgated by a particular religion is inherently self-limiting and has only partial truth; that no one has the best or only truth, and anyone who thinks so is deluding themselves and possibly others around them. Science has everything to do with it, since it is the area of human thought that most dares to grapple with the scale of the universe and our place in it. Most religions are too concerned with their own survival to face the inadequacy of their theologies. As JB Phillips said, "Your God is too small." I admire religious organizations for what they do to better the human condition -- up to the point where their theology gets in the way. As one of your guests said recently, "[Christianity] answers questions I didn't ask." And it, and others, are silent on the questions most important to me. I have fond memories of my tradition (Episcopalian) but their theological language is alienating to me. The best I can say is "I don't know;" I wish I could say more about what I know but that would not be completely honest.

I am an elder. For me, spirituality transcends religion. It has nothing to do with science, dogma or creed. It has to do with walking the path to awakening to our true identity as Spirit.

Religious means there is a person, or people who can tell me I am wrong and can kick me out for asking questions. Spiritual means I am open to ideas and possibilities of a greater life than human; of a life or lives beyond the one I and all of us live now.

My father was a minister when I was younger, so I'm a preacher's kid. Although I was an altar boy for a time in the Episcopal Church, I gradually fell away from attending services. Late in my adolescence, I went to live at The Farm, a commune in rural Tennessee that drew on many religious traditions, both eastern and western, but I washed out after nine months.

I endeavor to live in a righteous way and I sporadically make attempts to learn about spirituality. I feel fortunate to live in an age when the teachings of many traditions are available to those of us who live in industrialized countries. On the other hand, I realize that I have a lot of trouble making a place and serving a useful purpose in any particular community. Churches give me the creeps. Christianity, the religion I was raised in, is discredited by the harsh bigotry that characterizes many of its believers and the harmful policies that they get enacted into law. Christians also tend to purposefully ignore the fact that their myths draw upon older traditions, and fundamentalists insist that their book is the only valid revelation. I once figured that that Paganism might be a more openminded alternative until I got to know several uptight, rigid pagans: their prejudices and harsh judgements resembled those of the Christian fundamentalists I detest.

I've been lazy about increasing my spiritual development and seeking a spiritual home. I'm informed by a number of concepts and traditions; some that I learned early on and others that I learned later. I tend to think of 'religion' as being the theoretical and institutional structure that perpetuates a tradition or a particular version of truth. At its best, religion fosters community and serves as a focus for coordinated action; all too often, it serves as a justification for chauvinism and a locus of self-righteous hypocrisy.

I do not believe in god or gods -- that is, I do not believe in some omnipotent being or beings who created the world and who must be appeased or worshiped. However, I also have trouble with the materialist mindset that what you see is all there is.

For one thing, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge. It is possible that at some point in the future science will be able to explain everything, but we are not there yet. Besides, physics at its most advanced points is pretty much indistinguishable from mysticism; it could be that actual reality is quite different from what it appears to be to ordinary human minds at present.

For another, while intellectual reasoning is very valuable, it has its limits. Meditation, ritual, and related practices that tap into subconscious and unconscious parts of the human mind provide a level of understanding and truth that cannot be found by reasoning alone.

I consider myself to be "spiritual but not religious" because I don't feel that my spiritual beliefs fit easily into the category of any of the major religions I have explored. I don't like the idea of limiting myself to the dogma of any one specific religion because as I continue to explore, I find truth in all the religions that I encounter.

As a part of the "Millennial" generation, I have often heard similar sentiments among my peers. Personally, I believe this may have something to do with having been raised to be more open-minded and accepting of differences than previous generations. I've also noticed that those in my generation tend to resist being pinned-down or pigeon-holed and instead take pride in walking new and different paths than those who came before us.

I am a 50 y/o female physician who grew up Catholic but dropped it in my youth for many reasons. I use this term spiritual but not religious because no organized religion describes my beliefs or helps me explore a meaningful spirituality. My beliefs are informed by a combination of Buddhism, yoga, Native American and liberal christianity, as well a a smattering of other wisdom traditions. I wish there was a community that I could practice with, but find the Unitarians too intellectual, leaving the direct experience of spirit behind; the Unity folk are too non-scientific and given to fads. There are a few indiosyncratic churches scattered across the country that are both intellectually rigorous and spiritually rich, but I haven't found any near where I live.

