Spiritual or Religious – What Are We?

Spiritual or Religious?

 Spiritual or Religious?

Spirituality is in vogue. As Americans use the term “religious,” it is increasingly limited to dogma, ritual and other religious practices, and institutions. Whereas, “spiritual” and “spirituality” are far more inclusive, encompassing all of their lives. Large groups of Americans want to deepen their spirituality, and self-understanding, according to surveys.

University of California religious scholar Wade Clark Roof reports:

“Even though 74 percent of our people say they are ‘religious,’ and 73 percent say they are ‘spiritual,’ there is no one-on-one relationship.”

Church organThese groups overlap to a large extent. But they include people who say they are “spiritual but not religious,” or “religious but not spiritual.” So the terms are not the same.

Over 100 years ago, the psychologist William James made a similar distinction between what he called “secondhand” and “firsthand” religion. He saw secondhand religion as based on traditional forms, compared with firsthand religion rising from a person’s own direct experience.

When Spirituality and Religion Were the Same

Before the 1960s the two words “spiritual” and “religious” were synonymous, and the word “spiritual” little used. Since that time a distinction has emerged. For most Americans, religion means a personal faith in God and identification with a religious denomination. Professor Roof notes religions have comprehensive belief systems, expressed in myth, symbol, ritual, and stories. Sermons, music, lights, candles, and other such phenomena may trigger experiences of awe and mystery, which creates a sense of the sacred.

Church candles Some people revere tradition for its own sake. For them, ritual turns into ritualism, dogma into dogmatism – spirit loses out to form. In this case people hold to the religious but lack its spiritual dimension. This is a frequent event among those who claim to have the ultimate truth, according to Roof.

Looking at a personal religion just in terms of current institutions or acceptance of a single tradition is less and less workable. By 1978, pollster George Gallup reported eight out of ten Americans agreed with the statement “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.” Roof reports increased openness among conservative Christians, as well as mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

The Rise of Spirituality

Spiritual girlMore and more, people see spirituality as something distinct from religion. Many think the beliefs, practices and rituals of organized religion are stagnant, encrusted, and limited by traditional culture.

Authority of religious institutions has been in decline for decades, says Roof. Turning inward and looking to one’s own experience for guidance and truth matches a growing spirit of independence in every tradition. This means people make their own decisions, question authority, and make themselves final arbiter of what to believe and practice. Religious authority lies more in the person than in the church or the bible.

Spiritual Quests

cathedral-coveSocial scientists find religion has two major areas of concern, personal meaning and social belonging. But today the search for personal meaning is the most important for most people. The spiritual quest is taking on more significance.

Roof believes our current religious situation in the US is not so much a loss of faith, as a shift from unquestioned belief to a more open, questing mood. People are creating a “quest culture,” hoping for a more authentic and satisfying life.

American Spirit of Free Inquiry

To assert one’s own views in matters of faith and morality as opposed to blind loyalty to institutions is a cherished ideal for most Americans. Individuals feel free to make religious decisions themselves. Roof notes,

Stars in space“By their actions [Americans] affirm the individual over the group, personal experience over inherited creed, and self reliance over social conformity.” “To believe in oneself and to follow one’s conscience, even if it means breaking from tradition or withstanding strong group pressures, are closely in line with popular religious teachings.”

I ponder that perhaps America is a very religious country because we have the freedom to choose our religions. In most other countries, the religious establishment is associated with the other forms of government-sponsored control over populations.

Long Tradition of Inner-Oriented Movements

America has a long tradition of spiritual movements that placed great emphasis on the inner life and possibilities for its transformation, on mystical happenings, and the frontiers of the mind. These movements were very optimistic about person’s own power to shape their fate. They emphasized the connection between the self, the universe and the divine spark within every individual. These themes meshed well with the American spirit of freedom and self-reliance.

Self reflective maskRobert Wuthnow, professor of Sociology and Religion at Princeton University says we pride ourselves on being a free society. We encourage our children to think for themselves, make up their own minds and defend their choices. Along these lines, Roof says:

“There are metaphysical believers whose traditions are identified more as spiritual than religious, who resist the ‘R’ word because it connotations of religious establishment.” They say they are “spiritual but not religious.”

Professor Wuthnow estimates somewhere between a sixth and a third of young adults fit this category.

Many spiritual seekers are trying to cultivate a mystical consciousness, a merging with the sacred. For them, spiritual experience is not derived from symbols, but is guided by learning and disciplined practice. These people work at becoming spiritual.

Exposed to various teachings and techniques, they honor their own creativity and plunge forward. The word “spiritual” is a positive part of their self-identity. People speak of their own little voice, and the realizations about life which come from listening to this voice.

Direct Experience, Inner Self, and a Transcendent God

Today’s spiritual ferment indicates a deep hunger for a self-transformation, says Roof. Spiritual experiences can carry one away in a rush of energy and excitement. In such moments, people report experiencing little distinction between self and what they are doing. They break the boundaries of ego and move into an expanded state of consciousness.

Contemplative sand What they experience are deeply internalized moments of mystery, heightened self-awareness and creativity. Turning inward after an early oppressive and conformist life is spiritually rejuvenating.

These deep experiences occur both outside and inside religious groups. However. important differences in beliefs exist between those who stress faith in a transcendent God, and those who stress the inner self as sacred. But conservative Christians and the New Age movement share many themes. They both emphasis the need for direct experience, physical and emotional healing, and personal and social transformation.

Professor Wuthnow notes when comparing personal experience and church doctrines, two-thirds of Americans choose personal experience as the best way to understand the sacred. Yet the main pattern among Americans and young adults is not “spirituality” or “religion,” but spirituality and religion.


Continuous cultural change along with increasing complexity and social pressure breeds distrust of tradition. Tradition struggles to give adequate answers to life’s questions, given constant changing social mores and values.

Tower complexity As a result, the process of seeking the spiritual within oneself and not from a source outside of ourselves has gained tremendous credibility. Even the congregations of the major traditional churches seem divided between the traditional believers and those who choose to find their own way. The “cafeteria Catholics” and the “smorgasbord Protestants” pick and choose what traditional beliefs they want to accept.

The individual, the spiritual seeker, has become the final arbiter of what they will believe, not an institution or church. There is an increasing realization that the old ways are not always the best ways. Thus many people go on their own quest to find what is true for them. Some are aware that beliefs change as we grow older and more experienced, so they expect future flexible in their beliefs. So more and more people, spiritual or religious, are saying, “I reserve the right to change my mind.”

Flower on music


For reviews of Dr. Roof’s book Spiritual Marketplace – Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion on Amazon, click here.

For reviews of Dr. Wuthnow’s book After the Baby Boomers – How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion on Amazon, click here.


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