Experts Agree— “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Extremely Important—Too Bad They Can’t Define It

Since I spend my summers near Minneapolis, I have become a part of a working group at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, that is called the Religion and the Public University Collaborative (RPUC).  Tomorrow we will discuss research by sociologist Nancy Ammerman that led to her important book, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes. Often I’m delinquent at RPUC, if I can even manage to participate remotely, yet I am not entirely expelled. And it turns out that I read Ammerman’s book carefully and reviewed it when it came out—such that sharing the review with my compatriots seems logical.

Unfortunately this is less straightforward than it may seem, in a way that might be interesting to a certain kind of academic geek that that I am.

To begin there is the first draft I wrote— conceivably a “first thought, best thought” formulation to run with.  I will return to that.  But sadly my first/best was far longer than my word limits—the story of my life— such that a quite different published version reads as follows:

This is an important critique of common wisdom about the supposed polar differences between the “spiritual” and “religious” and by extension about the upsurge of “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR.) The base of evidence—95 fairly representative although disproportionately suburbanite people from Atlanta and Boston—sometimes feels narrow, but is deeper than average since Templeton Foundation funded extensive interviews plus exercises like journaling and photographing meaningful places in people’s lives. Importantly, Ammerman is extending her previous research on Golden Rule Christianity.

Ammerman’s method is using vernacular narratives and descriptions of practices across various domains of life to document lived spirituality. Although the theoretical intervention sometimes gets lost in meandering and repetitive middle chapters, the conclusion pointedly rejects rational choice theories, sweeping secularization models, and the narrowness of certain Weberians. She retools Durkheim’s sacred/profane distinction, now conceived as a continuum and attuned less to consensus than to small groups in everyday life.

In line with common sense, Ammerman documents the multivocal practical meanings of “spirituality”: (1) theistic language plus associated practices like praying or participation in churches; (2) discourses about the sacred immanent in nature, the arts, families, or neopagan practice; and (3) assumptions about spirituality correlating with morality. More importantly, she emphasizes something that should become common sense: being spiritual is not an alternative to being religious—rather the two typically coincide. The few people who fit a SBNR profile are mainly pious evangelicals who use Protestant rhetoric against empty ritualism or people who in practice are neither religious nor spiritual.   

Is this suitable for a blog? Blogs supposedly prioritize concision, too— but in this case concision implies assuming that readers know about Ammerman’s argument about “Golden Rule Christianity” (that’s her umbrella term for liberal Protestants, liberal Catholics, and the center-left fraction of evangelicals whom I call “stealth liberal Protestants,” but whom conservative evangelicals call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.”)  Likewise I presuppose familiarity with a free-market approach to religion called rational choice theory, the use and misuse of Durkheim in the sociology of religion, “sweeping secularization models,” and more. Maybe that’s for a longer essay to unpack, rather than a booknote— and certainly now is not the time and place for that.

Later I wrote the following words, citing Ammerman among others, in an essay I wrote for this book, which will feed into my book called Listening for More: Spirituality and Cultural Critique in American Popular Music.  The context is how, if one wants to explore intersections between religion and music, there is a prior problem of settling on an operational definition for what “religion” will be— an acute problem when so many musicians want to be considered (the cool kind of) “spiritual” but desperately hope not to be lumped in with “Christian rock” even if they are actually Christian. Amid this range of artists, what to do with musicians who claim to be “spiritual but not religious”?  Are they relevant to my data set or not?  In what follows I picked up that thread.  First I argued that a definition of religion that cannot distinguish between forms of music that are “more religious” as opposed to “less religious”—since whatever we like is “our religion” by definition—is both too broad to help us and out of sync with vernacular usage.  Then (here slightly edited for clarity) I continued:

Our vernacular gives mixed messages about spirituality. People contrast “religion”—referencing institutions and external authorities like the Roman Catholic hierarchy with its dogmas, canon lawyers, and lobbyists—with “spiritualities” that are centered on internalized values and moods (typically cultivated individually) and which treat submission to external authority as something strictly optional and probably undesirable.  This can easily distort lived experience, since religion often includes cultivating personal values and questioning illegitimate authority. Certainly it does not refer solely to whatever is left over after spirituality (as defined above) is filtered out.

Meanwhile, importantly, there is also a vernacular category for the spiritual/religious, in which these two terms blend on a shared continuum. For example, someone whose life is entwined with Catholic institutions (religion) would naturally have values and emotions (spirituality) informed by Catholicism (as a mode of religion/spirituality.)

Given that many musicians and their fans say they are spiritual but not religious, and given our plan to focus on religion (guided by vernacular concepts) a question arises whether to include this blurred continuum under our rubric of religion interacting with popular music.  I think the answer is clearly yes—and not solely because many self-styled spiritual people do not force a zero-sum choice.

Also relevant is that many people underestimate how things that feel to them like mere individual taste or common sense may be covertly informed by larger traditions.  For example, Madonna and Oprah Winfrey are role models for spiritualities that were shaped by Italian popular Catholicism and African American Protestantism—whether or not their fans are conscious of this. More abstractly, if we overlay core distinctions from Protestant theology (external law, work-righteousness, and ritualism versus internalized grace and the priesthood of all believers) onto a religious vs. spiritual distinction, the match is too close for coincidence.  

