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“Spiritual but not religious”: inside America's rapidly growing faith group

A new poll finds almost one in five Americans is spiritual but not religious.

Surfers in California
Meditation is one of many ways the “spiritual but not religious” engage with a higher power
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Ava Lee Scott, an actress and theater-maker in New York, doesn’t practice an organized religion. Raised in both Catholic and Jewish traditions, Scott’s own spiritual life is far more eclectic. She studies ancient languages, from the Aramaic of Christ to Hebrew to Arabic. She reads Tarot cards, runes, and cowrie shells. She believes in a higher power — something some people might call God — but believes that such a power transcends individual traditions’ dogmas. “Whatever name you call your higher power,” she told Vox, “we are all connected.”

Scott is not alone. In fact, she’s part of a group that makes up nearly one-fifth of Americans: the “spiritual but not religious.”

When we talk about religion in America, we usually break the faithful down into familiar categories along political lines: a religious (usually evangelical Protestant) right and an atheistic left. But almost 20 percent of Americans, according to a survey released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) belongs to a category that transcends stereotypical religious identity.

The survey, which profiled about 2,000 American adults in the early months of 2017, found that 18 percent of Americans identify as spiritual but not religious. (By contrast, 31 percent of Americans identify as neither spiritual nor religious.) They tend to skew younger and more educated than religious Americans, with 40 percent holding at least a four-year college degree and 17 percent having some form of postgraduate education. They’re also far more politically liberal than their religious counterparts: 40 percent identify as liberal, compared to 24 percent of the population overall and 27 percent of Americans that are neither spiritual nor religious.

The study created separate “religiosity” and “spirituality” indexes. Participants who scored highly on the religiosity index frequently attended worship services and reported that they considered religion to be an important factor in their personal lives. Participants who scored highly on the spirituality index reported feeling a connected to “something much larger than” themselves and “felt particularly connected to the world around” them and to a “higher purpose."

The study found that many “spiritual but not religious” Americans maintain a connection to some sort of organized faith tradition, even if they do not practice it regularly. Just three in 10 religiously unaffiliated Americans ranked as spiritual but not religious, suggesting that most spiritual-but-not-religious Americans maintain links with a more formal religious identity; the largest groups of these identify as mainline Protestant (18 percent) or Catholic (18 percent).

“The survey finds less overlap between Americans who are spiritual but not religious and those who are religiously unaffiliated than is often assumed,” said PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones, in a press release. “Notably, most Americans who are classified as spiritual but not religious still identify with a religious tradition, even if they are less likely to attend services or say religion is important in their lives.”

But for many in this set, spirituality doesn’t necessary track with traditional religious observance. The study found that the single greatest spiritual experience for this group was not prayer or meditation but music: A full 71 percent of spiritual Americans reported having been inspired or touched by listening to a piece of music in the past week, compared to just 43 percent of nonspiritual respondents.

What this suggests is that religious identity (i.e., the religious community participants see themselves as belonging to), religious observance (i.e., actually attending services and participating in religious life), and spiritual experiences are three distinct categories, which sometimes overlap but do not automatically track onto one another.

Spiritual experiences can take a variety of forms

For many people who are spiritual but not religious, spiritual experiences can come from unlikely places. For Dain Quentin Gore, an artist in Arizona who grew up Southern Baptist, his artistic practice has replaced an approach to organized religion he found “obtuse and hopelessly convoluted.” Gore said he finds religious meaning in creating powerful art. “Ceremonies, to me, have now become my puppet shows,” Gore said. “All of these things are the closest I get to ‘religious experience’ these days. Making art and puppetry are my transcendent moments.”

Scott finds that feeling in nature. “Living in the city, I️ fill my apartment with plants and herbs, green life,” she told Vox. “I️ cleanse with Dead Sea Salt baths and other herbal healing baths. I️ love nature and herbs, they are the magic healers of the earth and connects us to the spiritual.”

For Megan Ribar, who works at a yoga studio, meditation, yoga, and personal ritualistic acts provide her with a similar feeling of transcendence. She is wary of the term “spirituality,” instead seeing her practices and rituals as a form of self-care: “The practices I consider spiritual are the things I do to care for myself in a deep way, to calm myself when I'm distressed, to create meaning out of the experiences of my life.” Although she isn’t sure whether she believes in a higher power, she keeps an altar full of objects that are symbolically significant to her, and sometimes performs rituals in which she calls on “deities or deity archetypes.”

As someone who deals with mental health issues, Ribar said, “I do not often believe that there's a divine order to things, and practices like these can be a way to create beauty out of the chaos I often feel I'm surrounded by.”

Often, people who have sought spirituality outside of organized religion have done so because they do not feel that there is a place for them in their childhood faith. Trish Richards, a dog walker in New York, described to Vox how it felt to be an out lesbian in her (progressive) Lutheran church.

“I never felt comfortable in the church as a social unit, particularly after coming out as gay,” Richards said. “I essentially shed all of my religious ties out of self-preservation. It was easier not to have to have the hard ‘gay and Christian’ conversations, so religion grew even more into this very private and personal thing for me that not a lot of other people were involved in.”

Likewise, Scott Stanger, a photographer in New York, said that although he was raised as a Conservative Jew — complete with a bar mitzvah and religious classes, “I think either I missed the point or they did not teach the point of spirituality.” Now, he said, he’s put off by the “politics” and “intrusion” of religion, seeing it as outmoded at best, and toxic at worst.

Yet, each of the people I spoke to agree that spirituality, in some sense, is beneficial to them, even if they see that spirituality as opposed to organized religion. Their anecdotal evidence bears out another element of the PRRI study: Spiritual people are, generally, happier, than nonspiritual people. According to the study, 61 percent of spiritual but not religious people and 70 percent of spiritual and religious people reported being “very” or “completely” satisfied with their life, compared to just 53 percent of those who were religious but not spiritual, and 47 percent of those who were neither.

One thing many of my interview subjects had in common, though, was a desire for community, one thing their more solitary ritual practices hadn’t been able to give them. Most said that community was something they missed, and many reported fond memories of a communal aspect to their childhood religions. “I don't tend to like uniformity of practice and belief because that gets a bit culty to me,” said Ribar. “It often means people stop asking questions — that's why I'm shy of organized spiritual community. But I do sometimes long for more people to share things with.”