Philip Goldberg Explains “Spiritual But Not Religious”

Phil Goldberg

Phil Goldberg

This brilliant commentary on the growing numbers of people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” was written for Huffington Post by Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda, which explores how India’s spiritual wisdom seeped into America’s cultural bloodstream.


A great deal has been written about that ever-expanding group of Americans who check “none” when asked about their religious affiliations. The segment of nones who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) now constitute at least 20 percent of the population, and 30 percent of those under 30 years of age. I have interviewed hundreds of this important cohort for my books, and I find that the media commentary about them is riddled by misconceptions.

One problem concerns why people disconnect from the religious tradition of their birth. The most prevalent explanation is the one favored by scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. They attribute disaffiliation mainly to the perceived link between religion and conservative politics—a turnoff to liberal-minded youth in particular.

I don’t buy it. There is no doubt that the judgmental moralizing of right-wing preachers has alienated a great many Christians, but that doesn’t explain SBNR. Believers who disdain fundamentalism have plenty of left-leaning denominations and apolitical congregations to turn to. I see it as more of a spiritual issue than a political one. The “S” in SBNR means something. In varying degrees, SBNRs are serious about their spiritual development, and they wish to pursue it wherever it leads them. The search itself is the chief identifier. It’s the questing, not the nesting. If traditional religion gave them the inner experience they yearn for; if it answered the big existential questions in a satisfying way; if it truly nourished their desire for spiritual growth, they’d stay instead of stray.

american-veda-paperback-coverWhich brings me to another misconception, that SBNRs are dilettantes, like serial daters who can’t commit. Yes, there are plenty of superficial dabblers among them, but not as many as commentators assume. In fact, I would wager that, on average, they spend far more time in meditation, prayer, study of sacred texts, devotional activities, group discussions and other actual practices than the conventionally religious. Let’s face it, a large percentage of people who call themselves religious engage their faith for a couple of hours a week at most, and many only on holidays. As someone once said, sitting in church and thinking you’re spiritual is like sitting in a garage and thinking you’re a car.

SBNRs who devote time to their spirituality are basically mystics—pragmatic, in-the-world mystics who probe the great mysteries from the inside out and try to live up to their spiritual standards. A 2009 Pew survey found that spiritual experiences, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening,” occur much more frequently now than they did in 1962, 1976 or 1994, when similar studies were done. That tracks with the rise of the SBNR phenomenon, and indeed the report said that “these kinds of experiences are particularly common among the ‘religious unaffiliated.'”

Which leads to another misconception: that SBNRs are spiritual anarchists who reject all spiritual authority. Not so. They recognize the need for guidance, but they get it from multiple sources. A modern seeker can be, as anthropologist Richard Schweder put it, “the student and beneficiary of all traditions, and the slave to none.”

Finally, there is the assumption that SBNRs suffer from a lack of community. There is truth in this: clearly, one price of spiritual independence is the loss of fellowship, which the venerable religions do a good job of providing. Two things must be said about this. First, a great many SBNRs acknowledge that missing ingredient and try to fill the gap with informal, often leaderless and heterogeneous groupings. Interesting new forms of spiritual community will probably develop over time. Second, many SBNRs are connected to communities, only they revolve around a yoga studio, a Hindu guru or a Buddhist lineage.

This alludes to an important, but little recognized fact: SBNRs are heavily oriented to Eastern ideas and practices, only they’re more likely to check the None or SBNR box than the Hindu or Buddhist box. There are many reasons for this, among them the fact that the gurus, roshis, swamis and lamas who brought their traditional teachings to the West never asked anyone to convert, or to give up their own religions, or even to view their involvement as a religious rather than a secular pursuit.

SBNRs are as diverse and complex as any other spiritual cohort. They are here to stay, and their numbers will surely grow as pluralism evolves and access to the world’s wisdom becomes even easier. It could be the most important religious development of our time, so let’s make sure we understand it.

Click here to see all my posts featuring author Philip Goldberg.


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6 Responses to “Philip Goldberg Explains “Spiritual But Not Religious””

  1. Lori Anne Says:

    Loved this post. I have read so many defensive or judgmental articles about SBNR folks or even a few by SBNR folks that reject Religion judgmentally too, that I was steeling myself for more of the same. What a beautiful surprise to read this one! What I especially identify with is first and foremost that I am not rejecting or judging Religion or the religious by saying I’m Spiritual but not practicing any one Religion. It’s more that I can now see the thread of divine love at the heart of religion! I feel through my own spiritual seeking & theology studies that I now recognize and see what Rumi said, “All religions have love, but love has no religion.” I see how we are all interconnected through this BIG love. Spiritual, Religious, atheist, humanist . . . it does not matter. When we are our best selves, we vibrate harmoniously at the octave of love, and in that place, we are all One. As a SBNR person I have found that is my spiritual community–wherever I experience this connection, including with people in Churches, Temples, Sweat Lodges, with nature, animals, that long line at the DMV or . . . you name it! Where there is love, there is spiritual community.

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Well said, Lori. Love the Rumi quote. I totally agree that “where there is love, there is spiritual community.”

  3. Steve Plotkin Says:

    Thanks Phil for this particular post about SBNR. I’ve pondered this for many years and it gave some clarity. I was wondering who to ask this question to, and you’re a good candidate.So let me ask you, when someone asks, or you have to volunteer your religion, what do you say? I’m not a fan of SBNR, I’ve often thought of it as a cop-out but since I’m not a Hindu, I was actually born into the orthodox Jewish religion, I’m not 100% sure what to say. I used to say I was a HinduChristianJew but that often leads into a discussion that goes downhill very fast. What are we, are we Hindus or is God our religion? Lately, I’ve been saying I’m a Yogi and call it a day.  Looking forward to your response. IDF, Steve

  4. Phil Bolsta Says:

    “I’m an aspiring yogi” is a satisfactory response, Steve. Or perhaps something simple like “I’m on a spiritual path that encourages meditation.”

  5. Jyoti Shah Says:

    Phil, thank u so much. This is so well explained. I think most of us fall into this category. Just yesterday I was explaining to my daughter why i could not relate to religious rituals, a greater part of the routine of the practice of Hinduism, a religion I am born into. Both of us studied in the same school, a convent and our love for Christ has never grown dim. Little wonder I was attracted to YSS/SRF.

    Thank u once again, am sharing this link with those whom i think would like to read it In divine friendship

  6. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Yes, Jyoti, more people are looking for a path that resonates with them, that offers answers to their most urgent questions, and that can satisfy the greatest yearnings of their heart.

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