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

But Henry, who is affiliated with the Church of God in Christ, isn't hostile toward religion. She attended church regularly growing up, but in Utah, where she and her husband moved because of a job transfer, she doesn't attend church often because of her work schedule with the Federal Aviation Administration. And there is also the factor that as an African-American she doesn't have as strong ties with the local congregation as she does with believers in her hometown of Greenville, Miss.

“I should go to church more than I do. I miss out on the fellowship … and the chance to grow spiritually," she said. "I have my church music that I listen to, and I watch some of the ministries on TV. I am not in the spiritual-only camp."

Ammerman argues that her research revealed that both the affiliated and unaffiliated are misinformed about each other.

"The 'religion' being rejected turns out to be quite unlike the religion being practiced and described by those affiliated with religious institutions," she wrote. "Likewise, the 'spirituality' being endorsed as an alternative is at least as widely practiced by those same religious people as it is by the people drawing a moral boundary against them."

Henry would agree.

"To some, religion seems like something that says you can’t do this and you can’t do that," she said. "They don’t understand that when you get into a relationship with God, you don’t have the desire to do (things proscribed by your faith). So, it’s not like you are being deprived."

Common ground

Based on the analysis of their personal stories, most of the people in Ammerman's sample were either both spiritual and religious or neither. Only five of the 95 appeared to fit the definition of "spiritual but not religious" in their practices.

"The dearth of actual practitioners of 'spirituality' who are not also drawing on religious communities and traditions reinforces the empirical picture that has consistently emerged from surveys as well," she wrote.

A Pew Research Center survey in 2012 found that the number of people who are not affiliated with a religion had increased 5 percent since 2007. That same survey found 18 percent of Americans identified themselves as spiritual but not religious, while 59 percent identified as both, and just 5 percent said they were religious but not spiritual.

But Ammerman explained that without digging deeper to find out why people identify as spiritual but not religious, the numbers can be used to create a "simple-minded" narrative of church attendance declining because people are rejecting organized religion and becoming individually spiritual.

She contends her research reveals the story is more complex, showing more common than uncommon spiritual practices and beliefs between those who say they are religious and those who don't.

"When we start drawing the lines starkly between religion and spirituality, we miss a lot of what’s going on inside religious communities. And we mischaracterize a lot of the people who aren’t in those communities," she said.

Stetzer agrees, saying Christianity is experiencing a collapse of nominal or "squishy" Christians — those who once identified with the faith, if only culturally, but now say they don't belong to anything. Those same people and others now outside of the church may not see Christianity as their first choice in their quest for spiritual fulfillment, but they are still seeking and asking questions.

"I don't think that is a bad thing," he said. "This is an opportunity to say real Christianity is when we live as Jesus has desired us to live and that is something different than cultural Christianity and is worth looking at."

Christian writer Rachel Held Evans recently wrote a piece for CNN's Belief Blog explaining why she came back to church after once counting herself among the spiritual but not religious.

"But eventually I returned, because, like it or not, we Christian millennials need the church just as much as the church needs us," she wrote, describing the practices and beliefs that can only be experienced within a congregation.

Ammerman said if faith leaders will listen and broaden their measures of religiosity and spirituality, they can connect with those who shun organized religion but value the spiritual and still embrace religious beliefs and practices.

"There is a great deal more commonality and openness between religious communities and the larger population than religious communities realize," she said.

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown

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