I’m spiritual, not religious (Inheritance Magazine Article)

This article appears in Inheritance Magazine (No. 17, August 2012): 7-10. Visit: inheritancemag.com

I’m Spiritual, not religious

Young adults in America are shaping and being shaped by an emerging culture that is viewed with alarm and hope. In The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons calls this culture Pluralistic, Post-modern, and Post-Christian. Christianity, however, is still the dominant North American religion. In two 2008 surveys, just over three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christians. But this is a drop of about 10 percent since 1990. One might assume that the recent growth of immigration from non-Christian countries caused this decline. But the percentage of non-Christian religions in America has only increased between .5 and 1.5 percent.

Despite the numeric dominance of Christianity in America, there is sense that the Church is no longer respected or viewed as positively as it was a generation ago. This is especially true among young adults. Indeed, young adults make up the largest group that identifies itself as “not religious.” In fact, this group has grown the most of all groups in the survey (from 8.2 to 15 -16 percent).[i]

Studies also show that many who consider themselves “not religious” want to be considered “spiritual,” too. Though nebulous (and perhaps because it is nebulous), being “spiritual” is perceived to be a good thing. A person who is in touch with God, a higher power, one’s true self and feelings, or with nature is viewed more favorably than a person who is committed to a faith community or its convictions. Young adults appear to be demonstrating this with their feet. In the 2012 Millennial Values Survey of college-age adults, 25 percent reported that they were “religiously unaffiliated.” Only 11 percent indicated that they were “religiously unaffiliated” in childhood. Catholics and white mainline Protestants saw the largest net losses due to this movement away from their childhood religious affiliation. College-age young adults are also less likely than the general population to identity as white evangelical Protestant or white mainline Protestant.

Furthermore, in the same survey, only 23% believe that the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally. 26% believe the Bible is the word of God, but that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. 37% say that the Bible is a book written by humans and is not the word of God.[ii]

Finally, the Millennial values survey indicated a negative reaction to Christianity. Christians are perceived by 84 percent of the “religiously unaffiliated” as “judgmental” and “hypocritical.” 79 percent believe that Christians are “anti-gay.” 73 percent believe Christians are “too involved with politics.” Even though 56 percent believe Christianity “has good values and principles,” 41 percent believe that Christianity “consistently shows love for other people” and only 18 percent feel that it is “relevant to your life.”

What is happening? Why is there an increasingly negative approach towards words like “religion” or “faith.” Where is this anti-religion sentiment coming from? Why does ‘being spiritual’ feel more safe, more PC? What’s the appeal, particularly for young adults and second generation Asian Americans?

Perhaps all this is a reaction to the political activities of the so-called Religious Right. After all, most young adults favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry and keeping abortions legal. More likely, this “spiritual, not religious” attitude is the culmination of a growing individualism and anti-institutionalism since the 1960s. In his classic study, Habits of the Heart (1985), sociologist Robert Bellah observed that a personal worldview that he called “Sheilaism” was on the rise. “Sheila” was raised in the Christian church. But rather than embracing those beliefs in adulthood, she created her own spirituality out of different religions and pursued a satisfying life without institutional religion. For more than a generation, the fastest growing population has been the tribe of “Sheilaism” – the church of “spiritual, but not religious.”[iii]

An unconnected and individualistic spirituality is nothing new. The belief that faith is an individual and private affair has been deeply embedded in American culture through its history. Many would rightly argue that this type of spirituality has led to greater tolerance for diversity and individual freedom. Nevertheless, the recent rise of “Sheilaism,” especially among young adults, has not been greeted with universal acclaim. And it’s not just advocates of organized religion who have raised much of the alarm.

Spiritual, but not responsible

Social scientists such as Robert D. Putnam, warn that the increased individualism and privatization is causing “the collapse of social capital” in American society.[iv] Television and the Internet are blamed for keeping people home rather than participating in community life. Fewer Americans participate in traditional community activities such as bowling leagues, local political clubs, or neighborhood churches. Without vibrant participation in community and public life, Putnam (and Bellah) fear a weakening of democracy that could undermine the health of American institutions.

In Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (2011), a team of sociologists led by Christian Smith argue that many young people today face five major problems: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life. “The idea that today’s emerging adults are as a generation leading a new wave of renewed civic-mindedness and political involvement is sheer fiction,” says Smith.[v]

Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, concurred in her two studies, Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic (coauthored with W. Keith Campbell). In a recent article in The Atlantic, Twenge says that “Millennials were less likely than Boomers and even GenXers to say they thought about social problems, to be interested in politics and government, to contact public officials, or to work for a political campaign. They were less likely to say they trusted the government to do what’s right, and less likely to say they were interested in government and current events.”[vi]

These troubles cannot be blamed on the poor individual decisions of young adults alone. They are deeply rooted in the mainstream American culture that young adults have “largely inherited rather than created.” According to Smith, failures in education, consumer capitalism, hyper-individualism, postmodern moral relativism, and other aspects of American culture all contribute to the difficult situation facing young adults.

In sum, these scholars argue that the “spiritual, but not religious” attitude may actually harm American society. By rejecting institutions such as religion and government, this attitude encourages withdrawal from social engagement and responsibility, and, possibility the loss of compassion for others.

Getting Religion: the Key to Responsible Spirituality?

If not for Christianity as an organized religion, the idea that spirituality applies only to personal well-being and not family life, community, social issues, and politics might have been the norm in American culture. For good and ill, the Christian church’s historic proclivity to engage (some would say interfere with or impose its values and beliefs on) politics and culture has contributed to a vibrant democracy.  Its moral values have empowered people to reform and transform society.

Given the current Pluralist, Postmodern, Post-Christian situation, Gabe Lyons invites Christians to engage this landscape in a more positive, creative, and hopeful manner. Instead of getting offended, withdrawing, or protesting the changes, Christians ought to see our contemporary situation as an opportunity to renew our mission to North America.

“From the standpoint of the public good,” according to James Reichley, “the most important service churches offer to secular life in a free society is to nurture moral values that help humanize capitalism and give direction to democracy.”[vii]

Given the decline in mainstream American churches, the time may be ripe for Asian American Christian Young Adults to renew our mission to North America. God may be calling us to counter the hyper-individualistic spirituality so prevalent among our peers. And the way to do that may be to build up our churches rather than be consumers of spirituality. It may be time to finally get religion!


[i] Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008) (Hartford, CT: Trinity College ISSSC, 2009); The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008,” http://www.religions.pewforum.org; Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985) . See also http://www.robertbellah.com.

[ii]  2012 Millennial Values Survey. A Generation in Transition: Religion, Values, and Politics among College-Age Millennials (Public Religion Research Institute, April 19, 2012). http://publicreligion.org/research/2012/04/millennial-values-survey-2012/

[iii] Bellah, Habits of the Heart. See also http://www.robertbellah.com.

[iv] Robert B. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

[v] Christian Smith, et. al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 224.

[vi] Jean Twenge, “Millennials: The Greatest Generation or the Most Narcissistic?” The Atlantic (May 2, 2012). Accessed at

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/05/millennials-the-greatest-generation-or-the-most-narcissistic/256638/

[vii] A. James Reichley, Religion in American Public Life (Washington, D.D.: The Brookings Institute, 1985), page 359.

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