"Spiritual but not religious" (SBNR), also known as "spiritual but not affiliated" (SBNA), or less commonly "more spiritual than religious" is a popular phrase and initialism used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that does not regard organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion,[1] but in contemporary usage spirituality has often become associated with the interior life of the individual,[2][1] placing an emphasis upon the well-being of the "mind-body-spirit",[3] while religion refers to organizational or communal dimensions.[4] Spirituality sometimes denotes noninstitutionalized or individualized religiosity.[5] The interactions are complex since even conservative Christians designate themselves as "spiritual but not religious" to indicate a form of non-ritualistic personal faith.[6]

Origins and demography

Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion.[1] However, religion is a highly contested term with scholars such as Russell McCutcheon arguing that the term "religion" is used as a way to name a "seemingly distinct domain of diverse items of human activity and production".[7] The field of religious studies cannot even agree on one definition for religion and since spirituality overlaps with it in many ways it is difficult to reach a consensus for a definition for spirituality as well.[8][note 1]

The specific expression was used in several scholarly works, including an anthropological paper in 1960[9] and in Zinnbauer et al.'s seminal paper "Religiousness and Spirituality: Unfuzzying the Fuzzy".[10] SBNR as a movement in America was delineated by author Sven Erlandson in his 2000 book Spiritual but not Religious.[11][12][13] The phenomenon possibly started to emerge as a result of a new Romantic movement that began in the 1960s, whereas the relationship between the two has been remotely linked to William James' definition of religious experience, which he defines as the "feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine."[14] Romantic movements tend to lean away from traditional religion and resemble spiritual movements in their endorsement of mystical, unorthodox, and exotic ways.[15] Owen Thomas also states that the ambiguity and lack of structure present in Romantic movements are also present within spiritual movements.

According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2012, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has increased from 15% in 2007 to 20% in 2012, and this number continues to grow. 18% of the US public and a third of adults under the age of 30 are reportedly unaffiliated with any religion but identify as being spiritual in some way. Of these religiously unaffiliated Americans, 37% classify themselves as spiritual but not religious, while 68% say they do believe in God, and 58% feel a deep connection to the Earth.[16] In 2017, Pew estimated that 27% of the population is spiritual but not religious, but they did not ask respondents directly on this designation.[17]

Increased popular and scholarly attention to "spirituality" by scholars like Pargament has been related to sociocultural trends towards deinstitutionalization, individualization, and globalization.[18]

Generational replacement has been understood as a significant factor of the growth of religiously unaffiliated individuals. Significant differences were found between the percentage of those considered younger Millennials (born 1990–1994) as compared with Generation Xers (born 1965–1980), with 34% and 21% reporting to be religiously unaffiliated, respectively.[16]

Demographically, research has found that the religiously unaffiliated population is younger, predominately male, and 35% are between the ages of 18 and 29. Conversely, only 8% of religiously unaffiliated individuals are 65 and older. Among those unaffiliated with organized religion as a whole, 56% are men and 44% are women.[16]

Another possible explanation for the emergence of SBNR is linguistic. Owen Thomas highlights the fact that spirituality movements tend to be localized to English and North American cultures. The meaning of the term "spirit" is more narrow in English than that of other languages, referring to all of the uniquely human capacities and cultural functions.[19]

Yet, according to Siobhan Chandler, to appreciate the "god within" is not a twentieth century notion with its roots in 1960s counter culture or 1980s New Age, but spirituality is a concept that has pervaded all of history.[20]

Characteristics of SBNR

Anti-institutional and personal

According to Abby Day, some of those who are critical of religion see it as rigid and pushy, leading them to use terms such as atheist, agnostic to describe themselves.[21] For many people, SBNR is not just about rejecting religion outright, but not wanting to be restricted by it.[21]

According to Linda Mercadante, SBNRs take a decidedly anti-dogmatic stance against religious belief in general. They claim not only that belief is non-essential, but that it is potentially harmful or at least a hindrance to spirituality.[1]

