Spiritual But Not Religious?

Written by Carl Greene

November 10, 2021

Richard stared into his empty coffee mug for a good 30 seconds before he spoke. “I’d have to say that I’m spiritual but not really religious.” He paused as he looked up to make eye contact with me. “I believe, I really, truly believe . . . it just might not look like what you expect.”

Richard’s sincere description of his faith is a growing phenomenon in America, yet I am not convinced that we know what Richard’s words truly mean. I am not all too sure that Richard really understands what the phrase “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBNR) means.

Does SBNR mean that he believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior but is skeptical of belonging to a church because of old wounds? Does it mean that he believes in a higher power or some sort of spiritual force out there but not Christianity? Does it mean that he is all about Jesus Christ and participating in his local church but wants to convey that faith is “a relationship but not religion,” a born-again experience that is more than doing good works?

The Phenomenon

The percentage of Americans who self-ascribe as SBNR, spiritual but not religious, is continuing to grow. Over one quarter of Americans (27%) describe themselves in this way, which is an eight-percentage point rise since 2012. On the other hand, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as religious and spiritual is declining, now representing less than half of Americans (48%), a nine-percentage point drop since 2012.[1]

What might be even more surprising is that this change is happening among older Americans as well. We anticipate that people will become more engaged with faith as they age—it is a long standing trend, but it is increasingly reflecting the focus on spirituality over religion. At age 65, 21% of respondents stated that religion was extremely important in their life, rising to 32% of respondents by age 72. That is an impressive rise, unless compared again spirituality. At age 65, 21% of respondents stated that spirituality was extremely important in their lives, rising to 37% by age 72.[2]

What Does it Mean?

Richard said that he was spiritual but not religious. He did not readily offer up the specifics of what that means. That is the problem with that label.

Social science research has increasingly framed “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) as a growing phenomenon. The implicit and explicit message captured in this research is that: 1) there is a binary distinction between spiritual and religious, and 2) SBNR is a movement toward privatized faith.[3] That cultural trend does not bode well for inviting people to church–if the trend is being defined correctly.

The root of SBNR points back to the intersection of believing and belonging—as people lean toward spirituality rather than religion, they maintain or increase in their self-ascribed belief, but no longer belong to a church. Grace Davie famously brought the modern phenomenon of SBNR to the forefront with the catch phrase of “believing without belonging.”[4] One can believe in God but largely reject the church. Two questions emerge in response to the growing emphasis on SBNR: 1) are people consistent in what they mean when self-identifying as spiritual or religious, and 2) is the distinction truly binary?[5]

Next week, we answer these two questions and also why we need to grapple with SBNR if we are going to invite people to believe in Jesus and belong to our churches.


[1] Lipka, Michael and Claire Gecewicz. 2017. “More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious.” April 6. Pew Research. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/. Accessed November 9, 2021.

[2] The Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS) has followed one cohort since 1957, making it one of the longest continuous studies of its kind in the United States (Herd et al., 2014, 36). The WLS has followed 1957 Wisconsin high school graduates through mail surveys, phone interviews, and in-person surveys over successive waves based on a random sample of 1/3 of the total graduates. Participants were born between 1938 and 1940 and 2/3 have continued to live in Wisconsin throughout the waves of study (Herd, Pamela, Carr, Deborah, and Carol Roan. 2014. “Cohort Profile: Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS).” International Journal of Epidemiology. 43: 34-41. 34, 35). Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS). 2020. “Graduates, Siblings, and Spouses: 1957-2020.”

Version 13.08. Machine-readable data file. Hauser, Robert M., William H. Sewell, and Pamela Herd as Principal Investigator(s). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison, WLS. http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/wlsresearch/documentation/


[3] Herzog, Patricia Snell and De Andre Beadle. 2018. “Emerging Adult Religiosity and Spirituality: Linking Beliefs, Values, and Ethical Decision-Making.” Religions 9, 84: 1-18. 1. 2013. Ammerman, Nancy. 2013. “Spiritual But Not Religious? Beyond Binary Choices in the Study of Religion.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52 (2): 258-278. 258. Murphy, James. 2017. “Beyond ‘Religion’ and ‘Spirituality’: Extending a ‘Meaning Systems’ Approach to Explore Lived Religion.” Archive for the Psychology of Religion.

DOI 10.1163/15736121-12341335. 1-26.

[4] Davie, Grace. 1994. Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging. Oxford–Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Davie, Grace. 2015. Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox, Second Edition. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

[5] Ammerman 2013, 276.

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