Good news about the ‘spiritual but not religious’
The rapid rise of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd may not be such a bad thing.
February 22nd, 2014
09:06 PM ET

Good news about the ‘spiritual but not religious’

Opinion by Linda Mercadante, special to CNN

(CNN) -
Despite the ongoing decline in American religious institutions, the meteoric rise in people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” should be seen positively - especially by religious people.

To accept this as good news, however, we need to listen to what they are saying, rather than ridicule them as “salad bar spiritualists” or eclectic dabblers.

After spending more than five years speaking with hundreds of “spiritual but not religious” folk across North America, I’ve come to see a certain set of core ideas among them. Because of their common themes, I think it’s fair to refer to them by the acronym: SBNR.

But before we explore what the SBNRs believe, we first need to learn what they protest.

First, they protest “scientism.” 

They’ve become wary about reducing everything that has value to what can only be discovered in the tangible world, restricting our intellectual confidence to that which can be observed and studied.

Their turn towards alternative health practices is just one sign of this. Of course, most do avail themselves of science’s benefits, and they often use scientific-sounding arguments (talking about “energy” or “quantum physics”) to justify their spiritual views.

But, in general, they don’t think all truth and value can be confined to our material reality.

Second, SBNRs protest “secularism.” 

They are tired of being confined by systems and structures. They are tired of having their unique identities reduced to bureaucratic codes. They are tired of having their spiritual natures squelched or denied.

They play by society’s rules: hold down jobs, take care of friends and family and try to do some good in the world. But they implicitly protest being rendered invisible and unheard.

Third, yes, they protest religion – at least, two types of it.

But the SBNR rejection of religion is sometimes more about style than substance.

On one hand, they protest “rigid religion,” objecting to a certain brand of conservatism that insists there is only one way to express spirituality, faith, and the search for transcendence.

But they also protest what I call “comatose religion.”

After the shocks of the previous decades, and the declines in religious structures and funding, many religious people are dazed and confused.

They are puzzled and hurt that so many – including their own children - are deserting what was once a vibrant, engaging, and thriving part of American society.

So why, then, is it “good news” that there is a huge rise in the “spiritual but not religious”? Because their protests are the very same things that deeply concern – or should concern – all of us.

The rise in SBNRs is the archetypal “wake up call,” and I sense that, at last, religious leaders are beginning to hear it.

The history of religion in Western society shows that, sooner or later, people grasp the situation and find new ways of expressing their faith that speak to their contemporaries.

In the meantime, there are plenty of vital congregations in our society. In the vast mall of American religious options, it is misguided to dismiss all of our spiritual choices as moribund, corrupt, or old-fashioned – even though so many do.

What has prompted SBNRs, and others, to make this dismissal?

For one thing, many religious groups are not reaching out to the SBNRs. They need to understand them and speak their language, rather than being fearful or dismissive.

Second, the media often highlights the extremes and bad behavior of a few religious people and groups.  But we don’t automatically give up on other collections of fallible human beings, like our jobs, our families, or our own selves.  Some attitude adjustment is needed by both religious people and SBNRs.

Finally, SBNRs need to give up the easy ideology that says religion is unnecessary, all the same, or outmoded. And all of us should discard the unworkable idea that you must find a spiritual or religious group with which you totally agree.  Even if such a group could be found, chances are it would soon become quite boring.

There’s no getting around this fact: It is hard work to nurture the life of faith. The road is narrow and sometimes bumpy. It is essential to have others along with us on the journey.

All of us, not just religious people, are in danger of becoming rigid or comatose, inflexible or numb.  All of us need to find ways to develop and live our faith in the company of others, which is, in fact, what religion is all about.

Linda Mercadante, is professor of theology at The Methodist Theological School and the founder of Healthy Beliefs – Healthy Spirit.  She is the author of “Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.

The views expressed in this column belong to Mercadante.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Lost faith • Nones • Opinion • Spirituality • Trends

soundoff (1,265 Responses)
  1. The Central Scrutinizer

    Christians, what if you are being lied to?

    I don’t mean by me or any atheist on a blog….

    I mean by your god.

    Indeed, what do you have to compare the bible to and how do you know it is not leading you astray?

    From my vantage point it is leading you horribly astray.

    Atheists like me look on in disbelief; unable to understand why you are so blind.

