Minister Studies Why Americans are 'Spiritual but Not Religious'

With more Americans describing themselves as "spiritual but not religious," one researcher set out to find what that statement really means.

The Rev. Linda Mercadante, a professor of theology at Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio, conducted research on this growing segment of the American population and found possible reasons why the "spiritual" tend to stay away from the church or religious practices.

"I heard the same arguments over and over again," said Mercadante, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), according to the Presbyterian News Service.

After speaking to SBNRs (spiritual but not religious) across the country, all of whom volunteered for 90-minute interviews, Mercadante found that many of them are not in the church – or are not religious – because of "stereotypical arguments against organized religion and the claims of churches."

"I don't know where this script comes from – no one knows any real churches that fit this profile or stereotype," she said, according to the denomination's news service.

Some of the stereotypes SBNRs listed include churches' claim to "exclusive truthfulness – that they have a corner on the truth market;" churches demanding that personal beliefs be abdicated; churches demanding conformity to a "corporate mentality;" and churches professing arbitrary or implausible beliefs, among others.

According to Robert C. Fuller, author of the 2001 book Spiritual, But Not Religious, it is likely that one in every five persons could describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Fuller cited a study in which those who described themselves as SBNRs were less likely to evaluate religiousness positively, less likely to engage in traditional forms of worship such as church attendance and prayer, and more likely to characterize religiousness and spirituality as different and nonoverlapping concepts.

Spirituality, in that study, was associated with higher levels of interest in mysticism, experimentation with unorthodox beliefs and practices, and negative feelings toward both clergy and churches. Religiousness, meanwhile, was associated with higher levels of interest in church attendance and commitment to orthodox beliefs.

"Those who see themselves as 'spiritual, but not religious' reject traditional organized religion as the sole-or even the most valuable-means of furthering their spiritual growth. Many have had negative experiences with churches or church leaders," according to Fuller.

While negative feelings toward the church and organized religion remain, respondents of Mercadante's recent study reported little negative experience with churches. Mercadante went as far as rejecting the common assumption that many people are not religious because of a bad experience at a church. It is simply not true, she said, citing "very minimal reporting by people that they had been hurt in or by the church."

Based on her findings, which she plans to publish in book, Mercadante concluded, "I think it's clear that much of the problem organized religion faces today is not really the church's fault.

"We are experiencing a massive cultural shift that is extremely hard to keep up with and the church always lags behind these shifts – too slowly, obviously, for some people."

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