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.

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