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Spirituality and religion are two words that are often used interchangeably, when, in reality, they have meanings and intonations that are distinct from each other. Sure, they often overlap in terms of their purpose and are not completely binary opposites, but is it possible for a person to be spiritual but not religious?

What makes this discussion even more interesting is that a growing number of people across the world are identifying as “Spiritual But Not Religious”. In fact, The Atlantic reported in 2018 approximately 64 million Americans, that is one in five Americans, a lot of them on the younger side, reject organized religion and identify as spiritual but not religious, commonly referred to as SBNR.

Considering the growing number of people who find meaning and purpose by practicing spirituality, we come to the question – what exactly is spirituality? Can you be really spiritual but not religious? Is it possible to be religious without being spiritual?

In this article, we dig deeper into what being spiritual and being religious mean and the relationship between the two.

What does it mean to be religious?

By definition, religion is a specified set of beliefs, practices, and rituals that is followed by an organized group of people or community. It relates humanity and humans to spiritual, transcendental, and supernatural elements.

Ever since ancient times, organized religion has always been a socio-cultural system that dictates how we live. Whether you like to admit it or not, the religion you follow, whether it is Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, or any other, impacts almost every aspect of your life. Your religion influences your world view, your politics, attitude, how you relate to yourself and others, your hobbies, and maybe even your career.

When you say that someone is religious, it means that they are devoted to the religion they belong to, its teachings and dogma, and the practices and rituals associated with that particular religion. A person who is religious places strong faith in the existence of a god, who is a higher being. They believe in the existence of supernatural elements and beings and their belief of something greater and bigger than themselves plays a very dominant role in their lives.

Religion places importance on institutions and the strict adherence to the ways of living that the religious institution accepts. This kind of institutional faith and praise brings about pressure to accept, often blindly, teachings and beliefs simply because that’s “always been the way that things are”.

A religious person lives their life in service and worship of their god. They may go to church or the temple regularly, pray often, read their holy books, and practice all the rituals and ceremonies that they have been taught to.

In a way, all standard religions in the world started off as a spiritual process, but along the way, their desire to be institutionalized grew stronger, which led to the many organized religions we know today. So, is it really possible to be spiritual but not religious?

What does it mean to be spiritual?

The term “spiritual” is difficult to define because it is so personal and thus, can be interpreted in many ways. Much like religion, many people would agree that spirituality is a way of making sense of the world. It gives you a sense of peace, meaning, and purpose, helping you form a deeper connection to yourself, and a personal connection to something greater than yourself.

The term “spiritual” comes from the French word “esprit”, which means breath or to breathe. When you consider the nomenclature, it makes sense that people who identify as spiritual but not religious place so much value on how their spirituality guides their life. For them, this personal relationship that they share with themselves and the higher spiritual realm brings meaning and purpose into their lives. In a way, it breathes new life into them.

While religion is often something that is decided for us at the time we are born by our parents or guardians, spirituality is your own personal choice. You have a say in what you choose to believe, your ethics, and the activities and rituals you want to engage in. This is another reason why spirituality gives you a sense of personal freedom, as opposed to religion that is deeply intertwined with organized institutions.

Often, spirituality involves the rejection of rituals, ceremonies and social norms. It places importance and value on nurturing a personal connection that makes sense to you, instead of having to blindly adopt beliefs and practices that you were born into or have been inculcated in you since you were a child.

As previously mentioned, spirituality is something that can be interpreted in a number of ways because it is something so personal and unique for each individual. For some people, spirituality could mean belief in ethical values such as cultivating kindness, practicing empathy and positivity and community-based living.

Regardless of what your experience with spirituality may be, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that those who identify as spiritual but not religious are opposed to be restricted by dogma. Spirituality is personal and anti-institutional, and many its main aim is to remove conflict, both within and outside in the external world. People who are spiritual believe that inner and outer peace is possible, not merely a far-fetched dream.

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Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR)

So, who are the people who identify as spiritual but not religious? What kind of role does spirituality and faith play in their lives?

Put simply, SBNR argues that affiliation with an organized religion is not the only or most valuable means of encouraging and promoting spiritual growth. It is a life stance that places importance on the relationship between the mind, body and spirit, with an emphasis on individual experience.

According to research by the Barna Group, those who identify as SBNR were classified into two groups. The first were those who considered themselves as spiritual and said that their religious faith does not play a very important role in their lives. For example, 22 percent of those people were Christians, 15 percent Catholic, 2 percent Jewish, 2 percent Buddhist, and 1 percent other faith, but despite their religious affiliation, they were “irreligious”. In fact, 93 percent of those have not attended a religious service of any kind in the past six months.

The second group of SBNR were those who were spiritual, but did not claim any faith or organized religion. 30 percent of these people identified as agnostic, 12 percent identified as 12 percent, while a whopping 58 percent identified as unaffiliated.

The research found that even if you identify with an organized religion while considering yourself “spiritual”, it holds little power and influence over your practices and beliefs if you have clearly discarded it as a central, pivotal tenet of your life.

So, in a way, spirituality is a journey of redefining God, of having a meaningful experience with a higher being or power that allows you to gain new perspectives. A person who identifies as SBNR may not see God as an all-knowing, all-powerful being that created the universe. They are more likely to see God as simply a representation of a higher state of consciousness.

Spirituality vs Atheism/Agnosticism

An important question that you may now have at this point is – What is the difference between spirituality and atheism or agnosticism? If so many people who identify as spiritual but not religious are also atheists and agnostics, are these two one and the same?

Spirituality is not just the rejection of organized religion. If that were the case, then atheists and agnostics would all be put in the same category as people who say that they are spiritual. So, what makes spirituality different from atheism and agnosticism?

Today, when people say that they are atheists, it still has some sort of a negative connotation to it. To say you are an atheist often means that people assume you are defensive and live a life without purpose or meaning. On the other hand, to say that you are spiritual has a much more appealing ring to it. It connotes that you are someone who lives life with peace, meaning, sacredness, and open-mindedness. It is clear that the stigma around spirituality is much less intense than the stigma around atheism.

For this reason, many people who are atheists adopt the term “spiritual” to explain their stance on their faith. When you identify as “spiritual but not religious” it comes with less of a baggage than when you say you are spiritual. To be spiritual means to seek, rather than accept and dwell. You have hope that there is a deeper meaning to life, that your life has a purpose. To be spiritual means to have faith in a god that you have come to redefine in a way that makes the most sense to you. It is a way of making sense of the world and finding your identity and place in the world.