According to Philip D. Kenneson, many of those studied who identify as SBNR feel a tension between their personal spirituality and membership in a conventional religious organization. Most of them value curiosity, intellectual freedom, and an experimental approach to religion. Many go as far to view organized religion as the major enemy of authentic spirituality, claiming that spirituality is private reflection and private experience—not public ritual.[22] To be "religious" conveys an institutional connotation, usually associated with Abrahamic traditions: to attend worship services, to say Mass, to light Hanukkah candles. To be "spiritual", in contrast, connotes personal practice and personal empowerment having to do with the deepest motivations of life.[22] As a result, in cultures that are deeply suspicious of institutional structures and that place a high value on individual freedom and autonomy, spirituality has come to have largely positive connotations, while religion has been viewed more negatively.[22]

According to Robert Fuller, the SBNR phenomenon can be characterized as a mix of intellectual progressivism and mystical hunger, impatient with the piety of established churches.[23]

According to Robert Wuthnow, spirituality is about much more than going to church and agreeing or disagreeing with church doctrines. Spirituality is the shorthand term used in Western society to talk about a person's relationship with God.[24] For many people, how they think about religion and spirituality is certainly guided by what they see and do in their congregations.[24] At a deeper level, it involves a person's self-identity—feeling loved by God, and these feelings can wax and wane.[24]

Categorization of SBNRs

Linda A. Mercadante categorizes SBNRs into five distinct categories:[25]

  1. "Dissenters" are the people who, for the most part, make a conscious effort to veer away from institutional religion. "Protesting dissenters" refers to those SBNRs who have been 'turned off' by religious affiliation because of adverse personal experiences with it. "Drifted Dissenters" refers to those SBNRs who, for a multitude of reasons, fell out of touch with organized religion and chose never to go back. "Conscientious objector dissenters" refers to those SBNRs who are overtly skeptical of religious institutions and are of the view that religion is neither a useful nor necessary part of an individual's spirituality.
  2. "Casuals" are the people who see religious and/or spiritual practices as primarily functional. Spirituality is not an organizing principle in their lives. Rather they believe it should be used on an as-needed basis for bettering their health, relieving stress, and for emotional support. The spirituality of "Casuals" is thus best understood as a "therapeutic" spirituality that centers on the individual's personal wellbeing.
  3. "Explorers" are the people who seem to have what Mercadante refers to as a "spiritual wanderlust". These SBNRs find their constant search for novel spiritual practices to be a byproduct of their "unsatisfied curiosity", their desire for journey and change, as well as feelings of disappointment. Explorers are best understood as "spiritual tourists" who take comfort in the destination-less journey of their spirituality and have no intentions of ultimately committing to a spiritual home.
  4. "Seekers" are those people who are looking for a spiritual home but contemplate recovering earlier religious identities. These SBNRs embrace the "spiritual but not religious" label and are eager to find a completely new religious identity or alternative spiritual group that they can ultimately commit to.
  5. "Immigrants" are those people who have found themselves in a novel spiritual realm and are trying to adjust themselves to this newfound identity and its community. "Immigrants" can be best understood as those SBNRs who are "trying on" a radically new spiritual environment but have yet to feel completely settled there. It is important to note that for these SBNRs, although they are hoping to become fully integrated in their newfound spiritual identities, the process of acclimation is difficult and often disconcerting.

However, Mercadante's work is limited by her training as a theologian. In her view, SBNRs are not indifferent to theology. She assumes that any viable tradition requires a theological core, so SBNR is inherently nonviable because those beliefs lack a group-based theological core. Consequently, her categories ignore SBNRs who are not casual believers and who are not transitional to or from organized religion.[26]


See also: Spirituality and New Age

SBNR is related to feminist spiritual and religious thought and ecological spiritualities,[27] and also to Neo-Paganism, Wicca, Shamanic, Druidic, Gaian and ceremonial magic practices.[27] Some New Age spiritual practices include astrology, Ouija boards, Tarot cards, the I Ching, and science fiction.[27] A common practice of SBNRs is meditation, such as mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation.[27]

In popular culture

In Weezer's 2017 single titled "Feels Like Summer", Rivers Cuomo sings the lyrics "I'm spiritual, not religious / I'm a Libra, if that matters" at the beginning of the second verse.[28]


