Faith Unbound

Why spirituality is sexy but religion is not.

Most of my Facebook friends are clear about their religious views. They identify as Lutheran, Catholic, or atheist. I also have friends who view their religion as a canvas of self-expression. A friend of mine says he is a "Latter-day Bacchanalian/Dionysian, Pastafarian, Cthulhu Cultist." My cousin tells her online friends, "I'm spiritual, not religious … and I enjoy checking out European cathedrals."

She's not alone. The number of people who self-identify using the long-popular phrase "spiritual but not religious" is still growing. In 1998, 9 percent of American adults told the General Social Survey they were spiritual but not religious. By 2008, it had risen to 14 percent. Among those ages 18 to 39, the increase was even more dramatic, and 18 percent now say they are spiritual but not religious.

The growth is not because people are less likely to identify as religious, but because nonreligious people are more likely to say they are spiritual, says Duke sociologist Mark Chaves.

Part of the phrase's popularity can be attributed to its sex appeal. No, really. A social psychologist at Britain's Southampton University looked at 57 studies covering 15,000 experiment subjects, and reported in Personality and Social Psychology Review that North Americans find "intrinsically religious" people desirable—but that the desirability decreases if people portray themselves as extrinsically religious.

Elaborate dating scheme or not, if you wonder what the phrase means, you'll probably get a different answer from each person you ask. That may be the point.

"Spiritual has, in some sense, come to mean 'my own personal religion with my own individual creed,' " Timothy Paul Jones, a Baptist seminary professor, told the Louisville Courier-Journal. ...

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Throwing Inkwells
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a contributor to GetReligion.org, an editor at Ricochet.com, and a frequent writer for Christianity Today and a number of other outlets. A committed Lutheran, her column ran from 2009 to 2011.
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