How Many Americans Are “Spiritual, But Not Religious”?

I’ve described my current research project as a “spiritual, but not religious” biography of Charles Lindbergh. A non-churchgoer who never identified with any particular religion, the famous aviator nonetheless read religious texts, lost much of his early faith in science and technology, and grew increasingly interested in matters spiritual and supernatural.

Erlandson, Spiritual But Not Religious
An early use of the phrase was the title of this 2000 book

In part, what drew me to that project was a curiosity about the much-reported growth of the “spiritual, but not religious” population in present-day America. As someone who applies both adjectives to himself, I’ve wondered why and how others reject one but embrace the other. Hopefully, Lindbergh’s past will help me understand a trend that seems to be reshaping the future of the church and its mission.

But here in the present day, just how many Americans are actually spiritual, but not religious (SBNR, for the rest of this post)? Two recent surveys come to different conclusions.

In September, Pew Research Center reported that 27% of Americans are SBNR, up eight points from five years ago. Strikingly, that rate of growth holds true for most groups: men and women; whites, blacks, and Hispanics; Democrats and Republicans. (We’ve found something that unifies Americans! At least, a quarter of them…) Only among those with no more than a high school population and those aged 65 or over was the rate of change much lower — and still up 3%, in both cases. Finally, Pew reports that the growth in SBNR seems to have come almost entirely at the expense of the “spiritual and religious” category, down eleven points.

But the results had some paradoxical features. Over 60% of SBNR Americans identify with a particular religion (mostly Christianity). One in six attend religious services at least once a week: half the national average, but still much higher than you’d expect of avowedly non-religious people. For that matter, more than a quarter actually say that religion is very important to them. (Perhaps mentally substituting “spirituality” for religion…)

How is that possible? Pew didn’t assume that SBNR would be “religious nones.” Instead, it asked respondents if they were spiritual and if they were religious. (As does the General Social Survey.) Those who said yes to the former and no to the latter became SBNR for the purposes of the survey.

Contrast Pew’s results, then, with a new survey from Florida State University and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). It found that the SBNR resemble the rest of the population, albeit younger, more liberal, and more highly educated. But it also found that SBNR accounts for only 18% of the population, ten points lower than Pew.

PRRI didn’t ask respondents if they were religious or spiritual. Instead researchers determined whether someone was “religious” based on how they described the importance of religion in their lives and their attendance at worship. (And most still identified with a particular religious tradition, as in the Pew survey.) Being “spiritual” was tied to a set of eight measures, including purpose and connection.

“Are they growing, are they shrinking? We don’t know,” PRRI research director Dan Cox told Catholic News Service. “Interest in spirituality is increasing. There’s some signs of that.”