In other words, to be self-consciously anti-religious may be the same as being formed by Protestant traditions. Perhaps we could debate whether to call this a vernacular understanding, but for many Protestants it at least comes close.  In any case it suggests how spirituality and religion are entangled.  If we treat the self-professed “spiritual but not religious” as religious, we do foist a label on them that they may not desire—not an ideal situation. But still it is more illuminating, for understanding more people, to use an umbrella category that conflates the spiritual and religious on the same continuum, as opposed to using spirituality as a zero-sum distinction to split off and marginalize religion.

As if this were not enough, there is the version of my published review that I actually saved on my hard drive. It reinstates the last few dozen words I squeezed out of the smashed-down version and adds a few key points that I never bothered to try to stuff in.  In theory this one would have been the best to post here— if I had actually finished it.

Instead we come around, finally, to my first draft. My son always told me that I revise too much: “first thought, best thought” is the way forward.  So here’s a test. Sentences I rushed over and never did finish, plus two short stretches that made the final version, are marked below in brackets: 

Ammerman makes an important intervention against sociological and pundit-based common wisdoms about the supposed polar differences between “spiritual” and “religious.”  [Next little stretch stayed close to the first paragraph of final.]

Importantly she builds on a wide base of her longstanding and important work on “Golden Rule Christianity”—giving additional depth and texture to this work, and especially how the ideas of “spiritual” or the (supposedly increasingly important) category of “spiritual but not religious” function for such people. Her end game is to capture this in the form of narratives in her informants’ vernacular.

Many of her findings simply reinforce common sense.  Unsurprisingly she finds the idea of “spiritual” to be fluid and multi-voiced, including [short stretch similar to the final version about “theistic,” “extra-theistic,” and “moral” understandings of “the spiritual.”]

Importantly, Ammerman underlines something that in my view should be common sense but is not: that being spiritual is not an alternative to being religious—rather they typically coincide.  Most of the people Ammerman interviewed who use the idea of “spiritual but not religious” are either pious evangelicals using a typical Protestant rhetoric against “empty ritualism” (Catholic or closer to home) or people for whom religion is, in fact, not salient just as they say—but who actually are not very engaged with spirituality either

The theoretical intervention of all this is understated—especially in the meandering and repetitive middle sections of the book— but forceful and thoughtful. Ammerman is especially disgusted with the rational choice theories popularized by scholars like Rodney Stark, and she underlines how her data make Stark seem notably non-illuminating. She argues that Martin Reisebrodt’s reworking of Weber’s theory of religion is too narrowly focused [say more about how] to fully account for her sample. She takes for granted that strong forms of secularization theory are out of touch with the ongoing salience of [public religion? religious practice?], and proposes to build on but rework a Durkheimian distinction between the sacred and profane that… [talk about rethinking a consensus approach etc.] 

That’s three steps forward and creates an argument that needs to be widely digested and discussed. Sadly the descriptive chapters in the middle sections of the book are one step backward—far  too repetitive and at times surprisingly lame and/or delimited in scope.  Stick with the first couple of chapters or the article version of her report—that’s five stars. The conclusion is worth five stars for the content and four for presentation. As for the rest of the book, it was a let-down.

Any geeks still with me? Anyone think that, even after the huge amount of time I spent revising and compressing, this last version is best—other than disrespecting my word limits, not reining in my voice as “scholarly” conventions may have preferred, and not being fully polished? Maybe that’s just me, and I’ve only managed my own meandering and repetitive package of steps forward and steps backward.  Who knows?

Still, perhaps some of my compatriots at RPUC will find this somewhat useful or interesting, and perhaps someone else who has come this far will too.  Or then again I could tear it down after the meeting tomorrow.   


MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.

One thought on “Experts Agree— “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Extremely Important—Too Bad They Can’t Define It

  1. First, a tip of the hat to you for reaching beyond the religious/academic sphere to share your thoughts with the wider world. That is a bold move.

    I confess to having only a passing acquaintance with some of the writers to whom you refer, and a complete non-acquaintance with some others. Even so, I have had a lifetime of interactions with various religious and academic groups and I have some empathy with your dilemma.

    As naive as this may appear, I suspect that none of us has a clear definition of spirituality. It seems to me that we are jumping the gun to analyze what is meant by “spiritual but not religious” if we do not define the terms. My hunch is that many people who use this phrase simply mean that they have feelings and they interpret those feelings as being somehow “spiritual.” If so, then we need to dig down on the perception of the spirit and all that that entails or includes.

    Your discussion of musicians and popular culture icons hints at this, but I would like to see a more thorough consideration. And, don’t let them off the hook. If they are neither spiritual nor religious, say so.

    Your son has good advice. I would add that if you take out the first section of everything you write, then reduce what you write by at least 10%, you will be on the right track. And that’s not just advice for you. That’s for me and every other writer out there.


Leave a Reply to Snowbird of Paradise Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s