Q&A: ‘Spiritual but not religious’: What does that mean?

A growing number of people describe themselves now as “spiritual but not religious.” Linda Mercadante, professor of theology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, spent years researching the beliefs of “SBNRs,” and now she’s on a mission to help churches to better engage them. Dr. Mercadante spoke by phone with staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are excerpts.

Who are the “spiritual but not religious”?

A common assumption many people make is that SBNRs operate outside the world of organized religion. I’ve found, however, that many of the people who regularly or irregularly show up in the pews apply the SBNR label to themselves. For my interviews, I would go to churches and talk to church members, thinking they would suggest their children, friends or relatives for me to interview. They did, but some would come up and whisper to me, so the pastor couldn’t hear, “Actually, you should interview me.”

This happened day after day. Scratch below the surface of an average Protestant or Catholic church and you will find many who resonate to the SBNR description. They may attend church on Sunday but during the week pursue meditation, yoga, Reiki sessions, energy work, A Course in Miracles, or read books by such non-Christian gurus as Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. Oftentimes, clergy themselves are among them.

Linda Mercadante

When people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” what do they mean?

It means they’re taking authority away from the organization, or the institution, or the authority figures, which they assume have held broad authority over people’s lives. They’re assuming they have the right to choose what to believe and how to practice, and they think this is something religions don’t want to allow. So they’re reacting to the idea that organized religion would like to assert authority over them and tell them how to behave, and they do not want to grant that right. In truth, organized religion hasn’t had that kind of authority over vast numbers of the population for a long time.

Do you think these folks are reacting to stereotypes of Christians rather than from their direct experience?

I think it does come, in part, from portrayals of conservative Christianity in the media, as some kind of hegemonic, monolithic authority. This whole thing is fraught with stereotypes. Most people don’t take the time to listen to each other, to ask questions. There are terrible misconceptions on both sides, as to what Christians are, and what SBNRs are. SBNRs see “religion” as the external structure and the dogma, whereas “spirituality” is the individual’s personal experiences of transcendence. That definition really is not an accurate portrayal of religion or of spirituality. Nevertheless, the majority of my interviewees insist that spirituality is the personal center and quest for an individual, whereas religion is something external, rule-ridden and institutional. In their thinking, religion is nothing more than a dispensable shell.

So is there a dichotomy—people believe they’re spiritual, as opposed to being religious?

This isn’t a deep philosophical tenet but more of a rhetorical strategy to get out from under the weight of traditional authority. Clearly it is also a very useful strategy for those who are selling alternative spiritualties. It’s part of a wider pattern that dates back to the Enlightenment, what scholars call de-traditionalization. It’s been building for a very long time.

What about the image that some church folks might have, of SBNRs as self-absorbed?

I found very few who would fit the criteria for genuine narcissism. However, I do think our society has a very therapeutic mentality which encourages people to be self-absorbed. Everybody is living in a therapeutic ethos, and that holds everywhere, including in churches. I think people identify religion with self-sacrifice. SBNRs think religion will force them to be group-oriented. But as it functions today, church really isn’t very group-oriented. The church preaches the therapeutic gospel almost as much as everybody else.

The practical difficulty with the SBNR ethos is, at least among my many interviewees, that the people who self-identify as SBNR often have only fleeting, fragile, temporary commitments to groups. The problem is that it’s very hard to do good on your own. Christianity, at its best, is really a communal religion. SBNRs may be public-spirited and they may want to help others, but given their strong anti-institutional bent they tend to ‘shoot themselves in the foot.’ In other words, it is hard to do good by yourself. All alone, you certainly can’t change society. This “spiritual but not religious” trend seems harmless, but it could have some social repercussions about the common good that are unintended. SBNRs will argue against this vociferously—they’ll say, “But I do want to help, I do want to do good.” I see that and I also recognize that, of course, organizations are fallible, human things. But if you distrust them so profoundly, there are going to be consequences. Sorry, but a good heart is not enough.

Is there anything you can say demographically about SBNRs?

From my intensive series of interviews over the past few years with people who regard themselves as SBNR, I’ve learned that many popular assumptions about this group are off target. For my research, I made a real effort to try to recruit adults from all ages—from members of the Greatest Generation to Millennials in their early 20s. I’ve found that the SBNR ethos cuts across all generations. But the largest number of people I spoke to who considered themselves SBNR were the baby boomers. They were instrumental in starting the contemporary version of this ethos. While the SBNR is a fairly common designation among younger people, they didn’t feel so compelled to talk to me about it. The baby boomers, however, would run me down and insist I interview them!

