The modern distinction between religion and spirituality began to develop about 50 years ago.2 Although spirituality had been an accepted part of each world religion historically, the new spirituality of the 20th century was a problem for religious authorities who sought to maintain control and orthodoxy in a rapidly changing world. Reviewing this development in 1989, Sandra Schneiders observed:
The term “spirituality” often carried pejorative connotations; it came to be
associated with questionable enthusiasms or even heretical forms of spiritual
A 1997 study of Americans who described themselves as “SBNR” found that subjects associated “Religious” with orthodox beliefs and high participation in institutional worship, and “Spiritual” with experimentation, interest in mysticism and negative attitudes toward both clergy and religious organizations.4 In 2001, two books with similar titles were published in the United States, both bringing the SBNR phenomenon to the attention of scholars and religious leaders: Robert C. Fuller's Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America and Sven E. Erlandson's Spiritual But Not Religious: A Call To Religious Revolution In America.5 David Tacey was publishing his research on the same phenomenon in Australia at about the same time.6 Peter C. Emberley’s Divine Hunger: Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout was published in 2002.7 These were followed by other specific studies internationally;8 but the research efforts did not sum to a coherent whole. Generally, spirituality was seen as more individual and subjective, religion more relational and institutional, but there was no consistency in defining the terms.9
Spirituality is an elusive term: it is at times vague and imprecise. There are almost
as many definitions of it as there are people.10
Smith and Snell attempted a finer definition of groupings in 2009 by developing a typology of “Emerging Adults” (aged 18 to 30) in the United States according to their relationship to “Religion” – defined as traditional, institutional expressions of spirituality.11 Their study was based on a large enough national random sample (N=3290) to estimate the proportion of the U.S. population that fits into each type, as displayed below with a representative quotation:
1. Committed (traditional) 15% “I am really committed.”
2. Selective 30% “I do some of what I can.”
3. Spiritually Open 15% “There’s probably something more out there.”
4. Religiously Indifferent 25% “It just doesn’t matter much.”
6. Irreligious 10% “Religion just makes no sense.”
These categories do not distinguish the SBNR population from atheists and agnostics who do not claim to be spiritual; but media polls do suggest that the SBNR population is quite large. In 2005, Newsweek published a Beliefnet poll reporting that 24% of Americans self-identified as SBNR;12 and Gallup reported a 33% statistic that same year, using a slightly different question.13 In April 2010, USA Today caught the attention of religious leaders and researchers alike with its headline: “Survey: 72% of Millennials ‘more spiritual than religious’”.14
One of the most ambitious research projects was conducted out of UCLA beginning in 2003.15 It included a longitudinal study of 112,232 university and college students in 236 postsecondary institutions over several years. Astin and his colleagues used Likert Scales of frequency and intensity with such operational definitions of “Being Religious” as the following:
I believe in God.
I attend religious services.
I follow religious teachings in everyday life.
Some of the indicators of “Being Spiritual” were:
I believe in the sacredness of life.
I have discussions about the meaning of life with friends.
I search for the meaning/purpose of life.
This project generated a wealth of material relating dimensions of religiosity and spirituality to variables related to success in campus life and starting careers. It attracted the interest of student advisory professionals all over the world, as well as religious leaders and other researchers; but the data set is so large and detailed that it stands alone in the field at this time. For example, in parallel with the dimensions approach to the study of religiosity, the UCLA team broke down the concept of spirituality into a number of dimensions. But, as they say, “it is difficult to make direct comparisons between our ten measures and most of the measures developed by earlier investigators, because of substantial differences in survey design.”16
All this research is provocative as much for the questions it raises as for the ones it answers. Is the SBNR population increasing in the United States? Are the Smith-and-Snell proportions shifting? What would be comparative statistics for other countries? Is this phenomenon evidence of the decline of religion or transformation into new forms? Will the SBNR individuals develop new faith communities? Does spirituality function in the lives of SBNR people in ways similar to how religion has historically served individuals and society?
One of the dynamics is that the SBNR population tends to be young: the largest numbers of them are found in populations of young adults.17 That being the case, research has focused on young adults in order to find answers.