Click here for General Assembly coverage

Religious but not spiritual? Meet the skeptics favoring ritual over the supernatural

Ten percent of Americans can be categorized as religious but not spiritual, according to a December 2023 study from Pew Research Center.

(Photo by Cottonbro Studio/Pexels/Creative Commons)

(RNS) — From what she eats to how she ties her shoes, religion shapes nearly every moment of Michelle’s life. An Orthodox Jew living in New York City, she follows a line of discipline guided by halacha, or Jewish law. She keeps a kosher kitchen, and on shabbat she doesn’t drive or turn on lights, following ancient strictures against lighting a fire on the Lord’s day.

The one part of Judaism Michelle said she’s not necessarily sold on is the whole “God” thing.

“I have zero desire or inclination to stop being a practicing Jew,” said Michelle, who asked to keep her last name private out of concern for her employment at a faith-based organization. “I recognize about myself that I am skeptical about the God stuff and the Torah stuff. I don’t really believe all that. I don’t feel like I need to.”

The phrase “spiritual not religious” has become a near-catch phrase in American culture, and the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as having spiritual leanings without adhering to a given faith continues to climb. But only rarely have pollsters plumbed for those who separate their religion from their spirituality in the other direction: the religious but not spiritual.

While few studies dedicated to the group exist, a December 2023 study on spirituality from Pew Research Center found that 1 in 10 Americans can be categorized this way.

In recent interviews with people who describe themselves this way, religious but not spiritual people said they enjoy theological questions and revere religious traditions, preferring written prayer over spontaneous ones. Familial and ethnic ties often factor into their religious affiliation, and while some might fall into the more casual “culturally Jewish” or “culturally Christian” categories, for others, their religious commitments are more serious.

Becka Alper. (Photo © David Hills)

Becka Alper, lead researcher on the Pew spirituality report, said they broke out the category after seeing a significant number of respondents who indicated that they saw themselves as religious or said religion was very important to them but did not see themselves as spiritual. Fifty percent of them are affiliated with a Protestant tradition, including 24% evangelical Christian, 20% mainline Protestant and 6% who are members of the Black church. Thirty-two percent are Catholic.

The category comprises those, like Michelle, who practice the rituals of their tradition outwardly while doubting the existence of God; others believe in a deity but feel disconnected from emotive shows of faith.

Joshua Smith, a 40-year-old Episcopalian in Atlanta, falls into the latter category. Smith affirms the core tenets of historic Christianity when he says the Nicene Creed on Sunday, but he’s never had what he calls a “deep in my soul experience” of feeling God.

“I’ve come to the point where I’ve realized this might be who I am, and how God made me, and maybe it’s okay that I don’t get all mushy and feel like I need to have this personal relationship with God,” he told RNS. This kind of emotion is prized in the evangelical Christian atmosphere of the United Methodist Church he grew up attending.

Today, Smith values his church’s ethical framework and participates in corporate worship; he connects with God largely by wrestling with theological questions intellectually.

“22% of Americans are spiritual but not religious” (Graphic courtesy Pew Research Center)

Jess Bradshaw, a 45-year-old rabbinical student living in Jerusalem, also values his religious beliefs and said that the rules, structure and technical information of the Talmud “always made sense to me.” But the mystical aspects of Orthodox Judaism — the part he referred to as “touchy feely” — don’t appeal to him,  said Bradshaw. “It’s never been, oh, well, how do you feel about it?”

Charles Chemtob, 33, an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, New York, said he felt that way as well. “In terms of feeling, the spiritual stuff was just not my thing,” he said.

Smith, a progressive Episcopalian, and Bradshaw, who said he falls on the “right-wing side of things,” testify to the political diversity of the religious not spiritual. Those who are or lean Republican make 51% of the group defined by Pew, with 42% identifying as Democrats or leaning that way. That’s more political range than found among their spiritual but not religious peers, who are mostly Democrats. Also, men slightly outnumber women in the group, whereas the spiritual but not religious are some 57% female.

Pew found that 54% of the religious but not spiritual were white, 9% Black, 26% Hispanic and 6% Asian.

It is not always easy to distinguish the religious but not spiritual from the culturally religious. Blake Victor Kent, a religion sociologist, has tried to estimate what percentage of various ethnic groups fit the category of religious but not spiritual. Pulling data from a larger, multi-cohort study called the Study on Stress, Spirituality and Health, which he cautioned may not be fully representative, he puts the number of Hispanic respondents who say they are religious but not spiritual at just above 14% and South Asians at nearly 28%. He suggested that these groups may be “externally motivated, probably by family and cultural obligations.”

Ryan Cragun, a sociologist of religion at the University of Tampa, identified a subsample of about 150 people who seemed to be religious but not spiritual using data from the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey. Compared to the rest of the American public, Cragun’s cursory findings indicated they are less likely to believe in the afterlife, to believe that the Bible is the Word of God, to hold a theistic notion of God or to attend religious services.

“What this group looks like to me, is these are people who still identify, but they don’t believe as much,” said Cragun. “It could be that their spouse is very devout, so they’re going with them to support them. … Or maybe they like singing in the choir, or any number of things where it’s not necessarily about the beliefs.”

Ryan Cragun. (Photo courtesy University of Tampa)

But the religious but not spiritual seem to not only to participate, they also take something deeper than cultural attachments from religion, even if they don’t believe. Growing up in an area known for its Dutch Calvinist heritage, one 27-year-old Iowan, who asked to be called Sarah instead of her real name due to family concerns, was drawn to her church by an invitation to sing in the choir. Extremely religious until college, she took religion classes that introduced her to the history of the Bible. Meanwhile, she was struggling to reconcile her bisexual identity with her Sunday school lessons.

After a time away from church, however, she was invited to join a choir at an LGBTQ-affirming church. She felt grounded by the music, ritual and inclusive theology, even without faith in God. “When I’m in church, I feel connected to something bigger than myself,” she said.

Her regular attendance at church has also quieted fears for her family. “I don’t want to have them worried about me. For them, the scariest thing I could do is tell them I’m not a Christian,” she told RNS.

Alex Gavris, raised in a Romanian Baptist community in Cleveland, identifies himself today as “Christian agnostic.”

“There’s a lot to Christian theology that I respect and I appreciate, and I think is worth incorporating into my life, even if I don’t necessarily believe it’s completely factual,” he said.

Lately, he has sought out a Catholic parish, in part because he’s been craving ritual and regular Communion. He also values the Catholic Church’s prayers, which he views as tools for self-reflection and contemplation.

The traditions are deeply rooted, he said, but there is no expectation to believe in the demonic strongholds and “literal angels and demons fighting over your soul,” that Gavris said he grew up with.

Being religious but not spiritual is about engaging traditions, without the emphasis on spiritual warfare, a personal relationship with Jesus — or justifications based on faith.

“There are plenty of spiritual people who are lovely, kind people,” said Gavris. “But I’ve seen people who are super spiritual, who think they are in the right or are doing the right thing because they think they are on God’s side, even if all the facts are against them.”

By Kathryn Post, Religion News Service