Many people assume that SBNRs are folks who have been wounded by the church. True?

No, that’s not what I have been hearing among my many conversation partners. Remember that my research is qualitative, not quantitative. I did in-depth, one-on-one interviews, and I listened to lots of people for hours. I didn’t get what I expected. I expected to hear how people had been hurt by the church, had been abused, or had come from strict fundamentalist church backgrounds. My research didn’t bear that out. I’m not trying to minimize the hurts some folks have experienced, but it’s not a big impetus for people becoming SBNR. I think the church can stop this mea culpa attitude, this idea of “What have we done to hurt them?” That’s not what’s keeping SBNRs out of the church.

How can people in churches respond to this trend?

There are the folks that I call “casuals” who dip in and out of spiritual communities on an as-needed basis, for their own therapeutic good. It’s going to be hard to engage them. But there are also SBNRs who are dedicated spiritual seekers, and we should honor their quest, the fact that they are searching. So I would say, try to be a good listener and appreciate what the SBNRs have to say. We can look at our church structures to see if we’re missing some of the things that SBNRs wish they could find in religion: for more vital experiential things, for vital communities. The church can provide that, and it has often done that. SBNRs are looking for integrity, wisdom, kindness and love. They’re looking for flexibility and willingness to experiment. They don’t want everything to be the same old same old, although, some do want the most ancient practices and beliefs.

The rise of SBNRs represents a theological sea change that may quietly but profoundly alter the spiritual and theological landscape of America. Whether this alteration becomes beneficial or harmful to existing institutions depends at least partly on how institutions respond. Churches open to the things on the surface that SBNRs look for—informality, nonhierarchical leadership, recognition of diversity, deep participation—are more likely to be comfortable for SBNRs. But such surface changes go only so far. Even more important than dispelling stereotypes about SBNRs is engaging them theologically. Unless the church takes seriously the theological reasons that they give for staying away from organized religion, any efforts to engage this population will be hampered. SBNRs represent an opportunity for churches to reinvigorate their ability to speak and think theologically.

Churches may well make the more superficial changes that SBNRs look for and have some success at attracting people with one foot in and one foot out of the church. Attending to opportunities for spiritual growth—such as offering classes on Christian meditation and other spiritual disciplines—will also be helpful. But these efforts will likely not attract the more serious seekers, the ones with the most potential for challenging churches to grow spiritually and theologically.

It seems to me that part of what churches need to do is to explain and “sell” the value of commitment to a group.

I couldn’t agree more. Commitment to a group is something that our society does not teach, and it’s something people feel they have every right to reject. That would be the biggest takeaway. We should be counterintuitive and even countercultural. The culture makes religion a consumer product. The culture says, “If it’s not working for you, walk away.” But those of us in the Christian faith, we know about the dark night of the soul.

Sometimes you pray and pray and only eventually do you finally get an answer.

We practice liturgies, and they don’t make sense every single day, but there’s a value in showing up. The benefit is that, one day, things do click into place. We need to be countercultural in this culture which doesn’t value commitment, which doesn’t value showing up, which doesn’t value doing something when it’s not paying off immediately. That’s a gift the church can offer.

We understand the value of community. SBNRs often don’t yet appreciate that religious community has great deep value, how it’s healthy and spiritually enlightening. To plant deep and grow roots is a very good thing for a human being to do. We also bring to the table a long history of social action which is very important. Society doesn’t have many places where you can link up with others and transform society. That’s something we can offer. In order to do that you need to be committed, to show up, to build trust. Our culture doesn’t foster trust, commitment or deep personal ties. We have all of that to offer and I want to help the church recognize this.

For more information, visit www.healthybeliefs.org/programs-seminars/spiritual-but-not-religious/.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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in Pensacola

Left Methodism about five years ago. The conference I live in (Ala/W Fla) is simply Baptist/Assembly theologically. I would actually latch back to Methodism if the conference, its districts, and pastors followed the beliefs established and published by the General Conference. For the scientifically-minded and career person, like me, insistence on 6 day creation events, promotion of conservative political causes and media outlets on district and conference websites, and assumptions by pastors and congregations that since I am white and at a church, I must be conservative and Republican, was simply too far away from Methodism. I could not continue… Read more »


This article has some of the most insightful thoughts, says some things so well, points to situations and solutions so well… Yes. And not only on the topic at hand.

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