    It is a real head shaker.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:52 am |
    • conceptvbs

      Bling or not, they as a whole contribute to many good in society: charitable contributions, helping out the needy, the sick and poor. Giving structure, guidance and purpose in life in their own special way.

      I dont think it is all completely bad or wrong.

      February 23, 2014 at 11:22 am |
  2. alrussell22

    For many years I identified myself as an atheist. Being very "scientific" minded, I took exception to the fundamentalist habit of shunning new knowledge that might clash with existing religious paradigms. After I started learning more about higher level science, quantum physics and the like, I was forced to reexamine that position. Imagine trying to talk to a person from 5 thousand years in the past about the science we now understand. Unless they were one of the select few geniuses who are able to ascend beyond cultural constructs and imagine the impossible, they would not be capable of grasping most of the concepts, despite having essentially the same brain capacity. Now imagine someone from 5 thousand years in the future coming to talk to US. Most of us would simply have our tiny minds blown by advances we can't even conceive of yet. Science moves so quickly and our notions about the universe are constantly shifting. I love science, which is really just a term we place on our curiosity, but what we know now is paltry and insignificant. Just as I can't possibly grasp the true nature of the reality of science, I've had to admit that I also can't possibly grasp the true nature of the divine, sacred, God, whatever you want to call it. This is what led me to become more of a SBNR type person.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:50 am |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      Good post until you bailed out at the end.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:55 am |
      • sealchan

        What faith/agenda do you have that someone could be seen as bailing out from?

        February 23, 2014 at 11:18 am |
    • ausphor

      Good points. It must be remembered that religion(s) are one of the largest service industries on earth and millions of people make their living off of peddling their particular brand, including the author of the article (what earthly use is a professor of theology). I think most people that are leaving religions in droves are just sick of the greed shown by the hustlers of the scam. Another bling bishop story pops up in NJ to go along with the German bling bishop, TV evangelists living like princes, clergy of all major religions living the high life from the donations of the sheep. No need for any gods and I think those people 5000 years in the future would find our current religions to be barbaric and laughable.

      February 23, 2014 at 11:09 am |
  3. geodude11

    Religion is a means of control of the "masses". It welcomes morons, retards, the sick, the wealthy, the common, the whoever; as long as you pay tribute and worship as you are told. It is an object between mankind and the magical creator. The holy stories are recycled between religions, it worked for one for a thousand years, why not us! Fundamental to any religion is the ability of the believers to swallow the cool aid in an absence of intellect and fact.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:41 am |
    • Apple Bush

      Hey, my step-mother and my dad are religious. I am not sure what that has to do with anything but there it is.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:43 am |
  4. Apple Bush

    Cute girls in yoga pants on the beach.......I might join that religion.

    I was going to make a donation joke but decided it was in bad taste.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:41 am |
  5. Apple Bush

    Have you heard the good news?

    February 23, 2014 at 10:31 am |
  6. Apple Bush

    "All human beings are inherently spiritual, period."

    Proof please.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:28 am |
    • tomskorupski

      I would also like proof. Period.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:30 am |
    • SeaVik

      Hmm, I wonder what I am then because apparently I'm not a human being.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:32 am |
      • Apple Bush

        What are you?

        Follow up question, you can type??

        February 23, 2014 at 10:35 am |
      • tomskorupski

        What? What does that even mean?

        February 23, 2014 at 10:44 am |
      • ikenelson

        Ok, so you're not a human being, but you're at least a carbon-based life-form, aren't you?

        February 23, 2014 at 10:51 am |
        • djangoboy

          We don't know that for sure.

          February 23, 2014 at 12:13 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      That was for you Bill Graham. We would like your proof please.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:34 am |
      • ausphor

        I still like the over proof stuff, I know you shouldn't.

        February 23, 2014 at 10:52 am |
  7. box1813

    "Their turn towards alternative health practices is just one sign of this. Of course, most do avail themselves of science’s benefits, and they often use scientific-sounding arguments (talking about “energy” or “quantum physics”) to justify their spiritual views."

    In short they despise science except for when it provides a benefit to them.

    Absolutely no different from the rest of religion. Glad to see that willful ignorance will live on.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:27 am |
  8. calebboone

    Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:

    This Authoress has a Catholic and Jewish background, and is now a Presbyterian Minister teaching in a Methodist Seminary.

