Photo by luckey_sun, Flickr CC

From yoga to meditation to crystals, Americans are increasingly experimenting with spirituality. And as they do so, a growing number are choosing to call themselves “spiritual, but not religious” — recent survey data shows the SBNRs now make up about 27% of the U.S. population. But is this a new religious identity? How do you measure a group with such a wide range of beliefs and practices? New research from Paul K. McClure finds that SBNRs may not be as open and accepting to all religious traditions as they seem.

Using data from the 2014 Baylor Religion Survey, McClure compares respondents who call themselves SBNR to respondents who say they are both religious and spiritual. The analysis looks for differences in how these groups answer questions about specific religious beliefs and practices — such as how often they attend religious services, how they understand “god,” and what they think about the Bible. 

The results provide two big conclusions. First, SBNRs are less likely to report religious practices, like going to services and praying, and they tend to reject the typical monotheistic image of god as a person. Second, they are more likely to think about god as a “higher power” or a “cosmic force” than other respondents. McClure points out that SBNRs do not just openly accept all religious claims as equally true by default. Instead, this group does cultural boundary work by accepting certain diverse conclusions about “god” and rejecting others — just like the music fan who “likes everything except rap and country” or the connoisseur who would never touch fast food. In short, this research shows how having diverse spiritual tastes becomes an identity when people put their choices in contrast with others.