What Does the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’ Crowd Actually Believe?

spiritual but not religious

Comedian Pete Holmes wears his evangelical upbringing proudly. He talks about it in his standup routine, on his podcast, and it is a major theme of his semi-autobiographical HBO show Crashing. He also talks freely about leaving it behind and finding a spirituality less constricted by religion.

Holmes is the archetypical example of a group identified in a recent Barna survey as “spiritual but not religious (SBNR).”

Some of the SBNR group still claim affiliation with a religion—such as Holmes still does with Christianity—though many do not. What the SBNR category shares in common is a movement away from orthodox theology into a more universalist viewpoint. A third of them believe God is a universal consciousness, and 50 percent believe in polytheism. In other words, the spiritual views of the SBNR group are extremely diverse. As the Barna article puts it, “what’s noteworthy is that what counts as ‘God’ for the spiritual but not religious is contested among them, and that’s probably just the way they like it. Valuing the freedom to define their own spirituality is what characterizes this segment.”

In a recent podcast, Holmes said while he still holds on to the language of Christianity, he now sees it representing something broader. “Christ” for him is a title that points to a bigger universal truth all humanity is attempting to tap into.

This is extremely common. Most of the SBNR group tend to believe all religions teach the same thing, and about half believe religion is harmful. For many of the SBNR group, they see religion as an artificial container that occasionally captures something true but just as often abuses or distorts that truth. For many SBNR people, religion is valuable to the extent it creates authentic spiritual experiences, but equally valid versions of those experiences can be found anywhere.

Spiritual but not religious

To better understand the graph above, Barna identified two groups within the SBNR group at large. SBNR #1 believes their spiritual life is important, yet their religious faith is not as important in their lives. Meaning, the might self-identify with a particular religion, like Christianity, for instance, yet have not been to a church service in six months. In slight contrast, SBNR #2 identifies as being spiritual, but also non-religious. Instead of sometimes practicing religion, this group just doesn’t, with 12 percent of this group identifying as atheist, 30 percent as agnostic and 58 percent as unaffiliated.

“We’re all in the snow globe of reality. What’s it going to take?” Holmes said recently as a guest on the “Bad Christian” podcast. “Do you need to believe the Bible literally? Fine. Mythically, like I enjoy? Fine. I want you free. Now. I’m not talking about smiling at people in a church parking lot. I’m talking about liberation. You know it when you feel it, that tingling feeling up your spine. You don’t need a pastor to teach you this. You see it in golf. You see it in sex. What are you after?”

A “WHATEVER WORKS FOR YOU” SPIRITUALITY

For the SBNR group, the correct approach to spiritual truth is pragmatic: If it taps you into a deeper truth then it’s valid. Because of this, the common spiritual practices for the SBNR crowd involve activities like yoga, meditation, silence/solitude or spending time in nature. In areas known for a hyper-spiritual but non-religious culture—the Pacific Northwest, parts of California or Boulder, Colo., for a few examples—spending time outdoors is as much a shared spiritual cultural ritual as church attendance used to be in the Bible belt.

The Barna article says this is no surprise “considering the real sense of personal autonomy gained from time outside. Overall, it’s easy to see why this group, who makes sense of their lives and the world outside religious categories, are inclined toward more informal and more individual modes of spiritual practice.”

THE OPPORTUNITY OF THE SBNR GROUP

This isn’t the first time Christianity has interacted with an SBNR group. In the fifth Century St. Patrick went as a missionary to the country of Ireland. Due to his previous time (as a prisoner!) with the Irish, he knew their culture well, specifically that they were a deeply mystical people with a deep appreciation for nature. St. Patrick broke with the traditional mold of Catholic evangelism for that time—so much so it drew him into conflict with Rome—but in meeting the Irish where they were at, found in-roads between the Gospel and their culture.

The pagan beliefs of the Irish would have been easy to see as an obstacle, but for St. Patrick they represented an opportunity. It’s the same with the SBNR group. Listen to Pete Holmes talk about much of anything for any period of time and you’ll realize he has a deep curiosity regarding spiritual truth and a wide-open willingness to talk about it. This is common among many (though not all) of the SBNR crowd. While they may reject the idea of an absolute truth that stands against theirs, they are not just willing but often glad to discuss their spiritual beliefs and listen to yours.

For many SBNR’s this means evangelism is not about attacking their belief system using apologetics—they are operating from a fundamentally different perspective that rejects that sort of approach to spirituality—but rather building friendships over time where spirituality is a regular part of the conversation.

According to the Barna article, “[SBNR people] display an uncommon inclination to think beyond the material and to experience the transcendent. Such a desire can open the door to deep, spiritual conversations and, in time, perhaps a willingness to hear about Christian spirituality. The bent of those conversations necessarily must be different though than with those who love Jesus but not the church. The wounds and suspicions toward church will come from different places—as will their understanding of spirituality. But both groups represent people outside of church who have an internal leaning toward the spiritual side of life.”

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Joshua Pease
Josh Pease is a writer & speaker living in Colorado with his wife and two kids. His e-book, The God Who Wasn't There , is available for purchase on Amazon.