Some representatives of organized religion have criticized the practice of spirituality without religiosity. Lillian Daniel, a liberal Protestant minister, has characterized the SBNR worldview as a product of secular American consumer culture, far removed from community and "right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating".[29] James Martin, a Jesuit priest, has called the SBNR lifestyle "plain old laziness",[30] stating that "spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community".[31]

Other critics contend that within the "Spiritual but not Religious" worldview, self-knowledge and self-growth have been problematically equated with knowledge of God, directing a person's focus inward. As a result, the political, economic, and social forces that shape the world are neglected and left untended.[32] Further, some scholars have noted the relative spiritual superficiality of particular SBNR practices. Classical mysticism within the world's major religions requires sustained dedication, often in the form of prolonged asceticism, extended devotion to prayer, and the cultivation of humility. In contrast, SBNRs in the Western world are encouraged to dabble in spiritual practices in a way that is often casual and lacking in rigor or any reorganization of priorities. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow suggests that these forms of mysticism are "shallow and inauthentic".[33] Other critics take issue with the intellectual legitimacy of SBNR scholarship. When contrasted with professional or academic theology, spiritual philosophies can appear unpolished, disjointed, or inconsistently sourced.[34]

Wong and Vinsky challenge SBNR discourse that posits religion as "institutional and structured" in contrast to spirituality as "inclusive and universal" (1346).[35] They argue that this understanding makes invisible the historical construction of "spirituality", which currently relies on a rejection of EuroChristianity for its own self-definition. According to them, Western discourses of "spirituality" appropriate indigenous spiritual traditions and "ethnic" traditions of the East, yet racialized ethnic groups are more likely to be labeled "religious" than "spiritual" by white SBNR practitioners.[35] Wong and Vinsky assert that through these processes, colonial othering is enacted through SBNR discourse.

