With every new survey, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans grows. Some self-identify as atheists, some agnostic, and in a 2012 Pew poll, nearly one in five checked the box for “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).

But what does that mean?

“Not religious” seems straightforward enough. The SBNR (as this cohort has come to be known) are not affiliated with any institutional religion. But to say “I’m spiritual” suggests an openness to religious wisdom—without the false trappings and mendacity of religious dogma, rituals, or hierarchies. At the same time, the statement can be ascribed to those who canvass multiple traditions, mining their spiritual wisdom and practice not for dry doctrine but for the juice of peak experience.

In being suspicious of organized religion, SBNRs contest any claim to absolute authority and point out the complicity of organized religion in sustaining gender inequalities and structural racism and in perpetuating unfair forms of economic, social, and political power.

Instead, the spiritual-but-not-religious champion individualism, free creative choice and expression, egalitarianism, a psychological/therapeutic approach to spiritual growth, and a seeker/quester/consumer mentality. They come from diverse educational, ethnic, and racial backgrounds and lean to the left politically. They see humans as basically good, are liable to participate in diverse forms of community, are on the whole pantheistic/monistic in outlook, and affirm a liberationist ethic.

In this special section, religion scholars and journalists share some of their work on SBNR, with particular attention to the context of American Buddhism. During a year of research among the religiously unaffiliated, for example, the American writer Kaya Oakes encountered many more people who dip in and out of various Buddhist traditions than people who actually identify as Buddhists. To help with background, historian Matt Hedstrom sheds some light on little-known Protestant educational trends that may have paved the way for contemporary mindfulness. Religious studies scholar Andrea Jain offers an example from the world of yoga that parallels some of the strongest critiques—familiar to Tricycle readers—of spirituality as a consumer product. And finally, Diane Winston, a journalist and historian of religion, relates her experience teaching an undergraduate class in which students seem neither religious nor spiritual.

Whether spiritual, religious, neither, or both, today’s shifting pursuits and practices have roots that run deep in the American tradition—some of which can be traced in the history of our understanding of spirituality. The historical drift has been from a classic spirituality, tethered to scripture and doctrine, to modern unchurched spirituality. For that shift we can look back at adherents of the liberal religious traditions (such as the Transcendentalists, Unitarians, and Quakers), their values (individuality, solitude, inner silence, ethical reforms, creative self-expression, tolerance), and their representatives (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Howard Thurman, Rufus Jones, Margaret Fuller, Sarah Farmer), who produced, through a variety of cultural mechanisms, a specifically American version of spirituality.

Walt Whitman announced this shift when he observed in 1871 that the “spirituality of religion” would issue forth only in the “perfect uncontamination” and “solitariness of individuality”—an utterance that signaled the move to an unchurched, nontraditional, even anti-institutional orientation toward the divine. And this historical form of SBNR was socially active; reform, one could say, was at the crux of their efforts.

In the 20th century, one of the very first references to SBNR was in 1926 in the journal The American Mercury, where the the then President of the Rotary Club describes the service organization as inclusive, nonsectarian, and as a “spiritual force” rather than a religious one. The journalist, reflecting on his words, comments notably, “spiritual but not religious?” In 1934 in an article about the great Lusitania shipwreck, the Washington Post described various memorials for the lives lost as “spiritual but not religious.”

And while other snippets like these can be found scattered in magazines and journals, it was the force of a therapeutic system—that of Bill Wilson and his 12-step AA program, which he and others described repeatedly in the 1950s to the ’70s as being “spiritual but not religious”—that helped the term stick. In 1990, the phrase was taken up by the Gallup poll, becoming one of three options for describing one’s beliefs—“religious,” “SBNR,” or “neither” (with 30 percent choosing SBNR)—and the die was cast. SBNR was here to stay. Here’s what we know: The SBNR, seen as a social movement, tends to flourish in democratic and capitalistic societies; thus one can point to such phenomena as separation of church and state, pluralism, and the rise of film and social media as cultural fertilization for the growth of SBNR.

And of course, the triumph of the therapeutic, as the cultural critic Philip Rieff put it, looms large in the evolution of SBNR. In the work of Freud and other pioneers in the field of psychology, religion was analyzed, deconstructed, and deemed an element of human projection—not divine ordinance. Enter the suspicion that religion only reflects our very human baggage, whether that of class, race, gender, or sexuality—that is, traditional forms of religion might be nothing more than expressions of social and cultural power.

But another strand of psychological theory, associated in part with Freud’s contemporary Carl Jung, proposed that religion was not outside us, in institutions, but inside, in the very deepest part of our unconscious. In fact, the essential truths at the heart of organized religions can be known by diving deeply into the self. Terms like “peak experience,” “self-realization,” and “individuation” are all legacies of this approach. We may have forgotten the theorists, but the SBNR movement simmers in the cultural soup they helped to brew.

And finally, there’s the academy itself, whose secular orientation has certainly contributed to the growth of SBNR. When you take a college course on religion you agree to hold religion up as an object of critical scrutiny. Indeed, after students read Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, and others, it becomes more difficult for them to take institutional religion as it is presented without a large dose of salt.

But scholarship does not all line up on the side of spirituality over religion. With regard to the SBNR movement, there is plenty of debate. One problem, for example, is the accusation of spiritual narcissism. Once freed from tradition and doctrine, those invested in the consumer approach to religion, the critique goes, are just navel-gazing. So what happens to social activism?

Another critique is social. Some point out that there is no “there” there for the SBNR movement, no community. In response, others point to the reality of the American cultural soil. There is a kind of spiritual community, but one that is suitable for the culture in which we all live. The Rothko Chapels and the Esalen Institutes are the new cathedrals and churches; the raves and retreats—whether at Spirit Rock or a Benedictine monastery—are the new ecstatic or ascetic social spaces; and the multiple, varied forms of social media are the textual glue.

And on it goes. Whither the SBNR movement? Perhaps it is like a train without tracks, whose path we will be able to discern only in retrospect. In the meantime, the pilgrimage continues. 

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