What does it mean to be 'Spiritual but not Religious'? – Darice Cairns
Darice Cairns
The Art of Finding Truth, One Man's Journey Through Love, Life, Grief and Joy

Defining yourself as ‘spiritual and not religious’ is a growing trend among many people in American and Canada.

What exactly does this trend towards ‘spiritual’ but ‘not religious’ mean?

Is Christianity actually less popular today than it was in the past? Are people leaving their religion, and if so, why?

What does it mean to be ‘spiritual’ but not religious?

If you identify with being spiritual but not religious or you are wondering what it means, then this blog is for you!

Spirituality and Religion

“Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), also known as “Spiritual but not affiliated” (SBNA), is a popular phrase and initialism used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality. It does not regard organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion. But in contemporary usage, spirituality has often become associated with the interior life of the individual, placing an emphasis upon the well-being of the mind-body-spirit while religion refers to organizational or communal dimensions (that is straight out of Wikipedia).

Is there a Universal Truth in all Religions?

The Dali Lama came to believe that the common thread running through all religions is compassion. However, isolating the core truth in all religions can be challenging when you have your own strong beliefs about what it is. In other words, it is difficult to be objective about something that so subjective.

Two women are sitting down and praying at a temple in Myanmar with the sun setting in the background.
All religions have a common thread. Photo by Matteo Massimi on Unsplash

Regardless, if we employ a ‘broad’ understanding of this concept we might come up with a list like the one below. In Great Principles Shared by all Regions, Jeffery Moses describes the core beliefs that all religions have in common. They are based on many well known – universally accepted moral values such as;

  1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Christianity)
  2. Honour they, mother and father
  3. Speak the truth (Confuscious)
  4. It is more blessed to give than receive.
  5. Heaven is within (Sikhism).
  6. Love thy neighbour /conqueror with love / all you need is love.
  7. Blessed are the peacemakers.
  8. You reap what you sow.
  9. Man does not live by bread alone.
  10. Do not harm.
  11. Forgiveness.
  12. Judge not lest ye be judged.
  13. Be slow to anger.
  14. There is but one God / God I love. (God might also refer to other equally meaningful names such as ‘the Divine’ … depending on your orientation)
  15. Follow the spirit of the scriptures, not the words. (Scriptures might also refer to other equally meaningful names such as ‘the book brought done from heaven…)

All religions strive to create unity and community, among countries and individuals.

The Changing Religious Landscape

There is a difference in religious trends between high-income and low-income countries. The majority of reports agree that religion is less popular today among high-income countries than it was previously. From 2007 to 2020, an overwhelming majority (43 out of 49) of these same countries became LESS religious. This decline in belief is strongest in high-income countries, but it is also evident across most of the world. Furthermore, the decline is most rapid in America when compared to all countries studied (Inglehart, December 2020).

In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion. This is down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.

Other ‘Religious Landscape Studies’ carried out between 2007 and 2014 by the Pew Research show clear signs of a trend towards religious disaffiliation. The data collected also shows that religious attendance is declining. This trend is particularly prevalent with younger generations.

A Christian or roman catholic church painted light blue stands proud on a small hill with a cloudy sky.
The church of holy worship. Photo by Matteo Massimi on Unsplash

Why Are People are Leaving Religion?

Several forces are driving this trend away from religion. The most powerful one is the waning grip of beliefs closely linked with the imperative of maintaining high birth rates.

Politics also explains some of the declines, particularly in America. For example, some political parties have attempted to appeal to religious voters by adopting conservative positions on same-sex marriage, abortion, and other cultural issues. This has subsequently pushed other voters away from religion.

Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church has lost adherents because of its own crises. Many American Catholics said that they have scaled back attendance at mass in response to Catholic priests’ reports of sexual abuse (Inglehart, 2020).

About half (52%) of all U.S. adults who were raised Catholic have left the church at some point in their lives. A significant minority of them returned, but most (four-in-ten of all those raised Catholic) have not (Caryle Murphy, 2015).

Do We Need Religion?

Some religious conservatives say that without religion, society’s morals would decline, and social cohesion and public morality would collapse. Yet, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. Surprising as it may seem, less religious countries actually tend to be less corrupt and have lower murder rates than religious ones (Ronald Inglehart, Dec. 7th, 2020).

As traditional religion declines, an equally strong set of moral norms seems to fill the void. Survey evidence from countries containing over 90% of the world’s population indicates that in highly secure and secular countries, people are giving increasingly high priority to self-expression and free choice. There is also a growing emphasis on human rights, tolerance of outsiders, environmental protection, gender equality, and freedom of speech.

