Sunday, March 12, 2006

How Big is the "Spiritual But Not Religious" Market?

A favorite social category that sophomores who have been through their first religion class use to describe themselves is "spiritual, but not religious." This is a hard category to pin down, especially since religion and spirituality are almost identical except for what they imply about your connection to a religious institution.

Recently the Higher Education Research Institute complete a massive survey (40,000+ respondents) on “Spirituality and the Professoriate.” If any group would be interested in adopting such a nuanced identity, it would be professors. So, what did the survey find?

The study defined the highly spiritual professors this way:
Seeking out opportunities to grow spiritually,
considering oneself a spiritual person, and
having an interest in integrating spirituality into one’s life.

By this standard, 43% scored high, 15% low.

They then asked how many professors considered themselves religious. Not surprisingly, more than two thirds of the highly spiritual professors also considered themselves highly religious.

Only 13% of the highly spiritual professors said they were not at all religious.

13% of 43% = 5.5% of all professors consider themselves "spiritual, but not religious."

Five and a half percent ain't zero, but it sure doesn't look like a sign that "religionless spirituality" is the next big thing, even among this unusually irreligious group.


alpha centauri said...

I think that the spiritual but not religious "market" is simply waiting for a charismatic leader, a few good songs and a symbol that will work well on jewelry or t-shirts. Mark my words.

Gruntled said...

Well, as Durkheim, said, there is no church of magic. The appeal of spiritual but not religious is that you don't fully repudiate what your parents believe, without having any obligations to go somewhere or do anything.

eustochius said...

The appeal of spiritual but not religious is that you don't fully repudiate what your parents believe, without having any obligations to go somewhere or do anything.

I'm afraid that's a pretty biased take on things. It's akin to saying the only reason people join churches is for community and because they are too dull to make up their own minds on spiritual matters and need to follow a canned outlook.

IOW, what you mentioned is only one reason why someone might be spiritual but not religious.

As I alluded to above, someone who describes themselves as spiritual but not religious may perhaps be better described as a spiritual independent -- someone who believes that there are serious flaws in the existing traditions and aims to salvage what they can from them.

I think some famous spiritual independents might be Plotinus and Gandhi.

I know some spiritual independents who are actually quite rigorous. Daily meditation, high ethical standards, vegetarianism etc. but who embrace an eclectic ontology and soteriology.

I also contest your belief that professors would aim for the more nuanced term. I would think that professors are more likely to be polarized than the general population and thus more likely to be either atheistic or traditionalistic.

Also I'm not sure whether it makes sense to parse the data as you have. I didn't look at the detailed survey, but I'm not sure "spiritual but not religious" is adequately captured by isolating those who rated themselves as spiritual but did not rate themselves as religious. I think the phrase has a meaning that transcends its constituent parts. This concern is highlighted by your focusing only on those that are highly spiritual.

I think a better method would be to examine book sales, though I grant you that post 9/11 I'm sure the religious market has blossomed and the sbnr market has shrunk somewhat.

For a contrary view, see Cultural Creatives which directly addresses your main questions and finds a quite large market.

Finally, for a good explanation of the sbnr positions see ambivablog's Why I am not a traditionalist if you haven't already.

I'm sorry if my tone was a little strict, say, but just think how you would feel if someone framed the church-goers motives as I did above. Apply a little charity to the spiritual independents :)

Gruntled said...

"I'm not sure 'spiritual but not religious' is adequately captured by isolating those who rated themselves as spiritual but did not rate themselves as religious."

Isn't that the definition of the term?

I grant that there are individuals who can rigorously practice any imagineable position. To rigorously practice something so intangible as being spiritual but not religious, though, I think happens about as often as a Gandhi does. If there is a mass movement here, or even a significant slice of the pie, it is hard for me to see how it could believe or do or promote anything in particular, but only names things it is not.

Can you spell out what this non-religious religion is?

eustochius said...

Isn't that the definition of the term?

