Ask other people about their religious inclinations, if you dare, and you may just get an answer that I never, ever heard when I was growing up: I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.

Spirituality, as something different from religiosity, is becoming part of our culture. Some of this is a reaction against organized religion; recent Gallup polls have registered the lowest level of confidence in organized religion in 40 years.

Other forces are more positive. For example, interest in activities imbued with spirituality, such as meditation and yoga, has grown tremendously.

Put all this together and you have a new (or newly recognized) breed: people who are spiritual but not religious. But how many such people are there, really? And how do their numbers compare to other kinds of people, such as the more traditional types who are both religious and spiritual?

A new survey from PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) answers that question and offers some insights into who these “spiritual, but not religious” people are. Participants were a national sample of more than 2,000 adults.

Across all the people who participated in the study, here’s the distribution across different categories:

29% were both spiritual and religious

18% were spiritual, but not religious

22% were not spiritual, but religious

31% were not spiritual, not religious

The people who are “spiritual, but not religious” are the smallest category, at 18%. What really struck me about the results, though, is the largest category: at 31%, more people describe themselves as “neither spiritual nor religious” than anything else.

My main interest was in whether spirituality differed by marital status. There was no report of that in the published documents, but I contacted one of the authors, Daniel Cox, and he kindly responded right away. Below are the numbers he sent me.

Both spiritual and religious (average across all participants: 29%)

34% of the currently married

20% of the singles (never married)

Spiritual, but not religious (average across all participants: 18%)

14% of the currently married

22% of the singles

Not spiritual, but religious (average across all participants: 22%)

23% of the currently married

18% of the singles

Not spiritual, not religious (average across all participants: 31%)

28% of the currently married

40% of the singles

That last number really stands out: 40% of lifelong single people say they are neither spiritual nor religious. That’s in contrast to just 28% of the married people. Single people are also over-represented in the group of interest: those who identify as spiritual, but not religious.

Professor Cox pointed out that these results may tell us at least as much about age as marital status. That’s because people who have never been married tend to be younger than currently married people, and younger people are more likely to be spiritual and less likely to be religious than older people are.

Many research reports published in scholarly journals “control for” factors such as age statistically, so that the implications of marital status are clearer. Essentially, single and married people of the same age are compared, so that any differences are more likely to be about marital status and are not about age. But those kinds of analyses are not always reported in non-academic publications and they were not reported in this one.

People who are “spiritual, but not religious” also stand out in other ways:

  • They are more likely to be women than men (54% vs 46%)
  • Ethnically and racially, they are similar to the overall population of the U.S., except that they are slightly less likely to be Black
  • Politically, 44% are Independent, 36% are Democrats, and 16% are Republicans
  • They have higher levels of formal education

The participants were also asked about times when they were “touched, moved, or inspired” in the past week. People who identified as spiritual, compared to those who did not, said they were more often inspired by every form of media they consumed, including books, movies, TV shows, and social media. The biggest difference was for music: 71% of the spiritual people said they were inspired while listening to music, compared to just 43% of non-spiritual people.

What do these results mean, going forward? The “spiritual, but not religious” group was the smallest group overall. But the group is probably bigger than it would have been if the same survey had been conducted, say, a decade ago. And the fact that people who identify as spiritual are younger than the people who identify as religious could also mean that the “spiritual, but not religious” group could continue to grow into the future. But we just don’t know.

My guess is that research on these “spiritual, but not religious” people will continue, and future studies will probably be more sophisticated. For example, this survey included findings on life satisfaction and helpfulness, but without controls for age and other factors, we can’t really know if the differences were about spirituality or religiosity or something else.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

Photo by Nrico