Spiritual But Not Religious: Misunderstood and Here to Stay

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, Ellye O'Brian, left, Jennifer Levi, center, work out with fitness instructor Dana
In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, Ellye O'Brian, left, Jennifer Levi, center, work out with fitness instructor Dana McCaw during their fitness class at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif. City officials say the park is being overrun by people operating everything from boot camps to yoga classes to massage therapy sessions. Officials are considering making such operators cut the city in on 15 percent of their profits and pay an annual $100 permit fee for the right to do business in the park. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

A great deal has been written about that ever-expanding group of Americans who check "none" when asked about their religious affiliations. The segment of nones who call themselves "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR) now constitute at least 20 percent of the population, and 30 percent of those under 30 years of age. I have interviewed hundreds of this important cohort for my books, and I find that the media commentary about them is riddled by misconceptions.

One problem concerns why people disconnect from the religious tradition of their birth. The most prevalent explanation is the one favored by scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." They attribute disaffiliation mainly to the perceived link between religion and conservative politics -- a turnoff to liberal-minded youth in particular.

I don't buy it. There is no doubt that the judgmental moralizing of right-wing preachers has alienated a great many Christians, but that doesn't explain SBNR. Believers who disdain fundamentalism have plenty of left-leaning denominations and apolitical congregations to turn to. I see it as more of a spiritual issue than a political one. The "S" in SBNR means something. In varying degrees, SBNRs are serious about their spiritual development, and they wish to pursue it wherever it leads them. The search itself is the chief identifier. It's the questing, not the nesting. If traditional religion gave them the inner experience they yearn for; if it answered the big existential questions in a satisfying way; if it truly nourished their desire for spiritual growth, they'd stay instead of stray.

Which brings me to another misconception, that SBNRs are dilettantes, like serial daters who can't commit. Yes, there are plenty of superficial dabblers among them, but not as many as commentators assume. In fact, I would wager that, on average, they spend far more time in meditation, prayer, study of sacred texts, devotional activities, group discussions and other actual practices than the conventionally religious. Let's face it, a large percentage of people who call themselves religious engage their faith for a couple of hours a week at most, and many only on holidays. As someone once said, sitting in church and thinking you're spiritual is like sitting in a garage and thinking you're a car.

SBNRs who devote time to their spirituality are basically mystics -- pragmatic, in-the-world mystics who probe the great mysteries from the inside out and try to live up to their spiritual standards. A 2009 Pew survey found that spiritual experiences, defined as a "moment of sudden religious insight or awakening," occur much more frequently now than they did in 1962, 1976 or 1994, when similar studies were done. That tracks with the rise of the SBNR phenomenon, and indeed the report said that "these kinds of experiences are particularly common among the 'religious unaffiliated.'"

Which leads to another misconception: that SBNRs are spiritual anarchists who reject all spiritual authority. Not so. They recognize the need for guidance, but they get it from multiple sources. A modern seeker can be, as anthropologist Richard Schweder put it, "the student and beneficiary of all traditions, and the slave to none."

Finally, there is the assumption that SBNRs suffer from a lack of community. There is truth in this: clearly, one price of spiritual independence is the loss of fellowship, which the venerable religions do a good job of providing. Two things must be said about this. First, a great many SBNRs acknowledge that missing ingredient and try to fill the gap with informal, often leaderless and heterogeneous groupings. Interesting new forms of spiritual community will probably develop over time. Second, many SBNRs are connected to communities, only they revolve around a yoga studio, a Hindu guru or a Buddhist lineage.

This alludes to an important, but little recognized fact: SBNRs are heavily oriented to Eastern ideas and practices, only they're more likely to check the None or SBNR box than the Hindu or Buddhist box. There are many reasons for this, among them the fact that the gurus, roshis, swamis and lamas who brought their traditional teachings to the West never asked anyone to convert, or to give up their own religions, or even to view their involvement as a religious rather than a secular pursuit.

SBNRs are as diverse and complex as any other spiritual cohort. They are here to stay, and their numbers will surely grow as pluralism evolves and access to the world's wisdom becomes even easier. It could be the most important religious development of our time, so let's make sure we understand it.