Well, in a sum-of-the-parts approach, yes. However, as you pointed out, distinguishing between spiritual and religious is not always easy. SBNR could be taken to mean, "I'm spiritual BUT I am definitely not religious." I just think sbnr is a sort of a term that has gotten into the popular culture that would elicit a higher response rate than spiritual AND not religious, which you searched for.

Can you spell out what this non-religious religion is?

You are right that it is diffuse. But in some sense it is akin to centrism, which in many ways is an alternative to liberalism and conservatism. Just as centrists may disagree on specific policies, they all agree that liberalism or conservatism by themselves are not satisfying philosophies. And the often quoted number is that 45% of the population is moderate.

Likewise, there may be a swath of the population who, while not being atheists, don't feel comfortable in the standard traditions. I'm not sure about percentages, but again, I think book sales on topics that involve a spirituality that crosses traditional faith boundaries would be a good place to start.

But if you want a summary of positive beliefs likely to be held by sbnr's here goes.

(1)The divine is wholly good and transcendent.

(2)The divine can be personally experienced.

(3)Each religious tradition only sheds a partial light on the whole truth.

(4)The old traditions are insufficient for the modern world, and need to be shed for the world to move forward.

(5)Religious organizations often have a way of stifling their members and closing off exploration.

(6)Practice trumps belief. Assent to particular religious propositions, as in Christianity, is not relevant.

(7)Spiritual development and direct personal experience of the divine are key.

IOW, I would venture that most sbnr's follow precepts similar to a broadened and more western version of ramakrishna's teachings on the unity of all religions. Some people might call sbnr's new fangled but in many ways they are tapping into what they hold to be ancient religious truths that have been obscured by Western religions but extolled in Eastern ones.

If you can value centrism, you should be able to have at least some grudging respect for sbnr's. And perhaps the reason we have so few Gandi's is because the prevailing religious paradigms are not conducive to it. Protestants have eliminated saints, most catholics find it haughty to consider it for themselves, and eastern religions as practiced today are often too wrapped up in obscure vagaries and superstitions of their past.

Tom Strong said...

Eustochius makes a good point (as he often does). The phrase "spiritual but not religious" is a tired one - I think it wore out its welcome around 1982 - and doesn't really capture the "nomad" thing that amba describes so vividly on her blog.

Like Eusto, I would fit well into that category if the phrase itself were not so utterly soulless. I spent much of my teens and early twenties studying the various religions intensely, trying to find one that was a fit for me. I profited immensely from that experience - but I ended up finding far more value in the loci of what I had learned, than in any one school. (I also ended up deciding that God doesn't exist, and that a positive, poetically-informed atheism was the best way to go. But that's another story).

Also, I'm not a temple (or church) going type - and there are a lot more of us than is typically acknowledged. In my experience, people who don't go to church every week can be very religious - but they also tend to be introverted, independent-minded, and sometimes a little too cranky for new-agey labels.

So I don't mean to suggest that if someone doesn't go to church regularly, they should be placed in the sbnr group. But I do mean to suggest that there is probably a significant subsection of the "religious" market who have a decided tendency to think out of their religion's "box". And that a lot of these people are sbnr, "spiritual nomad" types. They may not be quite there, but they're leaning.

eustochius said...

Great link, Tom!

I especially liked:
"The director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, Robert Wuthnow, said that the terrorists' attacks have not changed the basic makeup of the U.S.:

'About one in four of American adults is devoutly religious;
one in four is secular, and
the remaining half is mildly interested about religion.'"

That is great news and it certainly parallels the 45% moderate figure. I was also heartened to see that traditional religion only got a temporary bounce from 9/11. Maybe the perception that the country is more religious is just driven by the Republicans being in power.

I'm sure amba would like that link as well. She would feel heartened by our numbers.

So you see, Tom, we moderates and nomads are the majority. Woo hoo! Praise the Lord! -- whether it be Lord Buddha, Lord Krishna, Adonai, or that bearded dude so popular in the states.

eustochius said...

