‘Spiritual but Not Religious’


Between 18-27% of Americans now say they think of themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’, up 8 percentage points in five years, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 25-June 4, 2017. This broad-based growth has occurred among men/women; whites, blacks, Hispanics; people of many different ages and education levels; and among Republicans/Democrats.

According to Gallup, only 42% of the public report having a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in organized religion -the lowest mark in the more than 40 years Gallup has canvassed American opinion on this topic. At its peak in 1975, more than 68% expressed confidence in organized religion.

Persona Profile: ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ 

  • drawn away from institutional religion due to rising distrust, they may still be leery of alternative ‘faith’ positions

  • experienced higher education level [71% attended some college]

  • skew younger [56% below 50yrs]

  • more liberal politically [52% leaning toward the Democratic Party]

  • lack unifying values or ‘triggering’ principles that politicians can easily appeal to

  • more likely to link spirituality with higher levels of personal health [53% ‘very’ or ‘completely’ satisfied] 

  • oriented toward pro-social behavior [62% more inclined to listen to someone talk about a problem]

  • attribute higher level of gratitude for the things in their lives [74% thanked a stranger in the past week]

  • 2x more likely to seek out media experiences to find inspiration: music, movie, books 

The relationship between spirituality and religiosity among Americans today is complex. Specializing in the quantitative and qualitative study of political issues as they relate to religious values, The Public Religion Research Institute a U.S. nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization, conducted a recent poll to measure these dimensions by developing two composite indexes: 1] measuring spirituality using self-reported experiences of being connected to something larger than oneself. 2] measuring religiosity using frequency of religious attendance and the personal importance of religion. Based on this analysis, Americans fall into the following four categories:


Most Americans who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ still identify with a religious tradition. While 30% ‘spiritual but not religious’ Americans are religiously unaffiliated -describing their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’, of the remaining: 18% identify as white mainline Protestant, 18% as Catholic, 13% belong to a non-Christian religious tradition, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or Judaism, 10% as nonwhite Protestant, and 5% as white evangelical Protestant.

The decline of formal religious affiliation has led some scholars to question whether the fundamental nature of religious practice and belief is changing. Rising rates of disaffiliation may not necessarily indicate an increasingly secular orientation but rather an abandonment of traditional religious practices in favor of a more personalized and customizable spirituality. 

There is some evidence to suggest that interest in spirituality and spiritual activities, such as meditation and yoga, is increasing. A report from the Pew Research Center found that Americans are more likely to report feeling a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being or a sense of wonder about the universe than they were a few years earlier. A CDC study, published earlier this year, found that participation in yoga nearly doubled from 2002 to 2012.

Despite the widespread attention that the ‘spiritual but not religious’ group has received in recent years, there have been few efforts to undertake a rigorous investigation of the complex interplay of spirituality and religiosity among the American public.

[Designed to explore the unique contribution that spirituality makes on personal behavior and decisions, the Public Religion Research Institute’s poll focused on the group of Americans who identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’, in 2017. The above is an excerpt capturing specific findings from it, along with several Pew Research Center insights from a similar study.].

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Ann O