The values of people who are “Spiritual, but not Religious”

September 30th, 2009 by Ravi Iyer

Some people in psychology have a theory that everyone wants to study themselves.  I don’t really have a religious category that fits.  I grew up going occasionally to a protestant church and I occasionally go to a new-age church in Los Angeles.  If I had to pick a category, I might pick “Spiritual, but not Religious” and I successfully convinced my collaborators at to keep it as a distinctive category of religion.  After all, what is more interesting to study than ourselves. :)

According to this book, “Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America” by Robert Fuller, perhaps 20% of Americans might fall in this category.  In our dataset, 9.4% used this category.  For comparison, 24.7% picked Atheist and all the Christian denominations combined make up ~15%.  From personal experience as a Californian, I could also see people who fit Fuller’s description as wanting a more open, exploratory, personal religious experience picking Buddhism (1.5%) or Unitarian-Universalist (1.8%).  Obviously, our sample is skewed because we reach a largely educated liberal audience.  However, according to Fuller, that is exactly the type of audience that is “unchurched”, so I think it likely that we reach a fair portion of unchurched America.

What separates those who are “Spiritual, but not religious” from those who are “Atheist”?  or those who are “churched”?  Below is a comparison of scores on the Schwartz Values Scale.

Schwartz Values of Spiritual but not religious

What patterns jump out?

  • Spiritual, but not Religious means something VERY different from Atheism.  Atheists seem to be markedly lower on conformity, benevolence, and universalism and higher on hedonism.  The pattern is somewhat like that of libertarians.
  • In contrast, people who are spiritual, but not religious are more similar to other religious people than atheists…EXCEPT the biggest difference is that the spiritual, but not religious value universalism.  Perhaps this universalism is the common thread which keeps these people away from organized religion, some of which can be seen as exclusionary.
  • There is also a pattern of movement towards openness to change values (stimulation, hedonism, and self-direction) and away from conservation values (tradition, conformity) for the spiritual, but not religious, compared to “all others”.
  • As I suspected, Unitarian Universalists and those who are Spiritual, but not Religious have a lot in common and most differences fall within the margin of error.
  • Buddhists also have a lot in common with this group, except that they are lower in valuing power and achievement.

The results converge with the census of the Burning Man community where 72% feel that spirituality is important or very important, while over 80% go to no religious services in a month.  Universalism, benevolence, and self-direction are the top 3 values in their survey, just as in ours (spirituality is not an official Schwartz value).

– Ravi Iyer

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