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You no longer attend church and see yourself as spiritual but not religious. Here’s what that looks like.

New study shows these Americans tend to be younger and more left-leaning. They still believe in the soul or spirit — for people and animals — and communication with the dead.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Worshippers attend a Christmas Eve Mass in 2017 at the Cathedral of the Madeleine. The number of Americans who attend regular worship services has been shrinking for decades. But whether adults are checking their “spirituality” at the door on their way out has been hard for researchers to say — until now.

The number of Americans who attend regular worship services has been shrinking for decades. But whether adults are checking their “spirituality” at the door on their way out has been hard for researchers to say — partly because of the many definitions of what it means to be “spiritual” in the first place.

A new study by the Pew Research Center aims to help solve this problem. Released Thursday, the report, based on a nationally representative sample of more than 11,200 respondents, shows that, for most Americans, “spirituality” comes down to a sense of connection — with God, one’s self or other people.

If further determined that 7 in 10 of all U.S. adults fall into the category of “spiritual,” either because they identify as such or they report “spirituality” playing a “very important” role in their lives.

The researchers didn’t stop there. Intrigued by the growing number of Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious” (or SBNRs, for short), they sought to paint one of the most detailed pictures to date of the group’s beliefs and practices.

The resulting portrait is one of overwhelming belief in the existence of a higher power and spiritual realm beyond the natural, visible world — and in many practices meant to help them connect with both.

Not included in those practices: regular worship services (just 2% attend weekly or more). However, it would be a leap to say this group rejects organized religion entirely, with nearly half (45%) identifying with one religious institution or another, including 1% of the overall survey with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The study’s margin of error is plus or minus 1.4 percentage points for the total sample, 3 percentage points for the SBNR subgroup and 1.9 percentage points for those who identified as religious.

Defining ‘spirituality’

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The study first asked all respondents, regardless of how they identified, to explain in their own words what “spirituality” meant to them.

The results were telling.

A quarter (27%) gave “descriptions tied to organized religion,” including belief in God and/or Jesus, while almost a third (32%) cited belief in “something else,” be it an unnamed higher power, souls and spirits, energy/vibrations or the universe. At the same time, a quarter (24%) emphasized connection in their responses — “frequently with God, but also,” the study reads, “with one’s inner self.”

This emphasis on relationships emerged again when those respondents who identified only as “spiritual” chose from a list all the elements they deemed “essential” to the term. At 74%, connection with “something bigger than myself” came out on top, followed by connection with God at 70% and to one’s “true self” at 64%.

Who are the spiritual but not religious?

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

According to the study, 22% of Americans fall into the “spiritual but not religious” category, meaning “they think of themselves as spiritual or they consider spirituality very important to their lives, but they neither think of themselves as religious nor say religion is very important to them.”

These individuals are most likely to be young (58% are under age 50, versus 45% of religious Americans) and Democratic or Democratic-leaning independents (60% vs. 39%). SBNRs are also slightly more likely to have a college degree (37% vs. 31%) and to be white (64% vs. 59%). Women and men are almost evenly split between the SBNRs and religious respondents.

What SBNRs share with their religious counterparts

Areas of significant overlap between SBNRs and the religious participants include the belief that people have a soul or spirit (89% vs. 92%), and that “there is something spiritual” beyond the natural world (88% vs. 92%). The same holds true for the existence of spirits or unseen spiritual forces (72% vs. 74%).

The two groups also share similar views regarding the dead, including the deceaseds’ ability to provide assistance, protection or guidance to the living (55% vs. 50%). Almost half of SBNRs and the religious believe people who have died are aware of the happenings of the living (49% vs. 51%) and can communicate with them (53% vs. 45%). A majority of both groups likewise believe that loved ones can be reunited after they die (56% vs. 69%).

In terms of spiritual practices, nearly half of both groups (48% vs. 43%) meditate at least a few times a month. Of those, a majority cite a desire to connect with their “true self,” “something bigger than themselves” or other people as at least part of their reason for doing so.

Where the two groups diverge

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Far more than religious adults, SBNRs believe that animals can contain spirits or spiritual energies (78% vs. 54%), as can nature (71% vs. 45%). They are far less likely to believe in God as described in the Bible (20% vs. 82%) and to pray daily (21% vs. 64%).

Almost no SBNRs attend religious services at least once a week (2% vs. 36%) — despite the fact that 45% identify with a religion, including 21% as some form of Protestant Christian and 12% as Catholic. “Other religion” represented the third largest group at 5%.

Less common among SBNRs is the belief that crystals, jewels or stones can have spirits or spiritual energies, although at 42% this number represents a stark jump from the 24% of religious Americans who hold this view. Similarly, 1 in 4 SBNRs have crystals for spiritual purposes, compared to 9% of their religious peers.

‘No one controls it but you’

(Sue Krupa-Gray) A former Latter-day Saint, Sue Krupa-Gray is one of the 22% of U.S. adults who identifies as spiritual but not religious.

Originally from Rhode Island, Sue Krupa-Gray was still a child living at home when her newly divorced mother joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I think of myself as someone who got stuck in the church because I moved from New England to Utah at age 17 to escape family issues,” the Herriman resident explained. “Religion meant community. Community meant support. Support meant I didn’t need to go home.”

It wasn’t until her 30s that, Krupa-Gray said, that she “unraveled our family’s pain,” and, in doing so, found herself questioning more and more of what her faith taught.

“I tried attending other churches,” she said, “but found myself deconstructing religion and couldn’t escape that man had used it all for control, power and greed.”

Nowadays, “I lean on my humanity and spirituality,” she said, defining the latter as “something within that’s not created by anyone else.”

Spirituality, she added, “is free flowing based on your heart and thoughts. No one controls it but you. No tithes are needed. No special underwear is required. No ridiculous rules regarding drinking coffee. Just a pure, internal compass that leads me to kindness, love and compassion for self and others.”

Poetry and labyrinthine paths

(Alisa Bolander) Time in nature, playing music with others, reading poetry, walking labyrinthine paths — all of these represent spiritual practices to Alisa Bolander, a self-described “secular person” who doesn’t believe in the supernatural.

Alisa Bolander stopped attending Latter-day Saint services in 2014.

Since then, the Sandy resident has worked on “building my spirituality,” which she defined as living a life “guided by values,” participating in “community connection” and creating “meaningful rituals and traditions.”

Time in nature, playing music with others, reading poetry, walking labyrinthine paths — all of these represent spiritual practices to Bolander, a self-described “secular person” who doesn’t believe in the supernatural.

“The concept of a religious authority is not one that resonates with me,” she said, “mostly because I cannot trust humans in power — usually of the dominant class and demographics — to prioritize the value of reducing harm to powerless and innocent people, creatures and the planet in a way that I can feel comfortable following them.”