Spiritual but Not Religious

At the Zygon Center, we get to work with outstanding graduate students, seminarians, academics and other professionals. In the past year, we have had a couple treasured opportunities to learn with undergraduates.

Last spring, the student symposium included an insightful paper by Augustana College undergraduates, Elisa Berndt & Emily Wehde, Fully Human and Fully Divine: The Virgin Birth and Technology, with faculty mentor Dr. Ann Pederson.

Over the summer, we had the pleasure to get to know Ms. Jemma Howlett., undergraduate at Vassar College studying cognitive science and religion.  She served as an intern with the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She got a behind-the-scenes look our work in religion and science and helped us with editing, marketing, and research projects.  We invited her to share a window into her experiences at Vassar in religion and science, and we are pleased to launch this year’s blog roll with her reflections. With thanks to Jemma for your questions, creativity, and connections!

“Spiritual but Not Religious (SBNR)”

by Jemma Howlett

When I explain to peers that I am studying cognitive science and religion at college, I often find myself met with stares of confusion.

Most people are unfamiliar with the field of cognitive science. Coupled with this, many are unsure why anyone would want to study the ‘antiquated’ field of religion. Cognitive science is the study of the mind — it is a multidisciplinary mashup of psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, computer science, biology and a lot more. Because I am interested in how other people think, in what they believe, and why they believe it, religion seems just as important as science to exploring answers to these questions.

The study of religion is far from antiquated. The Pew Research Center’s 2012 study on the Global Religious Landscape found that 84% of the world’s population identifies as religious (and nearly two-thirds of Americans do so). The influence of religion on our species is pervasive. We fight wars over religion. We create peace because of religion. It motivates world leaders.  It drives history. And yet, so many people cannot begin to fathom why I would study religion in conjunction with a science.

I go to Vassar College, a small, liberal arts school where students and faculty are fantastically accepting of all walks of life. Being the most politically correct is almost a contest. But, as open-minded as Vassar is, religion is one topic where judgment not only seems to be socially accepted, but the norm. One friend expressed to me that, when she has explained to people that she regularly goes to Catholic mass, “they look at me like I’m crazy or act freaked out.” Vassar was ranked in 2014 by the Princeton Review as the least religious school in America.

The word religion has become synonymous with naivete, ignorance, and misguidedness. Perhaps this stems from sensationalistic portrayals of religion in media, where acts of violence are consistently linked with religious ties, and conservative moralists often claim that they operate from a position of authority because of religion. The most radical religious groups are typically the loudest, leading to a misunderstanding of the concept of religion as a whole. This also stems from the perceived dichotomy between science and religion, making individuals feel like they must choose a side. Denouncing religion as misguided is an easy way to distance oneself from these viewpoints, but results in the marginalization and misunderstanding of religion.

While people who identify as religious continue to comprise the vast majority of the world’s population, another category is emerging. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2012 study ”Nones” on the Rise, from 2007 to 2012, the number of people in America who classify themselves as religiously unaffiliated has risen from 15% to 20%. These Americans tend to be less religious than their religiously affiliated counterparts, but do not necessarily consider themselves entirely secular. Of these unaffiliated Americans, 37% say they are SBNR, while only 12% identify as atheist and 17% as agnostic. The number of Americans who identify as SBNR is larger than those who identify as atheists and agnostics combined. SBNRs make up roughly one in five of all Americans.

Originally, SBNRs were thought of as people who eschewed organized religion altogether; yet, not everyone who identifies as SBNR is in this religiously-unaffiliated category. In fact, only about one third are unaffiliated and fully two-thirds have religious affiliation. This means that even people with traditional religious affiliations have begun to identify themselves as SBNR. These are the people who see their relationship with religion in a new way, stepping back from traditional classifications.

When it comes to the attendance of a traditional religious establishment, only one fifth of self-classified SBNRs attend a church on at least a weekly basis, compared to a little over half of those who identify as religious. But, looking at a monthly or yearly attendance rate, comparable numbers of people who are SBNR and religious people go to church, 34% and 35% respectively. Therefore, being SBNR does seem to be a step back from organized religion, but not always stepping completely out of religious affiliation all together.

Overwhelmingly, people who are SBNR still believe in God (92%). However, when asked how certain they were, only a little over half said they were absolutely certain. Contrast this with almost all of religious peoples saying they were absolutely certain in the existence of God..

Demographically, “spiritual but not religious” people are younger compared to religious people. So, the group identifying as “spiritual but not religious” is somewhat younger than the group identifying as “religious.” A study by Lifeway Christian Resources found that 72% of Millennials identify as “more spiritual than religious.”

Education wise, 35% of those who are SBNR are college graduates, compared to 26% of religious peoples. Those who identify as SBNR have a slightly greater percentage of college degrees. However, it is important to remember that we are talking about two different populations, with the SBNR being much smaller as a whole, than the general American population: there are still far more college graduates who are religious than SBNR, numerically speaking, but a greater percent of those college graduates identify as SBNR, as opposed to religious.  However, this trend is still important, since SBNRs are, on average, both younger and more educated than their religious counterparts.

Finally, from a political standpoint, nearly two thirds of people who identify as SBNR are registered Democrats, while religious people are split roughly half Democratic and half Republican..

So, this is a group generally composed of young, educated liberals that while not entirely estranged from religion, find themselves reluctant to use the word.  This profile fits the experiences I have personally had with people who identify as SBNR. It makes sense, with religion currently a controversial topic, and so often pitted against science (and by association, progress). SBNR gives people, who want to connect in some way with a God or spiritual being while also aligning themselves with scientific beliefs. It is a shift in the way people are thinking about their spiritual life. And as such, it could be a new way to reconcile religion and science.

However, we must be wary that this shifting landscape does not lead to a general antagonism towards religion. Those who choose to practice religion more traditionally are not naive nor old fashioned. Religion is not obsolete, it is not outdated, and it is not inherently evil or destructive. There is nothing wrong with anyone identifying as religious, spiritual, atheist, agnostic, or however they may chose to define their thoughts.

Society and religion are both constantly evolving and changing, often due to interactions with each other. Science plays a very similar role to religion, in turn both impacting and being impacted by the ebb and flow of societal progress.   These studies are not are not opposites, but are both integral in understanding, communicating, and solving everyday problems. Perhaps the new category of SBNR offers a forum for the two fields of science and religion to communicate and meet. As the group of people identifying as SBNR  inevitably grows and diversifies, it will be interesting to how the influences of modernity, eastern religions, and science shape the movement and the nation’s consciousness.







If you want to read more, here are some suggestions to get started:

Fuller, Robert C. Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. Oxford : New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Oord, Thomas Jay. “The Divine Spirit as Causal and Personal.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 48(2): 466-477.

Voelker, Paul. 2011. “Materialist Spirituality?” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 46(2): 451-460.

1 Comment

  • Carthaginian November 20, 2015 at 3:54 am -

    Would a scholar explain to me, because of Science and its Natural Law, how in the world can I accept such fairy tales as the Incarnation (virgin birth), The Resurrection and the Assumption. I understand that the mystery religions seemed to have such ideas and the Sun God of Egypt had similar behavior. How can a Christian, in good conscience go to church and accept such outrageous myths? When I die and am cremated, I will simply become stardust and/or dust of this planet which will die. Where in the world is Heaven? I may as well wait for 72 virgins or 72 hunks, young homosexuals for eternal sexual bliss.

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