Spiritual AND Religious? Why the Two Aren’t Always Exclusive…

11 June 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

A common perception concerning contemporary spirituality is that Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

What exactly this means is notoriously hard to define, but it generally means a do-it-yourself brand of spirituality that depends on individualized self-discovery rather than receiving instruction from religious institutions.

A recent article on CNN.com (citing a Huffington Post writer) describes this phenomenon as “Burger King Spirituality,” the idea being to “Have it your way” (the article suggests that such narcissism might be implicitly dangerous, prompting many-a-negative comment).

Lifeway research has recently shown that young Americans (the Milennial generation) more closely identify with the term “spiritual” than they do “religious.”

According to a Lifeway Research study in January of 2008, Americans (this time of all generations, rather than merely the younger set) have both negative views of the church as well as positive views of faith:

(1) Negative Views of the Church:

72 % = think the church ‘is full of hypocrites,'”

79% think Christianity “is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people.”

86% believe they “can have a good relationship with God without being involved in church.”

(2) Positive Views of Faith:

71 % believe Jesus ‘makes a positive difference in a person’s life

78 % would ‘be willing to listen’ to someone who wanted to share what they believed about Christianity.”The number rose to 89 percent among adults 18-29 years of age.


But this data may be misleading, as it suggests a dichotomy between “spiritual” and “religious” that doesn’t seem to exist in the mind of John Q. Public the way it’s often portrayed.

In Rodney Stark’s book What Americans Really Believe, he uncovered the following data regarding Americans’ professed spiritual convictions (emphasis added):

Spiritual but not religious: 10%

Spiritual and religious: 57%

Religious, but not spiritual: 17%

Neither: 16%

This data is generally confirmed by a 2009 Newsweek study, which showed that roughly half (48%) of those interviewed called themselves “religious and spiritual,” compared to 30% calling themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

Stark also notes that the “Spiritual but not religious” crowd tends to be more liberal, both theologically (seeing God as an impersonal force, mystical, and “oneness with the universe”) as well as politically (approving of legalized marijuana, euthanasia and gay marriage).


What does this all mean? It means that “religious” is not the pejorative term that it is commonly mistaken for. It seems that “religious” need not necessarily mean a direct association with “organized,” institutional religion.

While this data initially surprised me, it actually makes sense: if religious conviction is entirely private, why not describe yourself as “religious?” Put another way, being “religious” and following an “organized religion” are not necessarily synonymous, especially as more and more people exercise faith outside the confines of the hypocrisy (real or imagined) of institutional structure.


Still, Stark observes that “spiritual but not religious” is a category populated more highly by young adults. This may mean the future will bring more spiritually-minded, theologically/politically liberal young men and women through the doors of America’s churches. Studies such as these prove invaluable in helping prepare for this potential transition.

11 June 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!