A Point of View: Is it better to be religious than spiritual?

Man at prayer by the banks of the River Ganges

More and more people are rejecting religion but embracing spirituality. But have they got things the wrong way around, asks Tom Shakespeare.

After a relationship break up a few years ago, I signed on to a dating website. Filling in my online profile, I was interested to discover that the question on religious belief included an option that was new to me. You could tick boxes for the major religions, or for atheist, or for SBNR, which I discovered stands for "Spiritual But Not Religious".

Whereas the word "religion" generally refers to organised forms of worship and a wider faith community, "spiritual" often describes people's private individual beliefs.

A few minutes on Google revealed that SBNR is more than just an acronym. One in three Americans defined themselves as spiritual but not religious. Millions of people now think of themselves as on their own personal spiritual path, but not affiliated to any specific religion. American sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell talk about "Nones" - people who belong to no religion but still believe in God. Others have used the term "moralistic therapeutic deism" to refer to how young people are turning towards a vague belief that God exists and the point of life is to be happy. You could also call it "pseudo-religion".

The people who tick the SBNR box are distinguishing themselves from atheism. They would probably believe in some supreme being or higher power. Perhaps they're interested in Eastern spirituality or some eclectic mixture of ideas.

Transcendental Meditation devotees at a centre in Holland

SBNR reflects a rejection of the dogmas of organised religion, even repugnance at the abuses committed in the name of Christianity and Islam and Judaism and Hinduism and Buddhism. I think it connects to the explosion of so-called personal growth movements in the West since the 1960s, such as yoga or transcendental meditation, as well as to new religious movements like paganism and Scientology.

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Tom Shakespeare
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST
  • Tom Shakespeare is a sociologist, writer and performer who researches disability studies, bioethics and medical sociology
  • He was born with restricted growth and leads research into the condition

The rise of SBNR comes in the context of declining organised religion, at least in the UK. Fewer of us are calling ourselves Christians. According to the Census, numbers fell from just over 70% in 2001 to less than 60% in 2011. That's still a majority of the population - and other religions make up another 5% or so - but only one million of us will attend church this week. More than a quarter of Britons do not identify with any particular religion,

But few members of this group are fully paid-up followers of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or other humanist prophets. People might say, "I am not interested in organized religion, but I do have room in my life for spirituality." They have a sense that there is something "above and beyond" the everyday. They have beliefs, a faith in some transcendental force, or whatever, however inchoate it may be. It reminds me of the quotation from Carl Jung: "You can take away a man's gods, but only to give him others in return."

I want to challenge this approach, and explain why I was unwilling to tick the SBNR box on that dating website. I worry that SBNR can just be vague, lacking the rigour which comes from centuries of refinement and debate. And unlike traditional religions, it doesn't have much to say about charity and justice.

Perhaps this is because it is a reflection of the individualism that seems to be such a problem in western societies. People want a reassuring set of beliefs that makes them feel better about their own life, rather than being challenged to help others or make the world a better place.

For all these reasons, I agree with the writer James Martin when he says that "spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community". But then Martin is a Jesuit, and so of course he wants those wishy-washy spiritual believers to sign up to his organised faith.

Jewish boy praying at a synagogue in Tunisia

Whereas my biggest problem with SBNR is the opposite. It's that it often retains the mumbo-jumbo, aspects of religion. People have rejected the shelf with the ready-made religious beliefs, and gone straight around the corner to the pick'n'mix shop to buy a more or less random set of beliefs which are, if anything, even more incredible. Many people who are spiritual but not religious reject the organisation but hang on to the supernatural bit. But I don't want to be required to have faith in a supreme being or miracles or reincarnation, or any entity for which there is no scientific evidence.

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Man communing with nature

Research has suggested "spiritual" people may suffer worse mental health than conventionally religious, agnostic or atheist people. But what exactly do people mean when they describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious"?

So, that makes me a humanist then? Not at all. Because don't we have four options?

  • We can be religious and spiritual - which is the traditional faith approach
  • We can be spiritual but not religious - which is the new age pick and mix approach
  • We can be humanist - which is neither religious nor spiritual
  • Or, perhaps, we can be religious but not spiritual

This last choice works best for me.

The word "religion" is thought to derive from Latin "religare", to bind or connect. I think that sense of a connection is the key point. Religion offers a bond between individuals and it helps them form a connection to the wider universe. The great French sociologist Emile Durkheim differentiated between belief, which was private, and religion, which was social.

I think what we need today is more connection with each other, and with our damaged world. I don't think humanists offer us much help with that. Humanism is not positive but negative - it centres on rejecting religion. I think traditional religions do offer connections, but at the cost of demanding that we believe improbable things. So that's why I'd advocate being religious in a non-traditional way.

Muslim women at prayer in the al-Hussein mosque in Cairo

Without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe. Religion asks more of you than just to look after yourself. Because religion is a collective practice, it enables us to learn from others around us, and from a history of sincere and disciplined examination of the problems of life - a history which is sometimes called the Wisdom Traditions. Through reflection and discussion in the context of religion, we can achieve discernment, which means seeing reality more clearly.

