Spiritual, But Not Religious

More than one fifth of Americans describe themselves with this phrase. What does it mean?

BY: Robert C. Fulller

 
From "Spiritual, But Not Religious," by Robert C. Fuller. Used with permission from Oxford University Press.

A large number of Americans identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious." It is likely that perhaps one in every five persons (roughly half of all the unchurched) could describe themselves in this way. This phrase probably means different things to different people. The confusion stems from the fact that the words "spiritual" and "religious" are really synonyms. Both connote belief in a Higher Power of some kind. Both also imply a desire to connect, or enter into a more intense relationship, with this Higher Power. And, finally, both connote interest in rituals, practices, and daily moral behaviors that foster such a connection or relationship.

Before the 20th century the terms religious and spiritual were used more or less interchangeably. But a number of modern intellectual and cultural forces have accentuated differences between the "private" and "public" spheres of life. The increasing prestige of the sciences, the insights of modern biblical scholarship, and greater awareness of cultural relativism all made it more difficult for educated American to sustain unqualified loyalty to religious institutions. Many began to associate genuine faith with the "private" realm of personal experience rather than with the "public" realm of institutions, creeds, and rituals. The word

spiritual

gradually came to be associated with a private realm of thought and experience while the word

religious

came to be connected with the public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal rituals, and adherence to official denominational doctrines.

A group of social scientists studied 346 people representing a wide range of religious backgrounds in an attempt to clarify what is implied when individuals describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious." Religiousness, they found, was associated with higher levels of interest in church attendance and commitment to orthodox beliefs. Spirituality, in contrast, was associated with higher levels of interest in mysticism, experimentation with unorthodox beliefs and practices, and negative feelings toward both clergy and churches. Most respondents in the study tried to integrate elements of religiousness and spirituality. Yet 19 percent of their sample constituted a separate category best described as "spiritual, not religious." Compared with those who connected interest in private spirituality with membership in a public religious group, the "spiritual, but not religious" group was

less likely to evaluate religiousness positively, less likely to engage in traditional forms of worship such as church attendance and prayer, less likely to engage in group experiences related to spiritual growth, more likely to be agnostic, more likely to characterize religiousness and spirituality as different and nonoverlapping concepts, more likely to hold nontraditional beliefs, and more likely to have had mystical experiences.

Those who see themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" reject traditional organized religion as the sole-or even the most valuable-means of furthering their spiritual growth. Many have had negative experiences with churches or church leaders. For example, they may have perceived church leaders as more concerned with building an organization than promoting spirituality, as hypocritical, or as narrow-minded. Some may have experienced various forms of emotional or even sexual abuse.

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