Well spoken, and AMEN!!!

If you experience empathy you are feeling the world of the spirit. Religion is the branding of this experience. In our time the fog of branding has eclipsed religious faith in technologicaly rich culture and made it like another thing for sale.
Also the voice of the spirit is lost intranslation when delivered by dogma. Thank God for the internet and the satillites of love that make it possible to share whitness without need to sell it. Stay tuned!

I consider myself "spiritual, but not religious". I usually take "spiritual" in the sense "concerning the breath", in the sense of an unseen force that moves things. I know, that may not be too useful, but I think a lot of human experience isn't really scientifically explainable (at least not currently), or even easy to discuss. Spirituality is one way people attempt to make sense of life, in all it's messy details.

I also tend towards, for lack of a better term, the mystical. I am much more concerned with meditation and directly experiencing reality. I'm not especially religious in that I'm not too concerned with following some religion's doctrine, and disregard teachings that are obviously nonsense. (For example, I rule out Christian fundamentalism as I just can't see how it could possibly be true).

Basically, I think that there is no easy answer, and it takes a lot of work to understand things. I try to be open to things that I don't understand. I think that automatic skepticism is just as bad as automatic belief, and it's important to keep an honestly open mind. It's also important to think clearly, and be aware of your own emotions and motivations when trying to understand spiritual ideas.

I consider myself to be spiritual, not religious. Spiritual, for me, is about the individual and what goes on in the mind as one tries to grapple with the unknown and intangible. Religion involves ritual and formal organization, and it is ultimately about how the collective agrees to address the spiritual. I am in my 50's (so I am not young), and my experience with religion has led me to be suspicious of the religious, and yet not abandon the spiritual. Science - most notably the scientific method - has given me courage to question existing religions; and to the extent that science is theoretical, I think it overlaps with the spiritual. But I can't think of any scientific finding that has influenced my position on religion.

In this age "Sprituality" and "Science" are very much connected and "Humanity" is in need of both, in fact many of our daily problems appear because we take one and ignore the other, many times we chose to live in a "duality", taking one and rejecting the other, either we deep into the Spiritual world so much that it becomes "Blind Faith" or we gravitate 100% to the material existance and we lose hopes for a better future of the Human race. Lets consider "Humanity" as a bird with two "Wings" one has to be the "Science" and the other "Spirituality", both wings and equaly need to be strong. I cordialy invite the readers to visit a small book called "The Paris Talks", talks given by "Abdul Baha" in the city of Paris in 1911.

I beleive in God. I believe God was created by humans and resides in the minds of humans. God the spark of humanity in everyone, which is just a nice comforting thought. Not one I care to study, talk about, or share with others in a religious setting. Science is vital to me - I am a geologist. Science gave us the real story of our creation, which is a nice comforting thought. Not one I care to study, talk about, or share with others in any formal setting. As I study the earth and spend time in nature I strip off the crust of modern life and explore my self. That is me being spiritual.

For me, born 1978, it's not to do with making space for sciencific explanations so much as removing the need for a religion based identity or a religion based experience of spirit. I was raised with time spent in both catholic and Protestant worship, with an atheist father and former Catholic, still with spirit but without Church, mother. Work ethic and service ideas I met seem to arise out of Protestant roots. Whilst an experience of human spirituality was characterized as intellectually bankrupt and ludicrous. My lived experience disproved this idea; I found human spirit as vital, life giving and fundemental. So I say I am spiritual. I clarify that this experience is outside religion because I don't see myself as Christian, the requirement to see Christ as the singular route to God is my lauded rationale/excuse. Morally I practise living in accordance with the core idea behind all the worlds religions - love others as yourself. Tribally I am confused, I live in a country far from my birth tribe, surrounded by people from many different and unknown tribes. I am unsure if tribal identity is a useful urge. I equate becoming religious with joining a tribe, so it becomes something I cannot do.