As societies develop towards a knowledge-based society, growing stability and security tend to reduce religion’s importance in people’s lives. That trend seems likely to continue.

However, pandemics such as the outbreak of COVID-19 in late 2020 reduce peoples’ sense of existential security. If the pandemic were to last for many years and lead to more insecurity in other areas of life, then this trend of people leaving religion could reverse itself as people search for more stability in their lives.

Ronald Inglehart notes that the long-term outlook is for public morality to be less determined by traditional religions and increasingly shaped by the culture of growing acceptance of outgroups, gender equality, and environmentalism emerging in recent decades.

And that is exactly what seems to be happening now. While people are pulling away from religion, they are NOT giving up on their faith or spiritual beliefs.

A growing trend is emerging with people becoming spiritual but not religious.

What does it mean to be Spiritual?

Spirituality is becoming increasingly popular these days. The word ‘spirituality’ or being ‘being spiritual’ has moved beyond its traditional roots in religion and is now used in increasingly diverse areas of life.

There are many good reasons why spirituality or spiritualism is so popular these days. It is becoming a belief system shared by a growing number of people in the world.

Spirituality is assumed to be available to everyone, whether you are connected to religion or not. People who claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ might refer to this guiding force in their life as God, the Divine, the mighty power, or the all-knowing.

A young woman sits on the ground in the forest praying and with her eyes closed and a big smile on her face.
You don’t need a church to practice prayer. Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash

A New Spiritual Movement

I like how Philip Sheldrake’s (2017) defines ‘spirituality.’ He sees it as a source of values and authority from within. The growing popularity of spirituality is enticing due to a growing mistrust among citizens worldwide with external authority such as politicians, church and public leadership. This has driven people to take their faith into their own hands and take ownership of their own beliefs.

Spirituality is an aspirational word and has a lot to do with how human beings can reach their full potential. ‘Spirituality’ is at the heart of all great ancient philosophers and ethical systems. It isn’t entirely individual but is also social in its implications. Spirituality is used in many professional and public fields such as business, health care, and even now, it is used in public policy and leadership.

This new emergence of ‘spirituality’ might involve meditation and other practices that improve striving to be more conscious and self-reflective. These practices are often more than just something of the mind and often push people to go beyond their mind. Spirituality involves a commitment of one’s body and physical life; it is a life practice.

Spirituality points towards meaning and a desire for greater enlightenment. It embraces the personal risk of being changed or transformed. Spirituality aspires to free oneself from bad behaviour patterns that can be self-destructive and subsequently destructive to others. It pushes the individual to strive to be a better person, not only for themselves but also for others, whether that is their family, loved ones, business, workplace, community, and beyond.

Spiritualism involves a definite sense of direction and reaches out towards an ultimate purpose beyond living just in the moment. It is holistic, and not just about one aspect of life, but about life as a whole. It is about understanding oneself – through deep self-reflection – as a whole and for the greater good of all.

Last but not least, this new spiritual movement is evolving and gaining momentum in truly amazing ways. It is breaking new ground, and challenging the very religions it sprang from.

A colourful picture of a person sitting in meditation with white light rays radiating around them from their body.
A new movement of ‘spiritual’ but not religious is emerging and challenging world religions.

My Views

For myself, I am ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Prayer is a daily practice, and I believe in a Divine force. I strive to be more conscious every day along with setbacks that are inevitable with living in a physical world. I read many resources that strengthen awareness of inner knowledge. Among other books and resources, I also read the bible for spiritual direction. I practice self-reflection, meditation and am constantly challenging myself to see the world in new ways, embrace change and bring my best (authentic) self to the world.

Spirituality is much more than a ‘New Age thing.’ It has evolved and continues to grow into a powerful, spiritual movement that might eclipse all religions. We are part of an exciting new shift in what faith and spirituality is and can be. And that is very exciting!

People to Watch

Want more information from cutting-edge people who help define what the new spirituality movement might look like? Want to know how it can change your life and the world? Then check out these trailblazers, scientists, writers, and researchers; Dr. Joe Dispenza; Gregg Braden; Bruce Lipton; Lynne Taggart; Miceal Ledwith; John Maglin; Candace Pert; Fred Alan Wolf; Eckhart Tolle; Neville Goddard; David Hawkins; J. Krishnamurti… there’s more, but that’s a start.

Are you spiritual and not religious? I’d love to hear from you!

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