Spiritual, But Not Religious

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

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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.

Forsaking formal religious organizations, these people have instead embraced an individualized spirituality that includes picking and choosing from a wide range of alternative religious philosophies. They typically view spirituality as a journey intimately linked with the pursuit of personal growth or development. A woman who joined a meditation center after going through a divorce and experiencing low self-esteem offers an excellent example. All she originally sought was a way to lose weight and get her life back on track. The Eastern religious philosophy that accompanied the meditation exercises was of little or no interest to her. Yet she received so many benefits from this initial exposure to alternative spiritual practice that she began experimenting with other systems including vegetarianism, mandalas, incense, breathing practices, and crystals. When interviewed nine years later by sociologist Marilyn McGuire, this woman reported that she was still "just beginning to grow" and she was continuing to shop around for new spiritual insights.

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McGuire found that many spiritual seekers use the "journey" image to describe a weekend workshop or retreat-the modern equivalents of religious pilgrimages. The fact that most seekers dabble or experiment rather than making once-and-forever commitments is in McGuire's opinion "particularly apt for late modern societies with their high degrees of pluralism, mobility and temporally limited social ties, communications, and voluntarism."

Finally, we also know a few things about today's unchurched seekers as a group. They are more likely than other Americans to have a college education, to belong to a white-collar profession, to be liberal in their political views, to have parents who attended church less frequently, and to be more independent in the sense of having weaker social relationships. Quantitative data about how those who are "spiritual, but not religious" differ socially and economically from their church counterparts is helpful. But it is difficult to move to a more qualitative understanding. We don't fully understand how unchurched Americans assemble various bits and pieces of spiritual philosophy into a meaningful whole. We are even further from understanding how to compare the overall spirituality of unchurched persons with that of those who belong to spiritual institutions.

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