Matthew Bowman: You’ve heard of ‘spiritual but not religious.’ What about ‘religious but not spiritual’?

Why institutions like churches matter even as more Americans pursue more individualized paths.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Cathedral of the Madeleine in the Salt Lake City on 2021. Religious scholar Matthew Bowman says churches are not simply bastions of dictates and authority. They also preserve traditions and provide community.

About 1 in 4 Americans identify as “spiritual but not religious,” but what exactly does that mean?

Today, almost as a matter of instinct, we associate “religion” with cold words like “institution” and “orthodoxy,” while “spirituality” feels warm, personal, internal.

But the Pew Research Center, one of the most respected forums for the study of religion in our country, notes that roughly half of Americans don’t experience the two terms as a binary. They call themselves both “spiritual” and “religious.” And, to complicate the matter, many others call themselves “religious but not spiritual.”

Parsing out how people understand these terms working in their lives helps us understand the variety of options on today’s religious landscape. Being “spiritual but not religious” seems to have momentum behind it, sociologically speaking, since the number of Americans who make that declaration has risen steadily in recent polls.

Still, the diversity of these categories should make us wonder about our options.

The concept of “spiritual but not religious” is the product of a particular set of modern conditions. Two are worth mentioning here.

A wave of distrust in institutions in American life swelled in the 1960s, the birth decade of a whole range of protest movements and the national traumas of the Vietnam War and, the next decade, the Watergate scandal. It has not yet declined. According to the Gallup Poll, 31% of Americans trust organized religion, which is, it turns out, a better rating than television news, the Supreme Court or public schools. So Americans appear to be equal-opportunity doubters of organizations. Even so, 31% is not terribly high.

The way being spiritual but not religious works in the United States also owes a debt to the consumer capitalism that has overtaken our lives in the past century. Corporations have trained us to think of our lives as a series of choices among products that reflect in some way what we want to be. We grow up thinking that finding happiness and forming our identities is intimately connected to the particular brands — from types of licorice to restaurants to smartphones to colleges to spouses to religion — that we choose to ornament our lives.

What ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ have come to mean

For example: The media have taught us that the sort of car you drive is a way to signal your political loyalties. There is no logical reason to, in a vacuum, connect Subarus and tattoos with Democrats or Fords and baseball caps with Republicans, but we take those associations for granted. Such is the power of branding. Similarly, young Americans associate the word “religion” with conservative politics, and many believe that picking the first means picking the second. Instead, many who identify as spiritual but not religious tend to sample spiritual practices from many traditions as they might brands of cereal; yoga here and tarot there, meditation combined with dream catchers. In so doing, studies show they believe themselves to be expressing tolerance and pursuing the idea of authenticity.

All of this means that Americans today associate “religious” with organizations and “spiritual” with individuality — and therefore “religion” has come to be connected to ideas of corruption and abuse; “spiritual,” with choice and freedom.

And, of course, from Watergate to Enron to sexual abuse scandals, institutions seem as though they have always been rife with impulses toward self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. Those who are spiritual but not religious can emphasize the importance of individual autonomy and liberation in ways that can call attention to abuse of power and the dehumanizing effects of institutionalization.

Still, it is possible that institutions can benefit us. It is possible we can learn from people who call themselves religious but not spiritual. A reflexive adherence to the logic of branding and a knee-jerk suspicion of institutions can carry their own ills. They can deceive us into believing that we are entirely the products of our own decisions and choices, and that is a lie that can inflict paralyzing anxiety and deep loneliness.

The truth is that our identities and convictions are assembled through relationships. We come to believe what those around us believe. We value what we learn to value from books, social media, classes, family, friends. If you value the time you spend with people who think any sort of spiritual practice, from Gregorian chants to yoga, is important, you will come to see the beauty in it. If your social media feed is full of activists, you will begin organizing yourself, or feel guilty if you don’t.

The value of institutions

We are basically social creatures. We are formed and anchored in communities, and the more aware we are about that fact, the wiser our choices will be. Accepting the power of communities can disabuse us of the illusion of total control over our own lives that the market wants us to believe in.

That is what we can learn from people who are religious but not spiritual. Institutions such as churches are not simply bastions of dictates and authority. They also preserve traditions and provide community, things that teach us who we are. We are more thoughtful and stronger when we learn from one another, when we realize that generations have struggled with the challenges we confront today, over and over and over again — even the dire challenges of institutions themselves. Institutions carry on their bones the scars of those generations and, if we learn from them, we may not have to suffer them ourselves.

In Toni Morrison’s magnificent novel “Beloved,” the protagonist Sethe, haunted by the ghost of her child lost to the violence of slavery, turns to the women of her church after years of wrestling with the ghost’s pain alone. It is only through the strength of a spiritual community that the tormented and tormenting spirit can be freed.

Being spiritual but not religious can give us a clear-eyed view of where the limitations of institutions might lie. But being religious can guard us against the restless and impossible demands of self-creation. All institutions are flawed, but they are also what we have to come home to.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”