The term "spiritual but not religious" has, over the last decade, evolved from an academic definition to a widely used label for people who have abandoned traditional congregations in favor of a more solitary form of belief and worship.
But new research by a Boston University sociologist has found that the ideas of "spirituality" and "religiosity" are rarely at odds but intersect often in the daily lives of people as they describe their spirituality.
As one study participant who attends an Episcopal church north of Boston said, “I think of myself as spiritual. Because it doesn’t matter what church I’m in. I am who I am.”
And when people do draw a boundary between spirituality and religiosity, they are often making a political or moral statement rather than describing what they believe.
"People who occupy this spiritual-but-not-religious category are really few and far between if you look at what people believe and practice," said Nancy Ammerman, author of the study published in a recent issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. "You have to ask people what are they trying to tell us when they talk about themselves that way."
And their answers paint a more complex picture of individuals’ religious experience that can give faith leaders more insight into how best to communicate and find common ground with those who have a spiritual dimension to their lives but a negative perception of organized religion.
“ ‘Spiritual but not religious' is a polling category, and people aren't polls," said Ed Stetzer, a pastor who also heads LifeWay Research, a Christian polling group affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. "As someone in the ministry, it is necessary to recognize that every person has a story to tell that defines (the spiritual and religious) differently. … Each person is made in the image of God and it's worth understanding their thoughts so you can communicate to them an understanding of the gospel."
Ammerman, a scholar on American congregations who has recently examined personal beliefs and practices, gathered hundreds of those personal stories as part of a larger project recently published in the book "Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life."
She explained that sociologists and pollsters offer a limited range of responses — such as not, slightly, moderately or very — when asking people if they consider themselves religious or spiritual.
But those responses provide a shallow, one-dimensional picture that doesn't capture the full depth of an individual's beliefs or spirituality.
"There is a methodological issue here of how we have asked the questions and how we have imputed meaning to a particular group that falls into a particular cell of a two-by-two table," Ammerman said. "But it is much more than that. It's also about how our larger culture has picked up this term of 'spiritual but not religious' to describe a certain group of people."
To find out what people mean when they called themselves "spiritual but not religious," Ammerman's research team recruited a group of people reflecting America's religious landscape to be interviewed about their beliefs and practices. The volunteers were also given disposable cameras to snap photos of places important to them and asked to periodically record an oral diary about memorable experiences during the day.
While the sample was small — 95 people from Boston and Atlanta representing Catholics, conservative and liberal white Protestants, African-American Protestants, Jews, Mormons, neo-pagans and the unaffiliated — the interviews, photos and recordings produced about 1,000 personal stories that were put into a database and analyzed for their religious and spiritual content.
"We did not force respondents to say yes or no to questions about religion and spirituality, so we could simply listen for when they invoked this oppositional rhetoric, even if they were describing others, rather than themselves," Ammerman wrote.
The researchers then organized the responses to questions about spiritual and religious experiences into four "packages," or ways of talking about spirituality. Often, a participant used more than one of these approaches:
1) Theistic. Spirituality is about God, especially one's relationship with God, and any mysterious encounters or happenings that result from it. Researchers found 71 percent of the sample referred to spirituality in God-oriented terms they learned from their faith traditions.
“I love to be out on that boat on the ocean for the same reason I like to be in my garden, ’cause I feel close to the Lord and the beauty of the world,” a woman told researchers in explaining a photo she took of her family's boat.
2) Extra-theistic. Spirituality is not framed in theistic terms but rather as a kind of transcendence that is “bigger than me” and beyond the ordinary.
“Experiencing things that are calming and healing in what might almost be a spiritual way — I’ve had that from lots of things. Music, movies that I love, and books," a secularist from Atlanta told researchers.
But most participants who were active in a religious group also expressed spiritual experiences in extra-theistic terms.
3) Ethical. Spirituality is living a virtuous life by helping others and transcending one’s own selfish interests to seek what is right. This is a definition of spirituality that all respondents, from the most conservative Christian to the secular neo-pagan, agreed was the essence of authentic spirituality.
4) Belief and belonging. This spirituality package was defined differently by those who were active in a religion and those who weren't. "Believing, for instance, could either be a way of talking about devout spirituality or a way of describing superstition," Ammerman wrote. "Belonging can represent a positive identity or a symbol of being trapped in an authoritarian tradition."
She said that the tension between the two definitions sheds some light on why people would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.