I think that many people who identify as religious are not spiritual, at least in the sense of having a belief in a god or supernatural force. They may have a non-realist view of religion, which means that they consider religions to be human and pragmatic, not supernatural and god-given.


  • Society of Friends began in England in 1650s
  • Quakers seek religious truth in inner experience, and place great reliance on conscience as the basis of morality
  • They do not have clergy or rituals and their meetings for worship are often held in silence
  • Name of "quakers" may derive from physical shaking which some experienced during prayer meetings

In my case, I am a Quaker, so I sit in silence for an hour a week with like-minded people, and I try to live according to Christian principles. But a few years ago, I stayed with a colleague's family in upstate New York. They were Jewish, and around the house there were mezuzot, a menorah and the newsletter from their local synagogue. But as we talked, I realised that although they attended services regularly, they did not have any particular belief in God. In fact, they had pretty much exactly the same outlook on the world as I did. And I suspect many people who sit in Anglican pews on Sundays are similar. They're going through certain rituals, and value membership in a community of folk trying to lead more meaningful lives, but their belief in a supernatural being is minimal or non-existent.

If you're an atheist, I can heartily recommend involvement in religion. It offers a sense of belonging and it offers tradition, which can be reassuring and comforting. It offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves to which we should bend our personal will. If we do it right, religion helps us lead better lives, with a commitment to justice and social action. Sociological research shows that involvement in organised religion is good for our health and well being.

Church worshippers in South Africa

So this week, why not find a time to sit in silence with your fellows, or sing with them, or read a holy book with them, or commune with them. Take a moment to reflect on your place in the universe and your obligations towards others. Belief in God is strictly optional.

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

Here is a selection of your comments.

It is fashionable to criticise Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) people for having no community, nor commitment, nor social engagement. But this is based on a misperception and stereotyping. The misperception is understandable because prominent aspects of the SBNR culture can be seen as quick-fix spirituality, focused on personal gratification and to lack values. Make me healthy, successful and beautiful. But this glamour is only the showbiz tip of the iceberg. It is an easy and inaccurate target. It is stereotyping similar to damning Christianity because of some abusive clerics. SBNR people tend to be deeply engaged in action and caring. In his book Blessed Unrest for example Paul Hawken describes a global movement of thousands of non-profit activist organisations many of them fuelled by SBNR people. It would be interesting to research how many of the activists in for example Greenpeace or Occupy are SBNR. Are these not substantial, ethical and activist communities? When I ran the Alternatives Programme for a decade at St. James's Church in London I was simultaneously running a drop-in centre for teenagers with special needs and adults returning to learning. My team at the church, all of us SBNR, consisted mainly of professional carers and educators. There is also this stereotyping of SBNR people as having no discipline or true commitment. How on earth do the critics know this other than from an impression? SBNR people are, I suggest, as disciplined or undisciplined as any other human beings, especially those of traditional faiths. The reality I suggest is that religious adherents do not like the way in which SBNRs feel free to wander beyond the usual boundaries. SBNR types like to explore the different tools and concepts that can be found in all spiritual traditions. They do not adhere to one single belief. And why should they? This is the modern world. Why on earth would any autonomous adult want to stay within the confines of one knowledge tradition or belief community without assessing and incorporating what is useful in others?

William Bloom, Glastonbury, UK

I often wonder if people need to congregate to express their beliefs because there is a kind of insecurity in their lives, a need to constantly reaffirm that they are part of a group that has the same ideas. As a humanist I feel no such need because my belief is what I am, I am a member of the human race and every time I interact in a positive way with another person I feel affirmed in that feeling. At the same time I feel a responsibility, of a kind, to all humans - thus I support charities and would even save the life of my worst enemy had I the means. My life actions are my own and it is up to my fellow humans to judge them, not some irrational supernatural entity.

Sue D, Gloucester, England

This sounds a lot like the concept of "foma" that was taught by the character Bokonon in Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Cat's Cradle": a lie that you believe in anyway because it keeps you sane. It's an interesting - and darkly hilarious -concept on paper... but that's about the only place where it's interesting. In the real world, this is delusion pure and simple, which at best is useless, and at worst, downright repugnant. The species has enough delusions. It's time to start discarding them.

Bryant O'Hara, Stone Mountain, GA

I have three major problems with this article. One: The author admits that many people reject organised religion because of their "repugnance at the abuses committed in the name of Christianity" and other religions, yet he appears oblivious of the fact that it is precisely "involvement in religion... offer[ing] a sense of belonging;" of "membership in a community" (which he espouses) that has typically led to those very abuses. Two: He consistently characterizes the beliefs of the 'spiritual but not religious' disparagingly as "pseudo-religion", "inchoate", unrefined and undebated, individualistic, "self-centered complacency", "wishy-washy", "mumbo-jumbo", "a more or less random set of beliefs"... the list goes on, whereas his own position does not come under any such criticism, despite being quite obviously a bit muddled itself. After all, on what basis can he claim "to live according to Christian principles" while at the same time considering "Belief in God... strictly optional"? Thirdly, he characterizes humanism as "not positive but negative - it centres on rejecting religion," which is itself an extremely reductive interpretation of a centuries-old tradition of philosophical and scientific argument. "Through reflection and discussion in the context of religion, we can achieve discernment, which means seeing reality more clearly," he continues, blithely ignoring the fact that it is precisely the absence of open discussion, the refusal to entertain alternative points of view, that humanists typically cite as one of the most frustrating behaviours of religionists.

