Spiritual but not religious?

As a millennial, I am among a generation largely claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” There was a time when such a thing was unthinkable. In traditional societies, religious institutions framed our worldviews from birth until death, giving us clear moral dictates on what was right and wrong. The clear-cut moralistic maps of our place in the world made sense given our limited understanding of cultures outside our own. We did not depend on global trade and were able to close ourselves off from groups that threatened our sacred ideals.

With the explosion of global trade and communication technologies connecting the world into an interdependent web, we are increasingly confronted by individuals from a diverse array of cultural and religious backgrounds. Religious worldviews that have traditionally excluded anyone considered “different” are slowly adapting to this global society. The Catholic Church has admitted its faults regarding the treatment of Jews and other excluded groups. Yet, despite these changes within religious institutions, their reputations as moralistic systems of exclusion remain and millennials are choosing to find their spirituality elsewhere.

Millennials are finding this “unchurched spirituality” in meditation, hallucinogens, and a creative combination of practices originating from a number of traditions. In his book, After Heaven, Robert Wuthnow argues, “at its core, spirituality consists of all the beliefs and activities by which individuals attempt to relate their lives to God or to a divine being or some other conception of a transcendent reality.” Therefore, although religion traditionally held a capital on the beliefs and practices associated with a transcendent reality, individuals are increasingly finding alternative ways to experience this reality. Since the 1960’s in America, religion and spirituality have been increasingly perceived as separate entities. Just as one can experience spirituality without religion, one can also practice religion without spirituality. If spirituality is defined as that which connects an individual to God or a transcendent reality, there are numerous examples of how religion has failed in this regard. Consider religious contexts that have become hollow and stale, where adherents are inconsequentially going through the motions without any sense of purpose, community, or connection to a transcendent reality. It is this sense of religion without spirituality that has led many people to seek spirituality without religion.

Although this age of “spiritual but not religious,” prefers its spirituality non-institutionalized, we need to remember that institutions are not inherently bad. In sociology, social institutions are defined as systems that are necessary to a functioning society. Some of these include the education system, legal system, or healthcare system. These institutions are imperfect, but that does not mean we should do away with them altogether. Rather than doing away with religion altogether, we need to support religious institutions that contribute to human flourishing in a globalized world. “Spiritual but not religious” forms of self-discovery and introspection are useful tools for personal growth, in an ideal religious context, self-discovery and introspection are integrated into a larger system of beliefs and practices that further support both personal and communal growth. Interfaith communities are a contemporary example this form of religious culture in practice.

“Churched spirituality” and “unchurched spirituality” intersect in interfaith communities where faithful individuals recognize that their own religious tradition is only one among several equally worthy ways of pursuing spiritual practice. In his book, Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel writes about his journey coming back to Islam after experimenting with a variety of religious practices. He writes the following: “The tradition you were born into was your home, Brother Wayne told me, but as Gandhi once wrote, it should be a home with the windows open so that the winds of other traditions can blow through and bring their unique oxygen. ‘It’s good to have wings,’ he would say, ‘but you have to have roots, too.’” Religious traditions carry rich insight into matters of the spirit. They also bind us together into communities that facilitates a deep sense of identity and belonging. Although religion has a history of exclusion and is often perceived as cold, impersonal, and unspiritual in contemporary times, it does not need to be this way. Religion needs to be reinfused with spirituality and made relevant to a younger generation characterized by the ethos of eclecticism and inclusivity. Interfaith communities are a prime example of how religion can support spiritual vitality in a globalized world.

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  1. Pingback: sheila mbele-khama
  2. I’m much more spiritual than anything else, but I hope that my children know and understand that I am willing to them to any church they wish to attend, should they desire to see what it’s all about. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one to think there can be a balance found.

  3. You all rase a valid point and as a christian myself I have come to see there us a blurred line when calling oneself a christian. Because there are those that call themself a christian for believing in a “christian” God. They go to church every Sunday where they lists yo passage from a christian bible. But to me they ate not fully fleged christians because they do not walk on a spiritual path. Which I believe is when they have a relationship with God. A thing that will be evident if they were happy, kind, generous, possess self control for these are the fruit of the spirit. They let Jesus be there example leading them to the light which will bring them closer to God. This us what Christianity is as it what the bible tells us to do meaning these people I described are not following there religion so I’m afraid we fall short. And that we I understand why people want to stay away from church and religion. But don’t let people like above be an example of religion because they are false.