"Those who are actively engaged with a religious tradition were very likely to link their belonging positively with their sense of what spirituality is," Ammerman wrote. "Those who have rejected traditional religious participation, on the other hand, link belonging with an absence of spiritual authenticity."
Perception and misunderstanding
Among those who have a negative view of organized religion, Ammerman's team found that claims of being spiritual but not religious were a way for people to draw moral and political boundaries rather than make a statement of belief and practice, she said.
By analyzing participants' stories, researchers discovered that some people wanted to describe themselves as "spiritual" to avoid being perceived as selfish and unaware that there is something beyond themselves. But they didn't want to be labeled as "religious" because that identity has been co-opted by an image of someone trapped by rules, rituals and superstition, Ammerman said.
Carla Henry, a 49-year-old Pentecostal, wasn't part of Ammerman's project, but her attempt to distinguish between the terms "spiritual" and "religious" also illustrates how separating those aspects could create a misleading understanding of her religious experience.
"I would probably identify with the word 'spiritual' more, because to me it implies a more intimate connection (with God) than 'religious,’ ” she said. "To me, 'religious' means something that you are doing, where 'spiritual' is something that you are feeling or experiencing."
But Henry, who is affiliated with the Church of God in Christ, isn't hostile toward religion. She attended church regularly growing up, but in Utah, where she and her husband moved because of a job transfer, she doesn't attend church often because of her work schedule with the Federal Aviation Administration. And there is also the factor that as an African-American she doesn't have as strong ties with the local congregation as she does with believers in her hometown of Greenville, Miss.
“I should go to church more than I do. I miss out on the fellowship … and the chance to grow spiritually," she said. "I have my church music that I listen to, and I watch some of the ministries on TV. I am not in the spiritual-only camp."
Ammerman argues that her research revealed that both the affiliated and unaffiliated are misinformed about each other.
"The 'religion' being rejected turns out to be quite unlike the religion being practiced and described by those affiliated with religious institutions," she wrote. "Likewise, the 'spirituality' being endorsed as an alternative is at least as widely practiced by those same religious people as it is by the people drawing a moral boundary against them."
Henry would agree.
"To some, religion seems like something that says you can’t do this and you can’t do that," she said. "They don’t understand that when you get into a relationship with God, you don’t have the desire to do (things proscribed by your faith). So, it’s not like you are being deprived."
Based on the analysis of their personal stories, most of the people in Ammerman's sample were either both spiritual and religious or neither. Only five of the 95 appeared to fit the definition of "spiritual but not religious" in their practices.
"The dearth of actual practitioners of 'spirituality' who are not also drawing on religious communities and traditions reinforces the empirical picture that has consistently emerged from surveys as well," she wrote.
A Pew Research Center survey in 2012 found that the number of people who are not affiliated with a religion had increased 5 percent since 2007. That same survey found 18 percent of Americans identified themselves as spiritual but not religious, while 59 percent identified as both, and just 5 percent said they were religious but not spiritual.
But Ammerman explained that without digging deeper to find out why people identify as spiritual but not religious, the numbers can be used to create a "simple-minded" narrative of church attendance declining because people are rejecting organized religion and becoming individually spiritual.
She contends her research reveals the story is more complex, showing more common than uncommon spiritual practices and beliefs between those who say they are religious and those who don't.
"When we start drawing the lines starkly between religion and spirituality, we miss a lot of what’s going on inside religious communities. And we mischaracterize a lot of the people who aren’t in those communities," she said.
Stetzer agrees, saying Christianity is experiencing a collapse of nominal or "squishy" Christians — those who once identified with the faith, if only culturally, but now say they don't belong to anything. Those same people and others now outside of the church may not see Christianity as their first choice in their quest for spiritual fulfillment, but they are still seeking and asking questions.
"I don't think that is a bad thing," he said. "This is an opportunity to say real Christianity is when we live as Jesus has desired us to live and that is something different than cultural Christianity and is worth looking at."
Christian writer Rachel Held Evans recently wrote a piece for CNN's Belief Blog explaining why she came back to church after once counting herself among the spiritual but not religious.
"But eventually I returned, because, like it or not, we Christian millennials need the church just as much as the church needs us," she wrote, describing the practices and beliefs that can only be experienced within a congregation.
Ammerman said if faith leaders will listen and broaden their measures of religiosity and spirituality, they can connect with those who shun organized religion but value the spiritual and still embrace religious beliefs and practices.
"There is a great deal more commonality and openness between religious communities and the larger population than religious communities realize," she said.