Oh, why am I so lazy, Tom? I'll e-mail amba the link myself. BTW, Gruntled, I really do love your site, and your perpectives on centrism and the family. I can understand the benefits of being in a tradition, but I'm like amba, where on considering being a member of a religious community, she exclaims [paraphrasing], "But I can't. It's against my religion! And I didn't know I had one."

I just don't find any of the prevailing traditions plausible. I mean the good news of Jesus Christ is that we are all destined to hell-fire, but if we believe in him, we escape it while the remaing two-thirds of humanity is lost? I mean, some good news. And if you don't believe in hell, then it's really not necessary to believe in Jesus because there's no hell anyway. I'm just not capable of the mental gymnastics.

I could be for a major rethinking of the faith, wherein Jesus is a divine avatar who cames to show us the way, but the way is through spiritual discipline and devotion -- not through believing in his name. But since traditions want to stay with the old theologies, and seem to evince no interest in rethinking things on a fundamental level -- I couldn't do it if I tried. Maybe I could be an Episcopalian though -- which I was actually raised as. My mom's priest is always saying heretical things like the above. He even has a statue of the Buddha in his house. I could dig an open-aired flexible, organic tradition.

Stuart Gordon said...

1)The divine is wholly good and transcendent.

(2)The divine can be personally experienced.


I'm afraid that a list of such generalities will always have a hard time forming a community of living, breathing people. It would be akin to expecting a man to fall in love with the personal ad of a SWF, non-smoker, loves dogs.

The weakness of every religious movement is the humans who are part of it. Religions are so damned flawed because people are so damned flawed! It seems far easier to attempt the impossible: reject "traditions" for a spirituality without flesh and blood, and therefore without its own flaws.

I certainly understand the disappointments with religious traditions. I simply believe that no human being has a real alternative. None of us enjoys some omniscient perspective, from which we can judge the rightness and wrongness of other peoples' religions objectively. Further, none of us can free ourselves from wrongheaded spiritual and religious notions.

Spiritual practice, like human love, is an incarnate
experience. It lives in the boundaries of space and time. As such, it expresses itself in concrete terms, relational terms, or it ultimately proves to be no practice at all.

eustochius said...


Eloquent comments. I think, however, that as time passes flesh will be put onto those bones and that spiritual communities will form. I think we are in a transitional period, and that eventually the traditional barriers between religions will melt and a more dynamic and organic entity will emerge.

So, I understand your point of view but rather than going backwards to the old traditions, we need to move forward so a new tradition can emerge. As it stands now, most religions are at extreme metaphysical warefare with one another -- when push comes to shove Christians believe that Jews have rejected God's only son, and Jews and Muslims view Christians as idolaters, etc. I don't see how human harmony can emerge with a maintenace of these deep-rooted barriers.

And I guess I have a more optimistic view than you do of being able to discern good from bad in spiritual traditions. "You shall know them by their fruits." And I think certain strains within certain religions consistently produce misery. The Buddha 2,500 years ago had confidence in human's ability to distinguish beneficial from harmful doctrine, and so do I.

Gruntled said...

A rich discussion. Let me pick a few points.

The idea that moderns can't accept traditional religions, and therefore we should all adopt a generic version of Eastern religion, is an old modernist dream. It is pretty much where contemporary Unitarianism comes from. Ironically, it is a characteristically modernist dream, relentlessly attacked by pomos. Not least of its sins, from the pomo critique, is its orientalism.

A more important point comes from this point:
"I can understand the benefits of being in a tradition, but I'm like amba, where on considering being a member of a religious community, she exclaims [paraphrasing], "But I can't. It's against my religion! And I didn't know I had one.""

Substitute "family" for "tradition" in this sentence, and see if it makes sense. Imagine people picking their families the way this discussion talks about choosing a religion.

People aren't religious because they weighed every philosophical idea and then chose one. They are religious for God, and from knowing God.

I don't think people with no religion are freer, more cosmopolitatan, modern, or advanced. I think they are like people without a family. They are perfectly free to do so, and they are not bad people for it, but it seems no advantage, if not sad.

eustochius said...

Thanks for responding, Gruntled. I think postmodernism is on the wane, at least in its strong form. It is good to appreciate various perspectives, but it is another to think that all perspectives are equally true or valid. [we agree on this, I assume.]