Thanks for asking the question.

No doubt the SBNR statement has become an off the cuff cliché for a lot of people. However, for me and a lot of others the SBNR label has serious meaning. I am a very proud Deist and philosophical Buddhist. I don't believe Buddha was perfect and I certainly don't worship him as some do. Having said this, I think SBNR has much more do do with including logic and not science regarding our spiritual lives. I can give compassion, respect, and service and not believe in The Genesis story of a talking snake in a tree or in burning in hell for all eternity because I don't accept Jesus raising people from the dead.
As far as being a spiritual Lone Ranger, I certainly do not consider myself that. My " church" consists of anyone who is a loving and logical person. I have many friends and family that are this way. Just my two cents. Thanks for reading.

I was born in 1960, have never been religiously associated myself but have had lots of rewarding conversations with acquaintances who were. I consider myself not deistically inclined. The natural world, with all of it's mysteries, including my own existence within it, inspires all the awe I need.

I belong to a religion and its Holy Scriptures say this:

"Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one. When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles—and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God."

My understanding of being spiritual is bringing God into all areas of your life. That is mean the principals of your faith are the standard you live your life at all times and all places. I am a Christian, I also known many people who are of different faiths who are spiritual.
Religious folks are more interested in following rules than faith.

I am one that is spiritual but not religious. Religion is the politics of spiritual practice. Like the politics of governance, personal or tribal selfishness misguides the power is spirituality.

I consider myself a follower of Jesus. I'm not religious, don't go to church, and am not a Baptist, protestant, Lutheran, etc etc etc. Just a follower of Jesus. If people ask if i'm religious I say "no".....i'm a follower of Jesus.

If I were The Creator of the Universe, and had a human-like personality, too, I would probably have a meta-human like one, and have no need at all for vanity or pride. I made it all, after all, who would I need to impress? I find it difficult to believe I would care if some called me Joe, or Jose or Judith.....I am the Creator, why would I care what names I was called by, as long as maybe, sometimes I was called at all?

Religion, by definition ( I looked it up) is an organized set of rituals, beliefs and customs set up to worship a god or gods by a group of people. Spirituality can indicate concern for religion, but is not limited to that. It can also mean simply the quality of being spiritual. If human beings are truly all animated by something called "spirit" then we are all spiritual, regardless of what believe or don't believe about it. A friend used to deny, whenever he was asked near any kind of furniture, if he believed in God. He would vehemently say "NO" and bump immediately into the nearest piece of furniture. "Did my belief or disbelief in that table cause it to exist or not exist? That is the difference between knowledge and belief. Of course, I can keep ignoring the table, too, but it would not be to my advantage."

"Spiritual but not religious" for me means not buying into a single doctrine or dogma. All religions teach similar ethics, yet they threaten you with damnation if you don't accept their dogma/myths and ONLY theirs. That simply flies in the face of logic. If you consider logic a science, then I guess my views are related to science.

First, I have come to understand that God is the Master Scientist!

From the depth of despair religion failed me. In the depth of my soul spiritual awareness emerged. It is an awareness beyond mind and behavior yet gives awareness within though, regulating thought and action.. Religion came in to being attempting to literalize and institutionalize the mystic spirituality when cannot be.

Nothing to do with science in my view. Raised in a very strictly religious Catholic family, I learned first hand the constrictions of scripture had little to do with nourishing the spirit and much more to do with the power of man over man. Spirituality is its own realm, not requiring any written or repeated dogma to verify its value or existence. In my view, religion offers the patina of a shared communal experience for most (as in being one's brother's keeper) while spirituality is a more individual and thus more difficult path.
With a nod to Teilhard here, I think spirituality requires personal evolution, while religion requires personal conformity/stagnation. Another way to think of it is like mountain climbing. If you imagine a 14'er before you, and you accept the challenge of climbing towards the peak, you can make some choices. As you look around you can find any number of folks standing under bright banners saying "this is the correct path" and indeed, they have laid out steps or gravel which many have followed. Each offers a different path up the same mountain. Each requires some form of payment to enter their path, be it obeying, tithing, or maybe not eating fish on Fridays. These paths pretty much guarantee you will find your way up as long as you keep trying, and keep breathing.