  4. ”Religion needs to be reinfused with spirituality and made relevant to a younger generation characterized by the ethos of eclecticism and inclusivity”.

    Hi Steve, thank you for dropping by and following my blog. I have not come across your site in the past but you clearly have a great deal of interesting views. Will be following your site in return.

    I find the above statement you made to be sadly correct. However, I would not go so far as to say religion needs to be reinfused with spirituality – most religions do have a spiritual attachment – its just that, unfortunately, most of them do not know which spirit is leading them!

    John Graham

  5. Spiritual but not religious sure is my world as well. I understand, with a lifetime of being called on a very spiritual path, yet not in the religious sense so many generations lived. i look forward to more of your blogs. You may enjoy mine,, which is spiritual but not religious, and tells the Journey of Spirit and Healing that is behind my novel, Child of Duende, which will soon be released. Blessings!

  6. Hi Dr. Rose,

    I really enjoyed your writing and reading the comments of it. There are many quality comments.

    While reading your post, my questions and comments appeared to my mind through the writing. For instance, I totally agree with the statement you said over here: “Consider religious contexts that have become hollow and stale, where adherents are inconsequentially going through the motions without any sense of purpose, community, or connection to a transcendent reality. It is this sense of religion without spirituality that has led many people to seek spirituality without religion.” When people say, “I am not religious but spiritual,” I clearly see what they mean by being spiritual not religious because the fact that there are many religions out there and people have their own understanding and interpretation when it comes to one particular religion. Therefore, if religion becomes empty and meaningless, people usually start seeking another alternative to quench their spiritual needs of the self. Not because religions all are bad, but particular religious contexts may lose their purposes and be used for worldly benefits.

    Another interesting thought your writing reminded me of that people, whether they claim they are believers or non-believers, are yearning for the satisfactory answers and meaning within this transient world. Humans are humans. We start questioning about the self and life when we are little, like two or three years old. “Why mom why are we here? Why am I supposed to do that and do this? What are the source of all beautiful and amazing creations around me?” See, we do not need to be a philosopher to ask those questions. We just humanly need to listen to our inner voice to seek the ultimate meaning and wisdom behind this world. We cannot stop thinking. The main duty of religion is to answer those questions. If they do not, it means they also serve people who want to only socialize and have some fun with company and food, like a good club:) We need to feed our spiritual hunger with a source/saying that claims to provide answers for these existential questions.

    To sum up, religion needs to be one’s consciously chosen identity — not an inherited cultural heritage, not an imitative practice passed down. Everything in the world is a sign, pointing, indicating elsewhere. I see Oneness and Unity everywhere. Belief is based on investigation, questioning and using human qualities rather than the cultural heritage of family, ethnicity, community. Religion should be the result of conscious awareness of oneself. Spirituality is within religion, if not, it cannot be religion, but just a cult or socialization.

    Your student from SOCL 320

  7. What a great discussion and blog. Much resonates with me. I, like many here, have traversed a variety of traditions including Christianity and devotional yogic practice. I now feel at times a little lost in the vastness of critique and questioning that surrounds contemporary spiritual life. In pursuit of being free from institutions something is perhaps lost; namely community and being with like minded others.
    My current concerns, that I have published on elsewhere, is the growth in what is named ‘spiritual care’ in health care. In of itself it seems a good focus. Yet on closer examination it hides spiritual experience, defines and constrains ‘what is spirituality to a set of ideas/assumptions, yet spirituality is inherent within human experience. Often beyond language and structures. Like religion and spirituality terms and words can get in the way.
    Go well in your thinking

  8. I am 48 yrs old, and am what I consider a spiritual person, My Mother was Catholic my Father was all faith/United , I was baptized Catholic , at age 14 I renounced my religion and walked out of the church and never looked back….. just because I walked away from organized religion certainly does not mean I walked away from God , do I read the Bible? …. not seriously no, to me the Bible is a wonderful history book chock full of the politics, values and morals of each writers time, was the Bible written by God?… no it certainly was not, it was written by man, and contains a great deal of each writers personal views … the gist of the Bible is still relevant today, and that is the basic ten commandments, the messages of peace love and harmony , that is pretty much it… the rest as they say is history , and it is a book of many contradictions.