I recognize the benefits of being in a religious community, and I understand that most people do not arrive at a religion via rational deliberation. But I am not sure that this is always a good thing.

To me it seems to place community above objective truth. If religions were to say that each religion is but one approach to God, and God can be reached in each, than I could understand your admonition to join a community. But as it stands, many traditions, want to claim that not only should one join a community to approach God and be involved with others, they also claim that their religion is objectively true and thus that other religions are false, at least in some areas.

So, it seems to me, you, Gruntled, have to choose. (1) My religion is objectively true, and here are the reasons why it is. [In which case, rational deliberation is obviously called for.] Or (2) Pick one religion because all lead to God -- don't worry about the rational details because religion is primary a means to getting to God, not an accurate description or approximation of the way God really is.

But I sort of get the sense that you want both. I, and I suspect Amba and Tom, are not part of a religious tradition because of cognitive dissonance. To be part of a religion requires that you buy into its story as truth, and, as I said earlier, we just don't think they're true -- at least not fully, and they sure contain some real whoppers and half-truths and limited perspectives.

So I don't think you can have it both ways. Either debate me intellectually on the merits of a particular tradition or accept that religions are all, more or less, acceptable vehicles for getting at God. If you do the latter, you will have agreed with the fundamental spiritual independent's assertion -- namely, that each religious tradition is not -- well -- fully true. And then we could debate, given this, what path we should take.

I would say that for some people, adopting a religious tradition is good, but for others it's not a good idea.

I think being spiritually independent is an essential characteristic of some of our greatest luminaries -- Einstein and Jefferson, for example. While I may agree that tradition is good for most people, I think society needs some true independents to move religious thinking forward. Some people don't need community as much as others.

And besides, at the beginning of every movement, one is definitely rejecting one's past and the larger community. Look at the early pagan converts to Christianity -- enemies of the state and even atheists from the official perspective. Early Christians did this because they valued truth over community. And as I said earlier, I think we independents are forming communities, slowly but surely. Again, it's a question of valuing truth over community, and I think society needs at least a few who do this.

We might be persuaded to join a tradition; however, if you more traditionalist guys were willing to update the tradition a little more -- rather than insisting that it's eternal truth. So you leave us no choice. (BTW, I'm not talking about liberal pet projects, like gay marriage -- which I happen to support because it allows more people to get MARRIED! -- I'm talking rethinking basic theological doctrines. We have all this new information -- new science, knowledge of other cultures and religions, new archeological findings -- and yet the doctrines do not move, no serious discussion is even held about changing them.

All of this makes painfully obvious that religous traditions care more about maintaing themselves than they do about truth. Truth is not a real concern for them, though they certainly claim that they have the capital T truth. Can't you see how this could drive someone nuts?

eustochius said...

One final remark: I would distinguish between families and traditions. I tend to agree with you that marriage is taken too lightly in this country, and that certainly divorce wreaks horrible havoc on the kids. I'm not sure though if I would favor legal action; I would rather aim at changing the culture voluntarily.

However, it goes very deep for me that people should be able to determine for themselves their own religious beliefs. And I just don't see religious traditions as being as vital as families. Very few problems have resulted from strong families -- strong religious traditions on the hand, often go to war with each other, kill heretics, etc.

In the end, I think the purpose of a religious tradition is to foster connection with the divine -- which is a personal matter. Even in Christianity, each person is saved on their own, and Jesus himself advocates rejecting the family for religious truth if push comes to shove.

Does it really matter how one is connected to God? If one can do it on one's own better than within a group, isn't this the right course of action? Isn't this better than the person who has no spiritual feelings but just joins a church so as to have a club?

Maybe you're just saying that people should be involved in their community. But surely one need not be a member of a religious organization to do so.

Jonathan B. Horen said...

Here is the link to an excellent article on how Judaism understands the difference between spiritual and religious. I realize that some might not either be able to read the Hebrew, or understand it, but those who can will appreciate what's written.