An increasing variety of scholars and other observers seem to be noticing the growing social significance of Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious” (hereafter SBNR). SBNR individuals insist on carving out their own approaches to understanding the divine and the transcendent, refusing for the most part to participate in culturally hegemonic religious traditions. Rejection of organized religion by some Americans is hardly a new phenomenon, but the degree to which it has become socially acceptable is a rather recent development. The extent to which eschewing traditional religious teachings and practices has become “cool” in the present era is in part a legacy of the 1960s (when being countercultural became oddly de rigueur in certain circles), as well as a disorganized but palpable backlash against the moral absolutism of the religious Right.

Who are the Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious”? What unifying characteristics, qualities, and beliefs might they share? And to what extent might their distinctive approach to religion, or to systems of meaning, have relevance to political discourse, electoral campaigns, and public policy? As many other contributors to this blog have noted, these questions elude easy answers, because defining spirituality is, as Courtney Bender aptly puts it in her brilliant book The New Metaphysicals, “like shoveling fog.” Nevertheless, perhaps we can obtain just a slight bit of traction by investigating some of the characteristics shared by SBNR Americans.

I took a quick statistical peek at some of the religious, demographic, and attitudinal attributes of respondents to a 2005 survey (conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the PBS television series Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly) who self-identified as “spiritual but not religious.” Out of a sample of 1,131 respondents, 387 (34.2 percent) selected this label for themselves (49.8 percent chose “religious,” 10.1 percent chose “neither,” and the small remainder gave other responses). I found that SBNR respondents are (not surprisingly) significantly less likely than religious respondents to say “religion is important in [their lives],” to attend religious services (90 percent never attend), or to engage in other traditional religious practices. Surprisingly, religious and SBNR individuals do not differ significantly from one another in terms of age, race, gender, marital or parental status, employment status, education, or income.

How might SBNR individuals translate their belief systems, values, and practices into political attitudes and behaviors? I would like to posit several working hypotheses on this front, but first I wish to echo Joel Robbins’s assertion that the “metaphysicals” about whom Bender writes “understand their social lives in non-social terms.” We must approach the study of SBNR Americans with the understanding that (for the most part) they forego participation in the most common mode of social interaction in the United States: conventional religious worship. Thus, they voluntarily absent themselves from the social networks fostered in and by congregations and hence fail to receive the politically charged messages that many clergy deliver. This lack of connectedness, combined with the evident desire of SBNR persons to forge their own way in the world, outside of the rigid social and cultural boundaries that traditional religion tends to erect, suggests to me that SBNR Americans are unlikely to have any semblance of a clear or systematic political agenda.

Nevertheless, it makes sense to hypothesize that SBNR Americans would place themselves to the left of center politically, at a bare minimum because the Republican Party today is so widely identified as being “friendly” to organized religion. The data I analyzed bear this hypothesis out: SBNR respondents were significantly more Democratic in their party identification and liberal in their ideological orientation than their religious counterparts. Following the work of George Lakoff, we might also hypothesize the SBNR individual to be less authoritarian than one who is traditionally religious. The data support this assertion as well: SBNR survey respondents were significantly less likely than religious respondents to agree with the statement, “It is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good hard spanking.” On a related note, definitions of morality might also be hypothesized to differ between religious and SBNR Americans, and, again, the data show that the two groups do differ significantly. Religious survey respondents are more likely to define “moral values” as “social issues, such as abortion or gay marriage,” “family values, such as trying to protect children from sex and violence on TV and the Internet,” and “compassion and concern for the sick and needy,” while SBNR Americans are more likely to define moral values as “social justice, such as preventing human rights abuses or discrimination,” and “personal values, such as honesty and responsibility.”

The small descriptive analysis presented here scarcely scratches the surface of the empirical work that will need to be done to achieve even a modest understanding of SBNR Americans and politics. Which issues, if any, do they prioritize? Do they take part in organized political action, and if so, around which causes? Do they wish to affect political outcomes or not? In closing, I wish to note an additional way in which SBNR survey respondents differ from religious respondents: SBNR respondents are significantly more likely to report being unhappy with their “life in general [. . .] on the whole.” If mobilization efforts were to succeed, perhaps it is this dissatisfaction that could give rise to meaningful political advocacy by Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” The difficulty inherent in such a mobilization effort, however, cannot be overstated.