    The Religious God is one of wrath, hell fire and brimstone, a angry God, a vengeful God …. everyone is going straight to Hell unless you repent God ….. a God that makes it okay to hate homosexuals, a God that makes it okay to deny any minority Equal Rights , a God that makes it okay to hate anyone for any reason ….. well that God is a complete and utter Jackwagon and not worthy of my attention .

    My God on the otherhand… loves everyone, regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of sexuality, even regardless of religion …. my God brings peace and balance to those that believe , my God does not condemn people for mistakes or who they love or the color of their skin , do I NEED a church to know God? no I do not, I pray and talk to my God daily in the comfort of my own home, I have no need or desire to try and convert anyone into believing in my God , God gave us free will, and it is our right to choose, and to keep him/her as we so desire ….

    Do I think religion or those who need religion are wrong?… no not at all, what ever works for you personally and what ever brings you closer to your God … how could that possibly be wrong? just religion and all its trappings are not my personal cup of tea … I will walk the path of self discovery and spiritual enlightenment , and leave religion for those that truly feel they need it 🙂

    so that is my personal thoughts and beliefs , I just think that Religion is not a requirement to know God nor is it required to have love for all mankind, nature the earth etc.

    1. Thank you for sharing your personal insight. I do think this “spiritual but not religious” sentiment began with the baby-boomers, but is being taken up by millennials with renewed vigor. I’m curious about the state of religion when millennials are in their later years.

    2. An excellent summation of ‘commonly shared’ contemporary beliefs. It’s fascinating how the ‘self-discovery’ and ‘spiritual enlightenment’ movement has taken the world by storm-but as you say, whatever works for the individual.

  9. Wow… I am entranced, by the writing and research you have done, Steve, and the questions you raise, but equally by the community you have gathered here in your comments! You have such a wide range of followers here, sharing openly, respectfully, from many points of view…

    Is this not exactly the direction you suggest society needs to, or is, moving toward? From what I have read here, and in response to some of your other posts, I see a community forming in support of one another, while celebrating the roots that make each of us unique, without harshness or judgment. It gives me hope that real healing (of individuals and society) is possible!

    Your “theories” are more than theoretical; they are practical. Your “experimental” approach has become “experiential,” and all of us are benefitting from it…

    Bravo, sir! And a sincere thank you for this blog and your work!

    1. Thank you for this wonderful comment, Lisa! You are right that this form of openness and respect are necessary values for a functional global community. “Unity in diversity” is the simplest way to frame this theoretical perspective based in Durkheim’s discussions of a “cult of the individual” as illustrated in an article titled “individualism and the intellectuals.” Thanks again for your comment.

  10. Great post. We just had this discussion in Sunday School last weekend. We talked a lot about making “church” culturally relevant to the younger families today who are already so over programmed. Also for the older folks who are slipping through the cracks. That’s my biggest area of interest. Am actively involved in Care Ministries at our church. I like the comment about roots and wings. I often think of that in terms of what we gave our kids as they were approaching adulthood. But you can’t HAVE wings without first having the roots. Too many people today (young and old) divorce themselves from that reality and want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s such a puzzle at the moment. Have you read Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christianity?” We just read it as a class. First chapters were a bit too technical for some, but overall the book was great. A bit short on practical advice, however.

    1. I’m glad to hear there are church groups dedicated to this issue. What particular denomination are you based in? Thank you for this book suggestion. I just downloaded it and will take a look. I also see he writes “naked spirituality,” which looks interesting as well!

