Spiritual but not religious

Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Newsworthy poll numbers from ABC News and The Washington Post, which combine 5,017 interviewees during 2017, say self-identified “evangelical or born again” white Protestants have slumped to a mere 13 percent of U.S. adults. That compares with 21 percent for “nones” who lack any religious affiliation.

Americans With No Religion Greatly Outnumber White Evangelicals,” New York magazine’s headline proclaimed. If so, that would be political dynamite due to evangelicals’ importance for the Republican coalition and Democrats’ growing dependence on “nones.”

Now, let's be skeptical for a moment -- like journalists. 

Mysteriously, 13 percent is well below counts in other recent polls, so journos ought to dig into whose numbers are best and why.

The 21 percent for “nones” closely tracks other surveys. However, two experts would argue that the “With No Religion” claim in the hed above is misleading. They are Todd Johnson and assistant Gina Zurlo who lead the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Zurlo is also a researcher with Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.

In the 2016 academic compendium “Sociology of Atheism,” Zurlo and Johnson spent 24 pages analyzing “nones.” One main point was that in the U.S., at least, those who list no affiliation or call their religious identification “nothing in particular” often hold to beliefs or practices -- only minus membership. They include “spiritual but not religious” seekers and young free-floating evangelicals who shun institutional commitments.

The key: This article distinguishes between the unaffiliated and fully non-religious atheists and agnostics. It also explains pitfalls in overseas polling.

Johnson, Zurlo, and other CSGC colleagues are a go-to source for religious statistics that are used in standard reference works, and for interpretation of them. Their regularly updated World Christian Database, newly spiffed up this year, exploits every imaginable source for past, present and future numbers for each religious and ethnic group in 234 nations and territories, alongside ample backgrounding.

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Spiritual but not religious? Leading Buddhist magazine takes a hard look at what that means

Spiritual but not religious? Leading Buddhist magazine takes a hard look at what that means

The other day here at GetReligion my colleague Bobby Ross Jr. parsed whether atheism canbe considered a "religious" movement. I'd say sometimes yes and sometimes no. But that's neither here or there. Maybe.

Am I clear?

Probably not. So let's try this.

Dictionary definitions sometimes fall short because living languages evolve constantly. That leaves the meaning of some words negotiable -- particularly when trying to convey elastic concepts.

Religion is one such concept. Of course, these days, so is journalism. And so is the term "spiritual but not religious," henceforth SBNR.

It's a handy shorthand we assume is equally understood by all because we -- meaning those of us in the religion journalism trade -- use the term so often. But is it? (Cue the sinister organ music!)

For example: American and other Western journalists who generally grew up in one of the Abrahamic traditions tend to lump their fellow westerners attracted to Buddhist concepts and practices among the SBNR if they don't also declare themselves practicing whatevers. (Did I just coin a new term, the "Whatevers"?)

But it seems many of those Western Christian, Jewish and (to a lesser extant) Muslim non-ethnic Buddhist fellow travelers -- the Whatevers -- have their own questions about the term SBNR.

So much so, it appears, that Tricycle, arguably the best chronicler of the Western Buddhist experience around, felt compelled to take a shot at explaining it. And in a big way.

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Journalists: What do emotions have to do with spirituality? Dalai Lama says a great deal

Journalists: What do emotions have to do with spirituality? Dalai Lama says a great deal

Still not sure about the whole spiritual-but-not-religious-thing?

Fuzzy on how someone can claim to have a transcendent worldview while insisting that organized religion is just not their bag?

Then this recent piece from The New York Times may be of help.

The story details a project backed by global Buddhism's unofficial exemplar, the Dalai Lama. The "simple monk" -- as the Tibetan Buddhist religious leader, Nobel Peace Prize-winner and all-around pop culture icon of inner-peace and outer-calm often refers to himself -- is the force behind the ambitious Atlas of Emotions.

The project is an attempt to explain the panoply of human emotions and their influence on human actions using the language of Western transpersonal psychology (Full disclosure: In the late 1970s I was a media liaison in India for the International Transpersonal Association.)

The Dali Lama's hope is "to help turn secular audiences into more self-aware, compassionate humans," as the Times article put it.

Here's how the Atlas explains itself:

This Atlas was created to increase understanding of how emotions influence our lives, giving us choice, (at least some of the time) about which emotion we are experiencing, and how our emotions influence what we say and do. While emotions are central to our lives – providing the joy, alerting us to threats, a force for change, a warning against what is toxic, and calling to others for help – we don’t choose what to feel or when to feel it. The Atlas of Emotions was created to give us more awareness of our emotions, and sometimes even some choice about what we are feeling, through better understanding of how emotions work.

The combination of deep self-awareness, emotional self-management as an essential life skill, and compassionate action to a grok degree is as an encompassing definition of the spiritual-but-not-religious (hereafter SBNR) ideal as I've heard.

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