Rafal, Cambridge MA, USA

This is a very thought-provoking article. What it does not address include are the millions of people within the "New Thought" movement around the world who have discovered a spirituality that is meaningful to them. In your lexicon they would be considered "Spiritual" but not religious. And the meaning(s) behind that "Spirituality"gives it a totally different view of God, humans, heaven, hell, the devil, etc.

Jim, Lees Summit, MO, USA

The idea of religion as a "meet shop" is not new but uncoupling it from all things spiritual is one discount too far. I note you are a Quaker and I wonder if you are aware of Thomas Paine..He abandoned his Quaker upbringing for deism as he found all religion hypocritical and much more. Please (re)read "The age of reason" This shows that what you seem to believe is a new fad is certainly not. I regard your suggestion to be similar to going to a brothel for the company but not the sex.

Peter, Bedford, UK

I'm a Quaker, too, Tom, and I like your four options. But I think we have a different definition of spirituality. You seem to define spirituality as the beliefs one adopts as an individual. I think of it as the things one does—both faith and practice—to connect with the transcendent, to become more whole, a better person, more fulfilled inwardly, more attuned to the world around us, more compassionate and empathetic—more full of true joy. And I connect religion to spirituality this way: a religion is the spiritual practice of a community. A religion is the things the community does—both faith and practice—to connect with the transcendent. Usually, in an established religion, this means attempts to REconnect with the community's Source as a religious community. In this context, religion without spirituality is what most people practice and precisely what the SBNRs reject—a form without power. True religion—very hard to find, even among Friends—is community practice that actually DOES connect the members with their Source.

Steven Davison, Hopewell, NJ USA

As an agnostic currently trying to decide what I believe in, I personally disagree that the religious aspect of things is more important than the spiritual one, and should be the only thing we do. I'm all for logic, but being spiritual doesn't have to mean believing in anything supernatural, at all; you can be the world's most die-hard atheist and still be spiritual about things. Furthermore, though organised religion undoubtedly has some benefits as listed (such as being part of a community, or discussing "deep" ideas with others), these can be done without the religious aspect at all; I think it's almost impossible to truly divorce the religious, human aspect of things from the belief in anything supernatural. The latter is, after all, what defines religion specifically. I have personally been weighing up the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, as I'm thinking about becoming a Christian, but I certainly wouldn't start going to church and praying along with ev!

Sally, London, UK

I claim Mr Shakespeare's comment "Humanism is not positive but negative - it centres on rejecting religion." shows that he knows little about Humanism. Yes, it does reject the supernatural, but he seems to be arguing that religion can be other than supernatural - do we need an "almighty creator" in order to form bonds with others in the way he describes? Cannot human nature alone supply those things? Unfortunately politics gets into everything, including organised religion (supernatural type) and that gets in the way of "mutual bonding". Perhaps the more "democratic" Quakers are somewhat less prone to this ill and this has biased Mr Shakespeare's opinion. As an aspiring humanist I try to practice my understanding every day, if only by practising good manners, doing favours for strangers, being charitable etc. - things that might be called "Christian values" but which are possibly inherent in basic human nature, possibly even genetic. Do I need "Divine Guidance" for this? No. Do I need to congregate with others? No, my humanism goes with me and I feel part of humanity all the time. Perhaps one might describe Quakerism as, "The practice of sitting in silence with others," it makes as much sense as Mr Shakespeare's description of Humanism. It is just as shallow.

Dave Bailes, Gloucester, England

The trouble with Tom's approach is that it itself is a pick and mix concoction where you choose which parts of religious ideology to accept and which to reject. Religion is characterised as being entirely benign yet there are aspects of religion which seem cruel, unjust and unethical to me - death penalty for apostasy/ adultery/ homosexuality for example. Why would anyone who does not believe that Jesus was the Son of God or That Mohammed was instructed by the Angel Gabriel to recite the Koran go to a Church or Mosque? If they did, I'm sure they'd soon find themselves pressured to accept the undiluted version of the religion. Are you seriously saying, Tom, that a Muslim agnostic could go to a Mosque declaring that they doubt that Allah exists? Humanism does allow us to reflect on our place in the universe - the science of astronomy teaches us that the universe is unimaginably vast so we learn that we are really insignificant. Humanism is an ethical system based on human social interaction. By adopting Humanist principles we can be good without God.

Nigel, London

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