A growing contingent of Americans—particularly young Americans—identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Masthead member Joy wanted to understand why. On our call with Emma Green, The Atlantic’s religion writer, Joy asked, “What are they looking for?” Because the term “spiritual” can be interpreted in so many different ways, it’s a tough question to answer. I talked to people who have spent a lot of time mulling it over, and came away with some important context for the major shift happening in American faith.
(If you missed our call with Emma Green, you can find the transcript and recording here.)
Americans Who Want Faith, Not a Church
Kern Beare, a Masthead member from Mountain View, California, believes in God and studies the teachings of Jesus. But does he identify with a particular religion? “Never,” he told me. The structure and rigidity of a church, Beare believes, is antithetical to everything Jesus represents. Instead of attending services, he meditates every morning.
Americans are leaving organized religion in droves: they disagree with their churches on political issues; they feel restricted by dogma; they’re deserting formal organizations of all kinds. Instead of atheism, however, they’re moving toward an identity captured by the term “spirituality.” Approximately sixty-four million Americans—one in five—identify as “spiritual but not religious,” or SBNR. They, like Beare, reject organized religion but maintain a belief in something larger than themselves. That “something” can range from Jesus to art, music, and poetry. There is often yoga involved.
“The word ‘church’ means you need to put on uncomfortable shoes, sit up straight, and listen to boring, old-fashioned hymns,” said Matthew Hedstrom, a professor of religion at the University of Virginia. “Spirituality is seen as a larger, freer arena to explore big questions.”
Because over 92 percent of religiously-affiliated Americans currently identify as Christian, most “spiritual-but-not-religious” people come from that tradition. The term SBNR took off in the early 2000s, when online dating first became popular. “You had to identify by religion, you had to check a box,” Hedstrom told me. “‘Spiritual-but-not-religious’ became a nice category that said, ‘I’m not some kind of cold-hearted atheist, but I’m not some kind of moralizing, prudish person, either. I’m nice, friendly, and spiritual—but not religious.’”
Religion—often entirely determined by your parents—can be central to how others see you, and how you see yourself. Imagine, Hedstrom proffered, if from the time you were born, your parents told you that you were an Italian-Catholic, living in the Italian-Catholic neighborhood in Philadelphia. “You wouldn’t wake up every morning wondering, who am I, and what should I believe?” That would have already been decided. Young people today, Emma said on our call, “are selecting the kinds of communities that fit their values,” rather than adhering to their parent’s choices.
“Spiritual is also a term that people like to use,” said Kenneth Pargament, a professor who studies the psychology of religion at Bowling Green State University. “It has all of these positive connotations of having a life with meaning, a life with some sacredness to it—you have some depth to who you are as a human being.” As a spiritual person, you’re not blindly accepting a faith passed down from your parents, but you’re also not completely rejecting the possibility of a higher power. Because the term “spiritual,” encompasses so much, it can sometimes be adopted by people most would consider atheists. While the stigma around atheism is generally less intense than it used to be, in certain communities, Hedstrom told me, “to say you’re an atheist is still to say you hate puppies.” It’s a taboo that can understandably put atheists, many of whom see their views as warm and open-minded, on the defensive. “Spiritual” doesn’t come with that kind of baggage.
For people who have struggled with faith, embracing the word “spiritual” might also leave a crucial door open. Masthead member Hugh calls himself “spiritual,” but sees the designation as more of a hope or a wish than a true faith. “I hope there is more to this wonderful world than random chemistry... Nonetheless, I do see all of that as an illusion...That does not stop me from seeking something as close to what I wish for as I am able to find.” In his class, “Spirituality in America,” Hedstrom tells his students that the “spiritual-but-not-religious” designation is about “seeking,” rather than “dwelling:” searching for something you believe in, rather than accepting something that, while comfortable and familiar, doesn’t feel quite right. In the process of traveling around, reading books, and experimenting with new rituals, he says, “you can find your identity out there.”
Today’s Wrap Up
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