See also


  1. ^ According to Linda Mercadante, the concept of religion is a social construct, since in other eras, religion, culture, and even national identity were often inseparable. And as for spirituality, this is an old concept with a new usage.[1] Previous to today's era, what people today call spirituality was often called piety.[1] Mercadante sees religion as a complex adaptive network of myths, symbols, rituals and concepts that simultaneously figure patterns of feeling, thinking, and acting and disrupt stable structures of meaning and purpose.[1] When understood in that way, religion not only involves ideas and practices that are manifestly religious but also includes a broad range of cultural phenomena not ordinarily associated with religion.[1] Many people use spirituality to refer to their interior life of faith and religion to mean the necessary communal and/or organizational part.[1] Mercadante sees both spirituality and religion as consisting of four basic components: beliefs, desire, rituals, and behavioural expectations, but across the field of Religious Studies the definitions vary.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Mercadante 2014.
  2. ^ Carrette, Jeremy R.; King, Richard (2004). Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. London, UK: Routledge. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-4153-0208-1.
  3. ^ Heelas, Paul (21 January 2009). Spiritualities of Life: New Age Romanticism and Consumptive Capitalism. John Wiley & Sons. p. 63. ISBN 978-1-4443-0111-3.
  4. ^ Mercadante 2015.
  5. ^ Blankholm, Joseph (2022). The Secular Paradox : On the Religiosity of the Not Religious. New York: New York University Press. p. 7. ISBN 9781479809509.
  6. ^ Pearce, Lisa; Gilliland, Claire (2020). Religion in America. University of California Press. p. 3,5. ISBN 9780691177564.
  7. ^ McCutcheon, Russell T. (2010-12-01). "Will Your Cognitive Anchor Hold in the Storms of Culture?". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 78 (4): 1182–1193. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfq085. ISSN 0002-7189.
  8. ^ "Critical Theory and the Importance of Religious Studies". Bulletin for the Study of Religion. 19 December 2012. Archived from the original on 2016-01-07. Retrieved 2015-12-06.
  9. ^ Publications in Anthropology, 1960. 1960.
  10. ^ Zinnbauer, Brian J.; Pargament, Kenneth I.; Cole, Brenda; et al. (December 1997). "Religiousness and Spirituality: Unfuzzying the Fuzzy". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 36 (4): 549–564. doi:10.2307/1387689. JSTOR 1387689.
  11. ^ Erlandson, Sven (2000). Spiritual but Not Religious: A Call to Religious Revolution in America. Bloomington: iUniverse. ISBN 0-59501108-X.
  12. ^ Hayes, Alan L. (March 6, 2018). "Spiritual but Not Religious". Toronto School of Theology. Archived from the original on April 5, 2018.
  13. ^ Lark, Dana (November 13, 2017). "Spiritual but Not Religious: The Movement". Reflector. Georgia Southern University. Archived from the original on February 9, 2018.
  14. ^ Kenneson 2015, p. 8.
  15. ^ Thomas, Owen (January 2006). "Spiritual but Not Religious: The Influence of the Current Romantic Movement". Anglican Theological Review. 88 (3): 397.
  16. ^ a b c Funk, Cary; Smith, Greg. ""Nones" on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation" (PDF). The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-08-26. Retrieved 2015-11-17.
  17. ^ "More Americans now say they're spiritual but not religious". Pew Research Center. 2017-09-06. Retrieved 2017-12-16.
  18. ^ Marler, Penny Long; Hadaway, C. Kirk (June 2002). ""Being Religious" or "Being Spiritual" in America: A Zero Sum Proposition?". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 41 (2): 289–300. doi:10.1111/1468-5906.00117.
  19. ^ Thomas, Owen (January 2006). "Spiritual but Not Religious: The Influence of the Current Romantic Movement". Anglican Theological Review. 88 (3): 398.
  20. ^ Chandler 2013.
  21. ^ a b Day, Abby, ed. (2013). Social identities between the sacred and the secular (New ed.). Burlington: Ashgate. ISBN 978-1-4094-5677-3.
  22. ^ a b c Kenneson 2015, p. 5.
  23. ^ Fuller 2001, p. 12.
  24. ^ a b c Wuthnow 2007.
  25. ^ Mercadante 2014, p. 35-67.
  26. ^ Schaefer, Donovan O. (September 29, 2015). "Review of Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious". 4 (1): Art. 9. doi:10.5334/snr.bb. Retrieved November 23, 2023 – via secularismandnonreligion.org. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  27. ^ a b c d Fuller 2001, pp. 76–100, "Exotic Messages, Familiar Themes".
  28. ^ Cook-Wilson, Winston (March 16, 2017). "Listen to the Bizarre New Weezer Song "Feels Like Summer"". Spin. Inglewood, California. Retrieved November 10, 2023.
  29. ^ Daniel, Lillian (2011-09-13). "Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2023-01-27.
  30. ^ Blake, John (2010-06-09). "Are there dangers in being 'spiritual but not religious'?". CNN.com.
  31. ^ Martin, James (2010-03-11). "Spiritual but not religious - Not so fast!: Making the case for moving beyond your own personal God". Busted Halo: an online magazine for spiritual seekers. Retrieved 2010-09-19. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community.
  32. ^ Fuller 2001, pp. 158–59.
  33. ^ Fuller 2001, p. 160.
  34. ^ Fuller 2001, p. 161.
  35. ^ a b Wong, Y.-L. R.; Vinsky, J. (2009). "Speaking from the Margins: A Critical Reflection on the 'Spiritual-but-not-Religious' Discourse in Social Work". British Journal of Social Work. 39 (7): 1343–59. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcn032.


  • Chandler, Siobhan (2013), "The Way of the Spiritual Seeker", in Bryant, M. Darrol (ed.), Ways of the Spirit: Celebrating Dialogue, Diversity and Spirituality, Pandora Press[permanent dead link]
  • Fuller, Robert C. (2001), Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195146808
  • Kenneson, Philip D. (2015), "What's in a Name? A Brief Introduction to the "Spiritual But Not Religious"", Liturgy, 30 (3): 3–13, doi:10.1080/0458063X.2015.1019259, S2CID 143294453
  • Mercadante, Linda A. (2014), Belief without borders: inside the minds of the spiritual but not religious, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0199931002
  • Wuthnow, Robert (2007), After the baby boomers how twenty- and thirty-somethings are shaping the future of American religion, Princeton: Princeton University Press, ISBN 9781400831227