  11. I am a Baby Boomer, brought up in a Christian home, with Presbyterian church background. I married a Southern Baptist minister and joined that faith. I saw a lot of good done in each of the church settings:the missions to help others, the family love felt and shown kids and adults in church suppers, the unifying sharing of religious celebrations, a center for the music I loved to sing and hear.
    But later as a minister’s wife I saw the power struggle among church members to have the church the way they wanted it; most of them claiming that their way was the way “God led them” to. I have seen a lot of meaness too. I found a lot of comfort in my church upbringing in the innocence of a child but was unprepared for these new findings.
    As an adult my religion has evolved to an open minded spirituality. I walk and live a spirit-filled life without a church. I have friends with whom I can talk freely with about “spiritual revelations” and my understanding has expanded to believe that “Spirit” reaches everyone in whatever ways they can best understand and accept Him/Her.
    I am filled with wonder, joy and love pretty much everyday of my life.
    Perhaps the church setting is a great place to start and wherever one decides to worship from there is the right path for that person. The only warning is be aware when new ideas are presented and examine them spiritually to see if they are right for you and your point in your spiritual growth.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences with the church. I completely agree with you that the church itself can function in beneficial ways for it’s attendees, but behind the scenes there are power struggles similar to any other social institution.

      1. Although I do not attend Church, and would consider myself ‘Spiritual’ opposed to ‘Religious’, it brings me great sadness to know such an institution in which specific social groups are so heavily invested, is perhaps tainted by the very human condition they so commonly antagonise-Ego. Excellent analysis Dr Rose, thank you, regards Nicole

  12. I am not a Millennial but I was never into religion because growing up I had access to multiple organized religions. But to be honest, even though they did have some great qualities, I never really fit into the idea of the religion. After my children were born I did some major soul searching and to the realization that in order to be closer to “God” you have to know yourself. I am still searching but I am at greater peace then I was when I was younger.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. There are a great deal more seekers without a home in contemporary western societies. This is for sure beneficial in the sense that we can come to know ourselves better, but I think having institutional support for this would be even better.

  13. Organized religion, with its many drawbacks (as enumerated above), has one major benefit: it keeps one connected to God (or the ultimate power). Being “spiritual” often translates into believing in a higher power but being too lazy to act on the responsibilities inherent in that knowledge. Organized religion reminds one of his/her obligations. And, yes, if you actually attend services, your personal spirituality will grow as long as you participate and listen.

    1. Well that presupposes that there is a God to be connected to. In any case, organized religion keeps one connected not to God but to the God of that religion, which is a concept half made up of rules for social order and particular ideological biases (e.g. is the ban on women priests in Christianity to be taken as part of God’s will or as having an ideological function?). If there is a God, there’s no reason to believe that (s)he is brought closer by our organized religions.

      1. This is exactly the issue I’ve been wrestling with. A sociological perspective argues that God is merely a social construction – a representation of ourselves projected into the sky. I agree with this perspective, but feel that there might be some sort of experiential truth – or spirituality – that can be facilitated by certain forms of religion, dispute their problematic tendencies throughout history, regarding exclusion and oppression. The question would be this: which aspects serve an ideological function and which aspects facilitate some form of “spiritual” growth. Perhaps the definition of spirituality here needs to be broadened.

      2. The ban on women priests is based on Jesus’ choice of all men for his apostles. However, women were helping Him and supporting him every step of the way. They didn’t have the ability to travel and give up their families to evangelize communities back then. Today, I have no doubt that Jesus would have chosen women and men to be his apostles. And by the way, I believe that there is one God who has taken many forms. We will find out that we’re all worshipping the same higher power. And if a person didn’t believe in a higher power, then he or she will probably have to come back and have a do-over.

  14. Religion is the opium of the masses; this insight of Karl Marx is seemingly still true and correct. So why is it attractive for so many people, because it offers some security in a world becoming more and more uncomprehensible. Nevertheless, all religions tend to have a mission, THEY WANT TO MISSION YOU! Such kind of missionary approach always implies the non-respect of other people’s beliefings, and this applies especially for extremist Christians (for example those crusading homosexuality or abortion) and radical Muslims (Salafists, IS, Boko Haram, Al-Kaida). But in Myanmar there are even extremist Buddhists who want to eliminate all Muslims in their country, and in India there is a strong nationalist Hindhu party/movement which also claims to have found the final wisdom for a society. This problem is not only an institutional issue, because all big religions claim a kind of philosophical totality which should normally not be questioned by its followers. All this is hindering a real free thinking / beliefing / vision of the cosmos.

