Examining the Growth of the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’

Lillian Daniel

Lillian Daniel

Are you SBNR? Why does that threaten some people? Mark Oppenheimer explores the fast-growing non-religion, Spiritual But Not Religious, for the New York Times:

“Spiritual but not religious.” So many Americans describe their belief system this way that pollsters now give the phrase its own category on questionnaires. In the 2012 survey by the Pew Religion and Public Life Project, nearly a fifth of those polled said that they were not religiously affiliated — and nearly 37 percent of that group said they were “spiritual” but not “religious.” It was 7 percent of all Americans, a bigger group than atheists, and way bigger than Jews, Muslims or Episcopalians.

Unsurprisingly, the S.B.N.R.s, as this growing group is often called, are attracting a lot of attention. Four recent books offer perspectives on these Americans who seem to want some connection to the divine, but who don’t feel affiliated with traditional religion. There’s the minister who wants to woo them, two scholars who want to understand them and the psychotherapist who wants to help them.

The Rev. Lillian Daniel’s book “When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough” (Jericho, 2013) began as a short essay for The Huffington Post, in which she voiced her exasperation with the predictability that she found in spiritual but not religious people.

“On airplanes,” Ms. Daniel wrote in the essay, in 2011, “I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.” Before you know it, “he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets.”

“These people always find God in the sunsets,” Ms. Daniel said. “And in walks on the beach.”

The essay spread online, with thousands of Facebook “likes” and reposts. Ms. Daniel heard from so many people that she decided to expand her essay. In the book, Ms. Daniel, a Congregationalist preacher who is pastor at a church near Chicago, argues that spirituality fits too snugly with complacency, even hedonism — after all, who doesn’t like walks in nature? — whereas religion is better at challenging people to face death, fight poverty and oppose injustice. Religion, by bringing people together, in community, at regular intervals, facilitates an ongoing conversation about matters outside the self…

[continues at the New York Times]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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54 Comments on "Examining the Growth of the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’"

  1. lilbear68 | Jul 20, 2014 at 11:12 am |

    so far no one I have spoken to has been able to really define in rock solid terms what ‘spiritual’ really means. like spiritual as in ghosts? or gods other than the Christian ones? Buddhism is just a philosophy. exactly WTF is spiritual? and explain it without a lot of nonsensical gobbledygook that has no place in rational thought

    • I’m not spiritual.

    • “Spiritual but not religious” appears to me to mean that these people lead spiritual lives without the dogma of a religion. It’s not just walks on the beach in the sunset but a way of life in understanding the interconnectedness of all of us on this planet. All of the people that I know who are SBNR are very involved in their communities and care a great deal about people unlike our local churches who only believe in helping the members of their churches or who only help after their dogma has been listened to. SBNR folks often come from traditional religions and are recovering from them.

      As far as “facing death,” we all think about our demises, spiritual, religious, or complete atheist–facing our own death is a human quandary that preceded religion.

      When I find myself around priests, ministers, etc., I move. Ms. Daniel’s closed mind, harsh judgements, and critical assumptions is exactly why.

      • lilbear68 | Jul 20, 2014 at 4:41 pm |

        so far the only conclusion I can come to is an individuals perception of something or event and how that affects the individual. like there could be 2 people observing a mountain sunset (what ever) and 1 feels a deeper more profound sensation while the other just takes it in stride and sees it a pretty scenery

        • Then it’s about the depth of the individual, don’t you think? And, what makes one individual have more depth than another?

      • Adam's Shadow | Jul 20, 2014 at 6:26 pm |

        “On airplanes,” Ms. Daniel wrote in the essay, in 2011, “I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is ‘spiritual but not religious.’”

        Which is why I always bring a book.

        • In my experience it’s someone who’s “found Jeebus” that are far more likely to try and bend your ear for the duration of the flight.

          Ms. Daniel’s mileage obviously varies. Although it has to be observed she has an obvious vested interested in putting forward that fairly flimsy “sunsets and walks on the beach” definition of SBNR.

    • Jin The Ninja | Jul 20, 2014 at 6:53 pm |

      buddhism is by definition a religion. it has a cosmology, spirits of influence, a priesthood, sacred texts, houses of worship. etc etc.

      and i assume by ‘ghosts’ you’re referring to ‘spiritualism’/’spiritism’ which is also defined by a set of beliefs, and while certainly non-centralised, there are many spiritualist congregations, some of which fall within the christian umbrella, unitarian heading or are specific unto themselves.

