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“Spiritual but not religious”: inside America's rapidly growing faith group

A new poll finds almost one in five Americans is spiritual but not religious.

Ava Lee Scott, an actress and theater-maker in New York, doesn’t practice an organized religion. Raised in both Catholic and Jewish traditions, Scott’s own spiritual life is far more eclectic. She studies ancient languages, from the Aramaic of Christ to Hebrew to Arabic. She reads Tarot cards, runes, and cowrie shells. She believes in a higher power — something some people might call God — but believes that such a power transcends individual traditions’ dogmas. “Whatever name you call your higher power,” she told Vox, “we are all connected.”

Scott is not alone. In fact, she’s part of a group that makes up nearly one-fifth of Americans: the “spiritual but not religious.”

When we talk about religion in America, we usually break the faithful down into familiar categories along political lines: a religious (usually evangelical Protestant) right and an atheistic left. But almost 20 percent of Americans, according to a survey released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) belongs to a category that transcends stereotypical religious identity.

The survey, which profiled about 2,000 American adults in the early months of 2017, found that 18 percent of Americans identify as spiritual but not religious. (By contrast, 31 percent of Americans identify as neither spiritual nor religious.) They tend to skew younger and more educated than religious Americans, with 40 percent holding at least a four-year college degree and 17 percent having some form of postgraduate education. They’re also far more politically liberal than their religious counterparts: 40 percent identify as liberal, compared to 24 percent of the population overall and 27 percent of Americans that are neither spiritual nor religious.

The study created separate “religiosity” and “spirituality” indexes. Participants who scored highly on the religiosity index frequently attended worship services and reported that they considered religion to be an important factor in their personal lives. Participants who scored highly on the spirituality index reported feeling a connected to “something much larger than” themselves and “felt particularly connected to the world around” them and to a “higher purpose."

The study found that many “spiritual but not religious” Americans maintain a connection to some sort of organized faith tradition, even if they do not practice it regularly. Just three in 10 religiously unaffiliated Americans ranked as spiritual but not religious, suggesting that most spiritual-but-not-religious Americans maintain links with a more formal religious identity; the largest groups of these identify as mainline Protestant (18 percent) or Catholic (18 percent).

“The survey finds less overlap between Americans who are spiritual but not religious and those who are religiously unaffiliated than is often assumed,” said PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones, in a press release. “Notably, most Americans who are classified as spiritual but not religious still identify with a religious tradition, even if they are less likely to attend services or say religion is important in their lives.”

But for many in this set, spirituality doesn’t necessary track with traditional religious observance. The study found that the single greatest spiritual experience for this group was not prayer or meditation but music: A full 71 percent of spiritual Americans reported having been inspired or touched by listening to a piece of music in the past week, compared to just 43 percent of nonspiritual respondents.

What this suggests is that religious identity (i.e., the religious community participants see themselves as belonging to), religious observance (i.e., actually attending services and participating in religious life), and spiritual experiences are three distinct categories, which sometimes overlap but do not automatically track onto one another.