However, a spiritual person looks at the same mountain and rejects all those groomed paths, seeing instead that s/he can make an individual way up that is not marked, but rings true for that person. The mountain is the same, the choice to ascend/evolve is the same but the decision as to what constitutes an honest, fully engaged ascent is individual. As such, the path a spiritual person makes is not blazed wide open, but simply traversed, leaving only footprints.

I doubt this ascent/evolution has any particular age requirements. I'm a middle of the boom boomer.

It's very simple. I'm 58 and I have a deeply spiritual inner life. I believe in God, praying my own prayers, meditation, and the power of the unseen. I have a "working relationship" with the spiritual world. BUT, I don't follow a particular religion, its dogma, its customs and rules, because every single one of them, by virtue of naming itself is--must be--ultimately exclusionary to anyone who is not one of them. Religion, as an institution, creates divisions between people and I don't want to be a part of that. Can you guess that I was raised Catholic? I left the church when I was 12 and consider myself a recovering--if not recovered--Catholic.
The study of esoteric Christianity, in my 30's, went a long way toward redeeming my upbringing where every question was answered with, "That is a mystery we are not meant to understand." But by then I had had enough direct spiritual experience to begin to establish my own relationship to the spiritual. AND I see ABSOLUTELY NO CONFLICT between modern scientific discovery and belief in God. John Lennon said, "There's nothing you can know that can't be known," and there's nothing you can discover that can't be contained by the Godhead...unless your concept of IT is too small.

If someone would like to discuss this I could but it's not a simple post. Feel free to email me at e.waldkirch@gmail.com. I'll be happy to share my experiences. Simply put, LACK OF POWER is the problem all these posts are discussing. WHERE AND HOW TO FIND POWER is what needs to be faced. The only thing that answers the question posted is our own experience. Otherwise we are taking someone else's word for it. Don't be afraid to have your own experience and find your own answer.

At 86, II should be about as far from the miillenial tendency to claim spirituality without religion as one could get, yet I do identify
with the desire to distance myself from "religion" which has become instituionalized and, in the process, sometimes fossilized,
but to keep close and safe the sacred the essence which starts "religions" in the first place: the genuine experience of something higher than ourselves which holds out to us the belief in purpose and the hope of a better future.

Many factors play on this loaded word: Religious.

An explanation of Spiritual but non Religious it's no different than to define the word Religious .

Many different definitions can be provided by almost every person you ask, since each person hold a concept unique to his/her idea of what the word means to the individual in question, which almost certainly will be different to each individual. Words as labels carry too many implications or associations of preconceived ideas, why then be surprised that calling yourself Spiritual but non Religious can yield so many different meanings according to the person you ask?

Unfortunately calling yourself anything you wish to name yourself has little, or none of what you want to convey. A more likely outcome will be that most people would give you a label and throw you in one of their many labeled mind compartments according to their own beliefs, and opinions, like: Nutcase, moron, bigot, fanatic, irrational, hypocrite, ignorant, simpleminded, well meaning, but misguided, live in lalaland, kumbayah, etc.

As a matter of fact that last word Kumbayah a simple a spiritual song first recorded in the 1920s. It became a standard campfire song in Scouting and summer camps, and enjoyed broader popularity during the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s.
The song is originally a simple appeal to God to come and help those in need, but more recently it is also cited or alluded to in satirical or cynical ways which suggest false moralizing, hypocrisy, or naively optimistic views of the world and human nature.

Ultimately Religious, or Spiritual but non Religious are labels, with a different meaning, by those who like to box in, and define people, for their beliefs, rather than focusing in tolerance and acceptance, words as labels, and beliefs should not, and do not define us, but our actions do:"Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?"

Personally, I adopted the phrase "..spiritual not religious" with the connotation of loosely believing in selected concepts I have been introduced to through religion, philosophy, science and experience but not completely adhereing to any one teaching or theory. I believe that this allows me to be aware of contradictions in my own explanation of existence and grow my "spiritual" outlook on life. I very much like the jesuit concept of trying to find god in everything.

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