    That explains what she is hesitant to clearly state anything.

    Have a Dovely.

    Sincerely yours,
    Caleb Boone.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:26 am |
    • tomskorupski

      Thanks for making a clear straw man argument. Random person from the interwebs.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:29 am |
  9. SeaVik

    Next time someone thinks that some atheists are "extreme" for being so passionately anti-religion, here's a perfect example of why. Absolutely incredible – Arizona actually passed a law that allows businesses to discriminate if they can show it's due to religious reasons! Completely disgusting.


    February 23, 2014 at 10:25 am |
    • igaftr

      The best response I saw was a shop owner that reserved the right to not serve Arizona lawmakers.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:33 am |
  10. the0g0to0the0t

    I just think no two people have the same defintions for "spiritual" or "religious". Like "god" these terms are so nebulous that without concrete agreement on their meanings, people will invariably just go round and round debating their properties and missing each other's points.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:24 am |
  11. moatfrog

    The old adage, spiritual, is a joke. Yes, to believe in anything can enhance mental states. To sit like a buddha with hands together or like some sphinx makes no difference. There will always be those who believe they need a unique experience when attempting to conquer inner needs. This has been found to be better than nothing. Meditation soothes - as does CHRISTian prayer. Some of us prefer the double edged sword of spirituality and CHRISTianity. They are actually one and the same. Each of us is free to make our own choice. What is actually at stake here is faith. Faith as we observe it requires humility - a step down from our own self importance and realizing something so far beyond ourselves that to think we can understand it is to admit smugness. We prefer to keep our faith and pray (meditate) while on our knees. What we are witnessing today signals something that will have far more of you coming to your knees, not in naked spirituality, but in seeking sanctuary.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:18 am |
    • Alias

      you really need to get out more.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:21 am |
    • willthefree

      Well that was sure a load of nonsense.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:55 am |
  12. Keith

    It seems the spiritual not religious are a threat to the Fundamentalist Christians. Religion is about controlling people, Spirituality is about our connection to the Universe.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:13 am |
    • ugetthefacts

      agreed.. much like catholics in the USA, a free country. Yet they prefer reporting to the vatican dictatorship. o figure

      February 23, 2014 at 10:18 am |
      • Keith

        If you are not a Catholic you do not know what they do. In my life time it seems to me that the Pope they have now would be the perfect example of a Christian and good leader.

        February 23, 2014 at 10:37 am |
  13. nsarun

    Well both 'being Spiritual' and 'being Religious' have their places and importance. Before that one needs to understand the fundamental difference between the two.

    In being Religious, Faith comes first and knowledge later. And in being Spiritual it is the other way around. We make an informed, well....more of an inspired leap on to a path and build our faith brick by brick.

    So, considering a religious saint such as St. Francis of Assisi or St. Theresa of Avila, all they had was Faith to begin with. Unquestioningly they jumped their whole pure selves and they were flooded by knowledge. Faith is very very important. In fact a lot more powerful that anything else....because it is fueled by devotion. But for the world of technology and science of today, one naturally habitually chooses the path of reason and knowledge. Which will be a long winding road to the knowledge of the self.


    February 23, 2014 at 10:05 am |
    • ugetthefacts

      'St. Francis of Assisi or St. Theresa of Avila',, doctors without borders far surpasses that group. In fact the catholoc church loved to create stories and add even more fabrications later on. Like mother theresa, 'become catholic and I'll feed you'

      February 23, 2014 at 10:16 am |
    • tomskorupski

      The word spiritual is loaded with so much baggage that it needs to be defined first before it can be used. This makes the word so useless in regular conversation. Your distinction that spiritual means knowledge first faith later is your particular definition. Spiritual can definitely mean faith first and knowledge later for a lot of people. Spiritual can definitely mean that you are someone who assumes that there is a creator, assumes that there is a mystical magical life energy, assumes there is ghosts exist and then tries to make the knowledge or evidence fit that assumption. Spiritual needs to be filed away for now until as a culture we agree on what it means. Until then it needs to be shelved.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:19 am |
      • lngtrmthnkr

        Tom, To me spiritual means a connection with God , unfettered by the rigid boundaries of many religions and free to follow where it takes you.

        February 23, 2014 at 10:45 am |
        • djangoboy

          For others, spiritual has nothing whatsoever to do with "God."