    1. This is very much in line with a critical sociological perspective. I agree that these are problematic scenarios. I’m curious to know if you see a benefit in any form of religion, or do you think religion can be replaced or done away with altogether?

  15. I think this is the expression that I have been looking for “spiritual but not religious”. Religion has been used as a political tools by certain group of people to control people.

  16. Everyone is aspiring to the same peak of enlightenment, although it would greatly benefit any spiritual seeker to keep an open mind regarding the practices others have adopted as their own. Why? Because there are many paths to Nirvana, Valhalla, Heaven, etc. All that matters is whether or not the template or cultural filler works for you, as well as whether or not an individual’s practice causes harm (physical/mental/spiritual). No harm = no worries! Peace and blessings

  17. Westerners have been oblivious to Eastern religions/philosophies/beliefs until recently. The paternalistic, monotheistic intolerance of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have become too confining for anyone who seeks greater truths. Quantum physics aligns more with eastern mysticism than with our Big Daddy views about universal truths. I’m fond of the Oriental notion of “qi,” loosely translated “life force,” which emphasizes the intrinsically healing qualities of balanced living. Quality of life. Life scientist that I am.

  18. Those of us involved in 12 Step programs have benefitted from this distinction for many years. The founders of AA recognized that the solution to addiction would need to be spiritual in a broad sense but that many addicts had run afoul of religion. The distinction between spirituality and religion was made along with the concept “the God of one’s understanding”, thus opening the door to spiritual exploration without reliance on religion. For many of us, the distinction was/is liberating!

  19. Interesting topic. While not being interested in returning into religion in any way, because I find I soon become pigeon-holed for just showing up, I do find the roots, as you point out, beneficial.
    Beyond this, I can’t allow myself to stagnate spiritually. The process is always moving forward. Any kind of organization, I’ve found at least, inhibits this forward movement. It always wants to temper it, draw it back or package it so that it can assert its authority. This is firmly rejected.
    That is why I advocate finding that spiritual center individually. One does not need a system to be enlightened. Sure, it helps to share, but organization gets in the way. Let the One-on-One with Source play out as naturally as possible.

    1. You have a point. If world were full of enlightened people, there’d be no need for crusades, politics, etc. we already have everything we need.

  20. Very well said. I think people around the world are evolving/developing beyond a rote approach to their spirituality (following the dictates of an organized religion) to exploring it first-hand and becoming cognizant of the transcendental reality which is pervasive among all humanity.

  21. How is the experience encouraged, guided, and passed along through generations? What are its ethical manifestations? These and similar concerns soon point from personal discoveries to a wider circle and that, in turn, leads to religion. Not empty religion, mind you, but radical relationship.

    1. I love the way you framed religion as “radical relationship.” This fits well with a functionalist sociological perspective. Could you clarify more about what you mean by this concept?

      1. The short answer would put the focus on our everyday actions — our awareness of the presence of the Holy One (however an individual prefers to name this), on one hand, and our circle of kindred spirits (the original definition of church, actually) on the other.
        There’s nothing dogmatic or creedal in this, although doctrine (as in teaching) has a central role. The radical element has each of us digging into our feelings and observations in our quest for embodying and expressing divine love.
        My concern recognizes that none of us is very strong when we engage this as a solo act. At some point, we need a spiritual community and that, for me, is where we come to what I’ll call radical religion.

  22. Great post! Most mainline religions miss the importance of spirituality. The entertaining “worship”, the multiple programs and the quasi-deification of church leaders is not “spirituality”, it’s blasphemy.

  23. I am not a millennial and the above applies to me and the Baby Boomer’s too. In fact, I believe the above is universal to all generations. I grew up having been influenced with organized religion and I have to say some of what I experienced was not evoking of spirit. Yet, certain experiences within organized religion helped create a spiritual foundation for me. In the later part of my life, I tap into so many different spiritual evoking influences outside religious institutions, including tapping into readily available spiritual readings online, confirming to me that I still am on the path of deeper enlightenment. I am certain my quest to deepen my understanding of reality will not end any time soon!!

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