It’s common to hear declarations that someone is “spiritual, but not religious” — with assertions that this applies to many young people today. The implication is that even without the trappings of any formalized religiosity, a remnant vibrant spirituality can still remain. 

No doubt, that is sometimes true on an individual basis. However, when looking across broader statistical trends, a strong majority of people’s statements about not being religious are coupled with an admission that they are not quite as spiritual either. It’s also clear that church attendance tends to go with personally spiritual practices like prayer. 

If we are to take these statistical findings seriously, the point is to not overstate the spiritual-but-not-religious pattern. While yes, people can be spiritual and maintain a personal relationship with God in the absence of organized religion, that isn’t usually what happens in practice. 

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Take, for example, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a case study. Drawing on the 706 Latter-day Saints in the 2022 wave of the Cooperative Election Study, I looked at the relationship between prayer and church attendance among church members in the United States. 

The Cooperative Election Study is geared toward political, and not religious, issues, so while we know a lot about Latter-day Saint politics, we know less about Latter-day Saint religious practice and beliefs. However, there are still some religious questions asked of participants in the study about prayer and church attendance — including the following:

“People practice their religion in different ways. Outside of attending religious services, how often do you pray?”

“Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services?”

When we juxtapose and compare these data points it is clear that Latter-day Saints who go to church are also the same ones who tend pray (as shown in the chart below).

The takeaway here is straightforward: There is a strong relationship between a personal prayer life and involvement in organized religion, with the main drop-off in prayer happening once you get past the standard “once a week” level of attendance (with “more than once a week” likely reflecting those attending leadership in some capacity, or supporting young adult programming).

This means that when people say they can worship God in their own way without an institution, that is true on one level. It’s certainly possible to worship God on your own in many ways, but data suggest most people simply don’t (at least not nearly as much).

And, according to the available data on Latter-day Saints, there are significant drop-offs in personal devotion when people aren’t going to church with regularity. However trendy the “spiritual but not religious” mantra continues to be in certain contexts, it doesn’t appear to bear out empirically. 

That doesn’t mean that people who don’t go to church have no personal, internal spiritual life. Nor does it mean they should not pursue one if they decide not to attend church for whatever reason. But all things being equal, more church tends to be associated with more personal religious practices.

Stephen Cranney is a nonresident fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for the Studies of Religion and teaches at The Catholic University of America.