Beliefs Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

First the Nones, now the Spirituals

“I am spiritual but not religious” is one of the common refrains of our time, especially if you happen to spend a lot of time around college kids taking religion courses. You assume that it signifies a religious sensibility combined with a dislike of religious institutions. But is there anything more to these spiritual people than that?

Earlier this year, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, my colleagues over at Trinity’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, decided to find out. In an email survey of nearly 2,000 students at 38 colleges and universities across the country, they asked, “In general would you describe yourself more as a religious, spiritual or secular person? Select One.”

The result, cross-tabulated with a series of other questions, is a portrait of a collective identity distinctly different from both the religious and the secular, representing (along with each of the others) roughly one-third of the college population. So who are those collegians who identify themselves as “spiritual” in America today?

1. They’re more likely to be female than male. In fact, while equal proportions of the young men and women call themselves religious, the former identify as secular versus spiritual by a ratio of over three to two; the latter, as spiritual versus secular by nearly two to one.

2. They are much more likely to believe in God than the Seculars, but the deity in question is more frequently a “higher power” than a personal God.

3. Unlike the Seculars, 70 percent of whom consider themselves Nones, fewer than one-third of the Spirituals do. Indeed, they identify across the spectrum of institutional American religion: 22 percent evangelicals, 12 percent Catholic, eight percent mainline Protestants, four-and-a-half percent each Jews and Eastern religions. Only Mormons and Muslims claim less than one percent.

5. Spirituals believe in miracles and life after death much more than the Seculars, but considerably less so than the Religious. However, they are more likely to believe in ghosts and spirits, in karma and reincarnation than both the Religious and the Seculars. The same goes for homeopathy, faith healing, numerology, astrology, amulets, and the like. But Spirituals are somewhat less likely to believe in faith healing than the religious, and a good deal less likely to believe in the efficacy of prayer.

6. On hot-button social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, Spirituals line up far more closely with the Seculars than the Religious. Democrats outnumber Republicans among Spirituals 49 percent to 13 percent, whereas Republicans outnumber Democrats among the Religious 39 percent 28 percent. Democrats outnumber Republicans among Seculars by 57 percent to five percent.

7. Spirituals are more than twice as likely as the Religious to see religion as a source of conflict, but considerably less so than the Seculars.

Overall, the Spirituals are closer to the Religious when it comes to the supernatural but closer to the Seculars when it comes to the social and political. Most claim an institutional religious identity. They are closest to the tradition that the American religious historian Catherine Albanese calls Metaphysical in her magisterial volume, A Republic of Mind and Spirit.

While Kosmin and Keysar’s survey is not a random sample of college students in a statistically strict sense, the range and size of their sample is more than sufficient to make a strong provisional claim. A dozen years ago, they transformed the world of American religious demography when they discovered that the proportion of Nones had doubled in the 1990s. The rise of the Spirituals may be next.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Spirituality could be a step in the right direction – especially in a society which predominantly values human knowledge and ability. One of the problems is that the so-called “spiritual people” are not probing further to discover the source of their spirituality and are not wary of (or even believing of) the power of the evil one who loves nothing more than to deceive and divide people.

    Recognizing that there is a higher power in this day and age is a good start. The hope is that the recognition will lead “the spiritual” on a true quest to know the source of this “feeling” they have discovered. Who or what is this higher power? “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” And don’t stop short of the first answer you come across. This is a life-long journey — the journey of a lifetime. Everything depends on it. Spiritual people have just boarded the ship. Now the exploration must begin — both inside and outside of the vessel. There is much to discover, and some of the most fascinating finds will be in those hidden nooks and crannies that are not so obvious. It helps to have someone with you on the journey who has been there before; someone who can guide you along the way.

    Look in the direction of that which has endured. Listen to the voices of the past. And understand that this is a realm of both good and evil. It is important to have a holy guide to help you discern the voices.

    Bon voyage!

  • Good grief…There is only one who is “Holy” and only one who “Guides” – it isn’t an “all of the above” answer for spiritual enlightenment. Getting this right or wrong determines Heaven and Hell for all eternity. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” That’s where your search should start and journey should end.

  • Ah, if only everyone could see with your eyes. But they don’t. St. Augustine is a good example of this. It sometimes takes different (incorrect) paths for people to find their way onto the road of The Truth. My point is, it begins with the searching… asking… knocking… too many people won’t even do that. I trust that God will show them the way once they’ve begun seeking. I’ve seen it repeatedly. Especially with good direction as I mentioned.

  • Unfortunately for Trinity, Gallup and Pew have both refuted Trinity’s implication that ‘nones’ equals athiest/agnostic. The one question you will never see Trinity ask the ‘nones’ is if they believe in God or a higher power. That would undercut their claim that America is turning away from faith and reduce their media-heralded percentage of ”nones’ to a paltry 4%. The same number of atheists there have always been. Turns out most ‘nones’ believe in God. In fact, according to Gallup, 92% of Americans believe in God. Sadly (but not surprisingly) the ‘Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture’ created this ‘study’ specifically to get the result they so desired and the media attention they craved. I’m not surprised to see them back for more.

  • What you say is simply not true, Danielle. Trinity/ARIS has never implied that “nones” equals atheist/agnostic. To the contrary, the proportion of Nones who are atheist/agnostic has always been broken out separately — as a combined category in the 1990 survey and as separate categories in 2001 and 2008. Throughout, it has been made clear that most Nones believe in some kind of God — although it is also true that Atheists and Agnostics have increased not only their numbers but also their proportions in the American population. (See the 2008 summary report: Moreover, in a separate report on the Nones, the Institute separates out the different kinds of belief Nones have about God (, finding that only 27 percent believe in a personal God, as compared to 70 percent of the American population as a whole.

    The difference between Trinity/ARIS and Pew, Gallup (and PRRI), is that it (along with much other sociology of religion) uses the term “none” rather than “unaffiliated” to identify the population in question. The reason is simple. The question asked is, “What is your religion, if any?” Those who say “none” or the equivalent are simply marked down as having no religion, as their response indicates. If you think calling them Nones implies that they do not believe in God, that is your problem, not the ISSSC’s.