      • lilbear68 | Jul 20, 2014 at 7:04 pm |

        I disagree, there is no deity/deities in Buddhism which is what usually defines a religion

        • That’s not the exclusive definition in any dictionary I know of.

          • emperorreagan | Jul 20, 2014 at 7:27 pm |

            It’s convenient for appropriating Buddhism to fill some other niche, though.

          • lilbear68 | Jul 20, 2014 at 8:20 pm |

            maybe you could give an inclusive definition and help enlighten

          • Jin The Ninja | Jul 21, 2014 at 3:27 am |

            i thought you already stated your opinion based on fact? or based on…?

          • lilbear68 | Jul 21, 2014 at 9:37 am |

            based on….?
            based on opinion, get it O P I N I O N
            an opinion doesn’t need to be based on anything, or are you going to try to parse it out to an even finer and irrelevant detail. or maybe next youll go into the spelling, punctuation and grammar Nazi mode.

          • Jin The Ninja | Jul 21, 2014 at 12:11 pm |

            are you out of breath after that?
            try taking a deep inhale, followed by an intentional exhale.
            breath is the foundation of buddhist practice.

          • lilbear68 | Jul 21, 2014 at 2:42 pm |

            im sure you will be able to breathe better once you pull your head out

          • Jin The Ninja | Jul 21, 2014 at 4:41 pm |

            not into unbirthing, but thanks anyway.

          • Akarin Tarin Raven | Jul 21, 2014 at 2:34 pm |

            Those people who are well defined and need a dictionary to be able to understand what is being said and to have that very thing used according to what they believe to be the right use of that word are fools. And we are all fools when we become personally hurt when we are misunderstood, or trolled with.

            So let us ignore those that only seek to negate, and debate for the sake of splitting things eternally in two.

            And instead let us laugh and rejoice at our own ability to see all things coming together as being one.

            No boundaries there to divide but the illusion of words in our own minds.

            Laughter is the key, let us be the fools dancing on our hallucinated wings and the song beaming from our heart merely asking us to be.

            To be the creative act that we were meant to be, to be the shifters of paradigms and those that fuck around with norms with ease, where we leave others baffled and teased for making no sense to their minds that are so well defined in logic and narratives of words, spell bound in their simulated world stuck in eternal hell running from time in circles half consciously.

          • Jin The Ninja | Jul 21, 2014 at 5:23 pm |

            words are fixed for a reason.
            we need to understand them.
            that doesn’t mean their meaning
            cannot change over time. if being
            a creative means inventing your own
            word meanings, can you tell me who
            invented esperanto? he’s really known
            for his creative sensibilities.

          • Akarin Tarin Raven | Jul 22, 2014 at 8:06 am |

            These are words with vague meanings, they symbolize a whole worlds of
            their own. For me the word religion doesn’t invoke a definition but the
            sum total of things I have come to connect in some way with that word.
            Even it’s meaning changes in context. Just like I can talk to someone
            about my soul and while I might think I am being clearly understood as
            to what I am trying to refer as soul in that instant, most of the time
            it is not very easily possible to give an accurate understanding of what
            one is trying to say in such abstract realms.

            happens if the person recognizes the feeling and what you are trying to
            say beyond the words. If he thinks the words are all that is needed to
            understand well then that is very foolish thinking.

            I see people
            learn words and memorize loads of definitions but those people are most
            of the time very limited in thinking on their own and working with more
            abstract terms.

            A mathematician who understands his math can
            give you a whole bunch of metaphors with ease to how to describe a
            problem or to make you understand the theory. He can do so using words
            that have nothing to do with math, yet he can with those words
            communicate the understanding and the essence of what he is trying to
            get across.

          • Jin The Ninja | Jul 22, 2014 at 2:30 pm |

            “metaphor is a crucially context-dependent linguistic phenomenon”


            so denotation, syntax and semantics play, at least a partial role, in our understanding of metaphor.

            it’s correct to say buddhism is a religion if in a very real-world context it is.

            personal meanings are indeed useful for one’s self, but they are of limited use in the meanings they hold for other people when communicating.

          • Akarin Tarin Raven | Jul 23, 2014 at 8:02 am |

            I agree with what you are saying, and I also agree with your last statement. Yet in the long run I think some of the misunderstandings we garner when relying on our own use of words, especially more abstract terms, does enable oneself to consider how else one could formulate or bring across ones perspective, so I do not really agree that they are of limited use, but of a different use than when communicating in clear precise defined words, where both parties share the same definition, it is very hard in such a setting to grow beyond the old conceptions and easy to fall into dogma, if one solely relies on that form of usage for words.

