Comment & Analysis

What ‘spiritual not religious’ really means
People shy away from the word ‘religious’ because of its negative baggage, writes David Quinn

It’s fairly fashionable now for people to describe themselves as “spiritual not religious”, but what does it mean when they say that? It certainly signifies an aversion to being called ‘religious’. To be ‘religious’ has connotations of being a ‘Holy Joe’, or of being ‘dogmatic’, or being regimented and of being unwilling to think for yourself. Who wants to be considered any of these things? 

Being ‘spiritual’ is a way of saying you appreciate there is more to life than the merely material, that there are higher things you should be in touch with, but at the same time you are not hidebound or dogmatic. 

I think calling yourself ‘spiritual but not religious’ is also a product of a highly individualistic age in which people are very reluctant to admit or imply that they have given up any part of their freedom to something bigger than themselves that has rules and expectations – in the case of religion, to a religious community (the Church being the community of the followers of Christ).

This same individualism means that people are much more reluctant to join a political party than in decades past, or even to admit to being a loyal supporter of any given party. The political equivalent of the person who is ‘spiritual but not religious’ is the floating voter. The equivalent of the person who is neither religious nor spiritual is the person who might not vote at all and who is either uninterested in politics or completely disillusioned with it. 


I think what I’ve just written more or less accurately describes what a person is trying to say when they declare themselves to be ‘spiritual not religious’. However, it doesn’t cover the totality of what they are trying to say because people are complex, what goes on in their heads is often a product of competing ideas and motivations that are often downright contradictory.

I remember being on a radio show last year with Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland to discuss how Census 2016 should ask the question about religion and how people should answer it. Myself and Michael both agreed that if a person rejected much of what the Catholic Church believes and only attends Mass for weddings and the like, and they belong to no other religion, then they should tick the ‘none’ box in the Census form.

One irate woman phoned in to berate me over what I had said. She rejected much of what the Catholic Church teaches, she said, and she almost never attended Mass, but she still considered herself to be a Catholic and I had no right to say otherwise.

This woman might well describe herself as ‘spiritual not religious’ while at the same time considering herself to be a Catholic.

A new opinion poll from the Pew Forum in the United States delves more deeply into what is going on in people’s head when they describe themselves in this way, and discovers that an awful lot of them say they are not religious, while at the same time calling themselves Protestant or Catholic.

Overall, the poll finds that the number saying they are spiritual not religious has increased over the last five years from 19% to 27% and the number who say they are neither spiritual nor religious has increased from 16% to 18%. The number who say they are religious and spiritual has gone down from 59% to 48%.

But now things start to get complicated because 35% of those who say they are spiritual not religious nonetheless say they are Protestant, almost the same number as those who say they unaffiliated (37%). Fourteen percent say they are Catholic, 11% ‘other’ and the rest don’t know.


To put it another way, of those who say they are spiritual not religious, 62% still identity with a named religion. So, what is going on in their heads? How can they say they are not religious but still say they belong to a given religion? 

Again, I think it is because of the negative baggage the word ‘religious’ currently carries so these people can think they are Catholic or Protestant without thinking they are religious. I’ve come across Evangelical Christians who say they are Christian but not religious. They say Jesus Himself wasn’t religious, or at least not in the way a lot of people understand that word. 

Jesus certainly wasn’t hidebound, for example, nor did he seem very ritualistic in his habits, and he stood up to the religious authorities of his day. 

Things get more complicated still when we find that even many of those who say they are neither religious nor spiritual still identity with a named religion. You’d have thought nearly everyone in this group would shy away from calling themselves Catholic or Protestant or Jewish and so on. But it turns out that 44% of this group do still identity with a given religion.

What we also find is that regular attendance at religious service is quite strong among the ‘spiritual not religious’ group. Seventeen percent attend a service every week and another 32% do so monthly or yearly. Even among the neither religious nor spiritual group, 8% attend a religious service weekly and 27% do so monthly or yearly.

As you would expect, the group most likely to attend a religious service every week are those who say they are religious and spiritual (55% go at least weekly).

If we have to sum up these findings, I suppose we would say that when someone says they are not religious, it doesn’t mean they have rejected religion per se. Far from it. What it seems to mean is that they have rejected or are uncomfortable with a certain form of religiosity. 

This describes many Americans and it probably describes many Irish people as well. But let’s not read more into it than we should.