National Edition

Religious vs. spiritual: Study says the truly 'spiritual but not religious' are hard to find

Published: Friday, Aug. 16 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, July 22 2014 12:36 p.m. MDT

The term "spiritual but not religious" has, over the last decade, evolved from an academic definition to a widely used label for people who have abandoned traditional congregations in favor of a more solitary form of belief and worship.

But new research by a Boston University sociologist has found that the ideas of "spirituality" and "religiosity" are rarely at odds but intersect often in the daily lives of people as they describe their spirituality.

As one study participant who attends an Episcopal church north of Boston said, “I think of myself as spiritual. Because it doesn’t matter what church I’m in. I am who I am.”

And when people do draw a boundary between spirituality and religiosity, they are often making a political or moral statement rather than describing what they believe.

"People who occupy this spiritual-but-not-religious category are really few and far between if you look at what people believe and practice," said Nancy Ammerman, author of the study published in a recent issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. "You have to ask people what are they trying to tell us when they talk about themselves that way."

And their answers paint a more complex picture of individuals’ religious experience that can give faith leaders more insight into how best to communicate and find common ground with those who have a spiritual dimension to their lives but a negative perception of organized religion.

“ ‘Spiritual but not religious' is a polling category, and people aren't polls," said Ed Stetzer, a pastor who also heads LifeWay Research, a Christian polling group affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. "As someone in the ministry, it is necessary to recognize that every person has a story to tell that defines (the spiritual and religious) differently. … Each person is made in the image of God and it's worth understanding their thoughts so you can communicate to them an understanding of the gospel."

Spiritual packages

Ammerman, a scholar on American congregations who has recently examined personal beliefs and practices, gathered hundreds of those personal stories as part of a larger project recently published in the book "Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life."

She explained that sociologists and pollsters offer a limited range of responses — such as not, slightly, moderately or very — when asking people if they consider themselves religious or spiritual.

But those responses provide a shallow, one-dimensional picture that doesn't capture the full depth of an individual's beliefs or spirituality.

"There is a methodological issue here of how we have asked the questions and how we have imputed meaning to a particular group that falls into a particular cell of a two-by-two table," Ammerman said. "But it is much more than that. It's also about how our larger culture has picked up this term of 'spiritual but not religious' to describe a certain group of people."

To find out what people mean when they called themselves "spiritual but not religious," Ammerman's research team recruited a group of people reflecting America's religious landscape to be interviewed about their beliefs and practices. The volunteers were also given disposable cameras to snap photos of places important to them and asked to periodically record an oral diary about memorable experiences during the day.

While the sample was small — 95 people from Boston and Atlanta representing Catholics, conservative and liberal white Protestants, African-American Protestants, Jews, Mormons, neo-pagans and the unaffiliated — the interviews, photos and recordings produced about 1,000 personal stories that were put into a database and analyzed for their religious and spiritual content.

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