          • I don’t think it makes one a fool to point out that Buddhism is a religion.

          • Akarin Tarin Raven | Jul 22, 2014 at 8:06 am |

            I’ve never met Buddhism in a solid state form where I could clearly see all angles and shapes that make it up. Perhaps Religion is Buddhist, instead of Buddhism being religious?

          • Jin The Ninja | Jul 22, 2014 at 9:13 am |

            religion is an institution.
            have you ever been to thailand?
            buddhism, in thailand, is institutional.
            that is all it means when you say something
            is a ‘religion.’

        • Jin The Ninja | Jul 21, 2014 at 3:23 am |

          there is no creator deity, no cosmogenesis in buddhist mythology. that hardly rules out deities in toto. kuan yin, fudo-myo, guru rinpoche, tara, medicine buddha, jambala, the monkey king et al.
          all entities petitioned through a buddhist framework. all entities very exalted within the east asian sphere. temples devoted to their worship, entire canons written on their paths and meditations centered on their power.

          there are other spirits of influence: nagas, hungry ghosts, and demons. which are then exorcised, dispelled and subdued using various magico-religious rites.

          there are funeral rites, birth rites, a distinct calendar,(s), multiple denominations, multiple syncretisms, paths within paths. multiple canons and an accepted dogma.

          sounds like a religion to me. eliade, wiki and websters all agree.

  2. It’s like people who believe in democracy but don’t vote.

    • BuzzCoastin | Jul 20, 2014 at 12:38 pm |

      it’s like people who believe in democracy
      but vote in fake election rituals

    • No, it’s like people who believe in democracy but prefer not to just cast their vote exactly where they’re told by the main players of the establishment system.

  3. Number1Framer | Jul 20, 2014 at 12:25 pm |

    Don’t worry religionists, this latest threat to the market share you hold over people’s minds isn’t going to put you out of your sweet little tax-free businesses. Wouldn’t it be great though? If it weren’t for the crusades, who would McDonald’s have copied for their multinational business plan of moving in everywhere and crushing local competition?

  4. BuzzCoastin | Jul 20, 2014 at 12:43 pm |

    when God was asked about Her religion
    She said
    I’m spiritual but not religious

  5. InfvoCuernos | Jul 20, 2014 at 3:38 pm |

    Because sbnr sounds more mature than “I believe in magick and faeries but not in your brand of make-believe.”

  6. Some people’s gnoses smell of solipsism and Ego.

    • Akarin Tarin Raven | Jul 20, 2014 at 4:29 pm |

      And some people smell. Who cares?

    • *shrug* I’ll still take most of those people over the Rev. Lillian Daniel and the rest of her (literally) holier-than-thou ilk.

  7. Anarchy Pony | Jul 20, 2014 at 6:03 pm |

    Spiritual but not religious. Kind of sounds like your basic noncommittal cop out to me.

  8. I’m pagan but not goat-sacrificing.

    Or possibly Freemason but not goat-riding.

    What is it with the goats, anyway? I vaguely recall Yahweh saying that He found huge piles of them on fire pleasing to His Infinite Nostrils. Or was that oxen? He liked a good live animal barbecue, anyway, did the old testament god of all things. The more shrieking and bleating and screaming and suffering the better.

    Which sounds a bit like what Christians historically accused “pagans” of, really.

    Weird, that. You could almost call it projection.

  9. David1225 | Jul 21, 2014 at 12:00 am |

    Ms. Daniel sounds awfully smug for a Congregationalist.

  10. AManCalledDa-da | Jul 21, 2014 at 1:05 am |

    Religion is about control. Spirituality is about freedom. Needless to say, freedom is the new brown.


    • Echar Lailoken | Jul 21, 2014 at 12:49 pm |

      Did you go through the proper authority channels to come to this? If not, blasphemer!

  12. Echar Lailoken | Jul 21, 2014 at 12:52 pm |

    I do and be what is best for me. What is best for me, is best for others. Sometimes that changes through experience.

  13. Sergio Poalsky | Jul 21, 2014 at 1:02 pm |

    This woman is a butt-hurt weirdo, she seems to view everyone as a failed attempt at being her. With that aside the label ‘spiritual’ doesn’t seem to have a very rigid definition. What does ‘spiritual’ mean? belief in something beyond the material?

  14. Kyle W. Bradley | Jul 25, 2014 at 12:43 pm |

    i think it would be more interesting to be religious but not spiritual..yeah i’m all about the control but i don’t need your fantasies! wait..that would just make me a politician. oh well.

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