Spirituality vs. Religion
“I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.”
We hear this phrase frequently when people tell us about themselves, and it seems to be a viewpoint that is catching on in the U.S.
In a 2017 Pew Research Poll, 27 percent of Americans said they considered themselves spiritual but not religious, up 8 points from the five years before.
The increase occurred is seen regardless of race, age, sex and political affiliation, which begs the question: Why?
What is it about the branding of the term “religious” that makes people — especially young people — refuse to identify with it?
Polls from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that about 1 in 5 Americans have swapped their childhood religious identity for an unaffiliated one as adults. This proportion is even greater in the 18-29 age group, with 39 percent self-identifying as unaffiliated.
Some don’t start with aversions to religious affiliation. Often, people take a hard turn away from all things religious as they grow up because of perceptions of religion.
Sixty percent of those who left their childhood religions cited that they stopped believing in its teachings and 29 percent said they left because of the religion’s teachings about the treatment of LGBTQ+ people, according to PRRI.
Some religious groups have progressed and changed their stances on homosexuality and other hot-button political issues, but that hasn’t changed the trend of denomination losses. The more progressive and even left-leaning churches have not seen overall growth, according to religionnews.com, which means people are still opting to remain spiritual even when religious affiliation doesn’t necessarily entail some of what turned them off in the first place.
Spirituality is defined as the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. It can also mean a sensitivity or attachment to religious values, according to Merriam-Webster.
Those values are often universal. In most religions there is a focus on love, being neighborly, being truthful and authentic, helping others and respecting human life and experiences.
These values are often found in religious doctrine, like the Ten Commandments in Judaism and Christianity, and they are also a part of the moral fabric of secular society. We know it is wrong to hurt and kill people, to lie and to leave behind someone in need.
“A spiritual person would be one who performs his duties with total integrity and honesty and has right conduct and right attitude,” said Alok Ranjan, former chief secretary of the Government of Uttar Pradesh in a blog post for the Times of India.
These are some of the founding principles of most major religious movements, in addition to the idea that there is a divine being watching over us and holding us accountable to these principles. The 2014 Pew Research Religious Landscapes Study found that about 88 percent of Americans had varying degrees of a belief in God.
Organized religion has the spiritual and divine components, but is systematic and formally established by humans who work to apply it to varying aspects of daily life — from worship practices to how one dresses or speaks.
Some of these are derived directly from religious texts and human interpretation of them and are often built upon years and years of tradition. Proponents of practicing religion sometimes say the set system holds people more accountable and creates a sense of faithful community.
“It’s important to remember that it is institutions and not abstract feelings that tie a community together and lead to meaningful change,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles said in a Time op-ed piece.
It can be true that people use the “spirituality” label to escape consequences and keep all aspects of their faith positive, as Wolpe says. Religious groups do offer structure and concrete teachings on morality and existence and can foster a sense of community.
But different people thrive on varying degrees of structure and sometimes, the structure of organized religion — much like other institutions — goes beyond the pursuit of faith and into the pursuit of political or societal gain.
Spirituality is, at its core, often a more individualized take on the principles that make up major religions. There is less focus among those who classify themselves as spiritual on religious observance or services, according to Pew. This illustrates that the aversion is not to the principles or the god one might serve, but rather to the systems that man has built around those principles and gods.