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Spiritual but not Religious


Editor’s note: I’ve heard a lot of talk about being “spiritual but not religious.” I’ve recieved emails about the Dalai Lama’s facebook post calling for thought about “spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether” and this huffington post article from a pastor fed up with the distinction. It’s all very interesting, so I was thrilled to recieve this article from Dr. Paul Mallery, a La Sierra Professor and friend, exploring this very topic. 

I’ve recently heard several college students describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” This raises lots of questions. When I was the students’ age, “spiritual” meant that you were into some mix of Eastern meditation, the power of crystals, and perhaps wearing pyramid hats to do something to your aura. If they’re not religious, then why have they chosen to attend a religious, Seventh-day Adventist school?   

Upon further conversation, I realized that clearly they meant something by “religious” very different than my definition of religion. For me, “religious” encompasses our beliefs about ultimate reality, the behaviors and observances that connect us to that reality, and our identification with a particular community of faith. But most of these students believe, behave, and belong in ways that I would call religious. One “not religious” student regularly attends church and a weekly Bible study. Another prays devoutly and passionately. Another talks about his personal connection with Jesus, and how his family and upbringing has led him to that. Although there is certainly some suspicion about institutional religion among the current generation of college students, many of the “not religious” students are, by any definition I know, religious, and connected with religious institutions.

A recent study by Nancy Ammerman[1] examined what these terms mean to Americans people. She found that spirituality has several meanings:

  • For some people, spirituality is about god(s) and allows for the miraculous in life. For these people, spirituality is connected with religious institutions. She calls this theistic spirituality.
  • For some people, spirituality is about the feeling and experience of transcendence that is connected to community and compassion. She calls this extra-theistic spirituality.
  • For everyone, being moral and ethical is part of being spiritual.
  • For some people, spirituality is about belief and belonging. But for some people, that’s a good thing, and for others that’s a bad thing. 

So given these categories, what does “spiritual but not religious” mean? It’s a tricky question because so few of her participants were spiritual and not connected to a religious institution. The norm is to be spiritual and religious. But there were two groups of people who described themselves as spiritual but not religious. For them, Ammerman argues, labeling themselves “spiritual but not religious” is political and lets them compare themselves favorably with others:

When conservative Protestants say that they do not wish to be merely religious, they have in mind others who they think are merely religious and from whom they wish to distinguish themselves. The rhetoric identifies a moral boundary between godly people and ungodly ones….The other group positing a “spiritual-not-religious” category is drawing boundaries as well….the secularists and disaffiliated among our participants often see organized religion as an oppressive power, depriving individuals of personal and political freedom…

So what should I make of my students who say that they are spiritual but not religious? For some, it is a way of drawing boundaries against a religion they see as dogmatic and demanding. For others—more of them in the case of my students—it is making it clear that they are part of God’s people, committed to their beliefs and communities, but not in a legalistic, extrinsically motivated, and ultimately empty way.  To both groups, I think, “not religious” is a way of saying that they are not judgmental, or that they are committed to getting along with others in a tolerant, American way.[2]

There are several Adventist responses to this desire from many Adventist young adults to disassociate from intolerance and judgment. We could work to change that desire: There are times when tolerance is wrong. We could work with that desire, and think carefully about how to have an Adventist identity that is tolerant (if that is possible or appropriate). We could ask if that’s even a good question.[3] Or, could realize that many “not religious” people are spiritual in good ways, and adjust our rhetoric to match.


Dr. Paul Mallery teaches at La Sierra University in the Psychology Department where his research interests include faith development and intergroup relations in social and political contexts. He and his wife Suzanne live in Riverside, California with their two kids Aydin and Cait. 


[1] Nancy T. Ammerman, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Beyond Binary Choices in the Study of Religion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52, no. 2 (June 1, 2013): 258–78, doi:10.1111/jssr.12024.

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