          February 23, 2014 at 12:15 pm |
    • igaftr

      "Knowledge" must come after faith...it is faith to accept religious dogma as knowledge.
      You have belief...belief is not knowledge.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:25 am |
  14. josephavellino

    Religions are clubs which divide. That is not Christian behavior. Spirituality provides the freedom from those "us" vs "them" groups which allow for defining your own relationship with everyone and everything.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:04 am |
  15. blakenaustin

    Worldview is grounded in spirituality and religion. ALL people have a worldview and therefore are inherently both spiritual and religious. Even the atheistic secular humanist. Although some people better understand, can articulate, and work harder at consistently living out their worldview than others.

    My worldview is grounded in being a follower of Jesus and His mission. It is the worldview claimed by 33% of the world's population and over 75% of Americans. Although certainly not well understood, articulated, or consistently lived out by many that profess it.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:03 am |
    • Keith

      The only part Religion plays in my world view is my distain for it and my hatred for the Fundamentalist Christian church I was raised in.

      Spirituality however is how I came back to an understanding of God that rescued me from that hatred.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:17 am |
    • the0g0to0the0t

      "ALL people have a worldview and therefore are inherently both spiritual and religious."

      Not sure I'd agree with that unless your definition of "religion" is so broad as to be rendered meaningless.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:19 am |
    • djangoboy

      A worldview is a worldview, nothing more or less. It may include religion, spirituality, both, or neither. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

      February 23, 2014 at 12:16 pm |
  16. Vic


    My name is Vic, and I am an SBNR—Spiritual But Not Religious.

    Thank you Linda Mercadante.

    February 23, 2014 at 10:00 am |
  17. woodie

    When it comes to beliefs, it was always about the individual.

    February 23, 2014 at 9:57 am |
    • tomskorupski

      I'm not sure why belief has to be about the individual. I'm not sure what that statement even means.
      Belief is something someone believes, it should idealy come after the evidence is in and should always be tentative. It new evidence comes in, beliefs should be re-examined and false beliefs should be put into a dustbin.

      February 23, 2014 at 10:23 am |
  18. magicpanties

    "... All of us need to find ways to develop and live our faith in the company of others, which is, in fact, what religion is all about...

    Yep, shared delusion, that's it in a nutshell.

    February 23, 2014 at 9:54 am |
  19. Owl Creek Observer

    So apparently it doesn't matter WHAT you believe, but only how you FEEL about what you believe. Create your god in your own image and all will be well. Wow.

    February 23, 2014 at 9:52 am |
    • alonsoquixote

      "On the sixth day, God created man. On the seventh day, man returned the favor."

      ~ Unknown

      February 23, 2014 at 10:24 am |
  20. Bill Graham

    All human beings are inherently spiritual, period. It has nothing to do with religion. Science hasn't identified that component yet, but it may do so in time. I don't put my trust only in what I can see, but science helps us understand the phenomenon around us better. It is true that many more questions surface for every question science answers, but that is also what gives rise to greater curiosity, exploration and discovery. That fact, all by itself, is a spiritual enterprise; however, it is not the same thing as religious dogma. It does not say, for example, that we must uphold tradition and teaching at the expense of discovery. It is not threatened by better information. It absorbs to the better information and improves the existing knowledge, and that is what science does. Those who are strictly religious must uphold tradition and dogma, even at the expense of better knowledge. There are some who hold on to their faith loosely; they are more flexible with regard to discovery. Faith has a place, however, and that is for those things that science has not answered. Is there life after death? Science does not answer that question at this time and probably never will. I do not know myself, but I don't think those who believe in an afterlife are being any more unreasonable than those who deny it. My stance on the afterlife is that we can't possibly know if it exists for sure or what it holds in store for us. My stance on a supernatural deity is that I have no proof of the existence of one, but that doesn't mean one could not exist. I just don't know who or what that deity is.

    By the way, I went to a bible college and a seminary, so you can hold all the comments about being able to find that deity. I've been down that road. I saw what it had to offer and I turned away from it for very good reasons. I do not have a strictly scientific mindset, but I put a lot more trust in science than religion at this point in my life. I celebrate the diversity of religion in this world, but I have had my fill of it for my own life.

    February 23, 2014 at 9:50 am |
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