Spiritual But Not Religious
"Is God Dead" - Time Magazine Cover 1966

I was an undergraduate in 1966 when Time published its famous cover emblazoned with the single question, "Is God Dead?" By then I was already on what people today might call a spiritual journey, wondering about the things that this issue of Time was raising. Does God exist? Who is God? How can we know? Why is it important to know?

My undergraduate journey

My spiritual journey didn’t take me into churches, or at least not much. I had grown up in a 1950s church that was networked into the cultural and social establishment, not just organizationally but in its doctrine and values as well. As many of us in the 1960s grew dissatisfied with "the system," we lost confidence in its churches as well. Probably the churches should have listened to the Anglican divinity professor W.R. Inge (d. 1954): "Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next."

Where did my spiritual journey take me? Well, the small four-year liberal arts college that I attended offered religion courses, so I took a few. This was before the religious studies movement, so our religion professors loved to discuss theological issues with students who were seeking the meaning of life and navigating post-adolescent identity crises. And the professors could be counted on to be non-proselytizing and non-judgmental. Sometimes these discussions happened in class, and sometimes over lunch or coffee.

I learned from them that faith could cohere with reason, doubt, empathy, and criticism of the social status quo. I met other leaders who thought similarly. One big influence on me was William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the Yale chaplain who was not only a conservative Christian but also a civil rights leader and anti-war protester, and the most powerful and convincing preacher I’ve ever heard in person.

Religious change in the 1960s

Little did I know that my experience was placing me at the beginning of a significant social movement, at a turning-point in North American cultural history.

Or so I gather from Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist of religion at Princeton University. He argues that in the 1960s many Americans (and let's include Canadians) began to turn from "religious dwelling" to "spiritual seeking." Before that, scads of people were comfy in their well attended local churches. But here’s what happened:

  • The 1960s generation was suspicious of traditional authorities, including governments, corporations, and churches.
  • Relocation, mobility, and social uprootedness increased. That promoted individualism, and discouraged long-term community engagement.
  • Divorce increased and families broke down more often. Churches in the 1950s had thrived on the support of stable family units.
  • New contraceptive technology corroded church teaching about sexual relationships. People learned to stop taking church authority too seriously.
  • Consumer mentality advanced. Religious options became one more set of commodities to be either chosen or left on the shelf.


Thus began the phenomenon of "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR). Both the terms "spiritual" and "religious" are actually very problematic in lots of ways, but it’s not hard to interpret the sense of this phrase. It meant that someone has, or wants to have, an interior sense of higher realities, perhaps a feeling of connection with the sacred, but doesn't want the communal or institutional commitment expected by "organized religion". A synonymous phrase is "spiritual but not affiliated."

The SBNR phenomenon may be rooted in the kind of Romantic liberal Protestantism associated with William James (d. 1910), the American psychologist of religious experience, and before him with Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834), the theologian of religious feeling. But the phrase itself, "spiritual but not religious," didn't really catch on until a book of that title was published in 2000 by a popularizing Lutheran pastor named Sven Erlandson. After that, it definitely gained traction. An Angus Reid Omnibus Poll in December 2013, cited by the Canadian sociologist of religion Reginald Bibby, reported that 36% of Canadians aged 18 to 34 identified as "spiritual but not religious."

SBNR's and theology

Quite a number of these folks have been drawn to study theology. An October 2015 article in the New York Times reported a "boomlet of students who are secular or unaffiliated with any religious denomination" who were enrolling in divinity programs. They were enquirers. They didn't have designs on a career. And they weren’t attracted to liberal arts program that had "given up" on the "articulation of values." They were looking for spiritual meaning and social justice, and they hoped to find them in a school built on religious values.

In the U.S.A., many SBNR's have found their way to schools often identified as liberal Protestant, such as Harvard, Vanderbilt, Chicago Theological Seminary, and Claremont. In Canada, some come to TST.

What about TST?

Should TST recruit SBNR's? Should we institute programs for them? Should we orient our pedagogy to them?

This is an interesting question.

Yes, say some. Theological schools can serve this constituency in a way that neither religious studies departments nor churches are set up to do. Their questions and perspectives can enliven classroom discussions. And they can strengthen our enrolments, at a time when church attendance is declining.

On the other hand, I talk to some teachers who have found it difficult to teach SBNR's alongside students rooted in church tradition. SBNR's want to discover personal truths, and therefore can be impatient with the study of a received tradition. They lack the basic knowledge of scriptures, liturgies, and doctrines that many other students have.

This is a conversation of TST’s mission, curriculum, and pedagogy that we need to keep on our agenda. How can we frame this conversation helpfully?

As for my own story, as the joke goes, I’m still not a member of any organized religion. I’m an Anglican.

~ Alan L. Hayes