Why are many people defining themselves as being spiritual but not religious? Forest Grace believes he has found the answer.


 by Forest Grace

{mosgoogle}SBNR is an increasingly popular new term that stands for Spiritual But Not Religious, alongside The “Nones” and The Unchurched. It refers to those who do not routinely participate in religious activities yet consider themselves “spiritual.” The results of a recent Pew Research (1) indicate that this population is rapidly growing in America, especially among young adults. Why is there such a trend? What are the forces behind it? To properly address these questions, it is necessary, I believe, to first define the two terms—religiosity and spirituality—and then examine their differential effects on the individual and society.  

The World’s Religions 

In his The World’s Religions, Professor Huston Smith categorizes the religions of the world into seven major branches: three originated from The Middle East (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), two from India (Hinduism and Buddhism), as well as two from China (Daoism and Confucianism). We can view each religion as consisting of two facets: religiosity on its surface and spirituality at its core. The former is quite varied across religions, and it has the potential to perplex the individual as well as provoke conflicts in society. The latter, I would argue, is essentially the same across religions, and not only does it have the potential to edify the individual, but the ability to foster peace in society as well. 


Religiosity deals with doctrines of conduct. These doctrines cover a complicated list of issues ranging from how to pray, to how to give alms, to what not to eat, to what never to say, to where to bathe, to whether to circumcise, to when to baptize, and to what to do at what time of the day, on which day of the week, or during which festival of the year.  

By providing guidance in conducts, these doctrines have shaped people’s way of life across the world for millennia, and the conducts are, by and large, nonviolent. That these “peaceful” doctrines have stayed in humanity for such a long time is a good testament that they have provided us some service. 

However, one cannot help but notice that along with providing us the service, these doctrines also have delivered humanity much disservice in history. They are highly inconsistent, varying too much across religions. For example, the doctrines of “heaven and hell” vary immensely among religions, and that of baptism vary similarly even among denominations within a single religion, such as Christianity. Such variations are conducive to human discourse, which can intensify over time to provoke violence.  

Our history is, unfortunately, filled with such violence. Typical examples include the Crusaders’ Wars (1095-1291) between the Christians and Muslims, followed by the European Wars Of Religions (1524-1648) between the Protestant and Catholic Christians, then the Indo-Pakistani Wars (1947-1999) between the Hindus and Muslims, as well as the Iran-Iraq Wars (1980-1988) between the Sunni and Shia Muslims, and now the still evolving Global War On Terrorism of the twenty-first century, which seems to be broadening its spectrum of involved religions to include not only most of those above, but also Judaism and Buddhism.  

Humanity is, therefore, perplexed by a dilemma about the true function of religiosity. On one hand, it peacefully provides people a way of life, through doctrines of conduct. On the other, it violently takes away lives, through people’s disputes over these doctrines. How can we explain such coexistence of contradictory functions?

This question has vexed humanity for many years without a satisfactory answer. Two years ago, I decided to look “outside the box,” attempting to find a plausible answer. I assembled for examination a collection of conduct doctrines that represented a wide spectrum of religions, such as the doctrines of heaven and hell, reincarnation, the social caste system, evangelism, holy wars, and so forth. When I scrutinized them for commonalities, I observed a pattern that resembled game play. By applying the definition of game proposed by renowned game scholar Jesper Juul (2) to analyze the doctrines, the pattern becomes verifiably clear—every one of these doctrines unfailingly conforms to the full spectrum of Juul’s key features that define a typical game.  

With this finding, I have formulated a theory to explain the functional dilemma of religiosity, which is quite disturbing because what religiosity can become is far more intrusive than what it seems. On the surface, religiosity seems to be merely a set of conduct doctrines, intended to provide us a peaceful way of life. But, we humans have a tendency to overplay these doctrines, and when that happens, they will evolve into a variety of games. Some of these games are prone to violence, therefore very dangerous.  

How pervasive in the world are these religiosity games? Are we humans even aware of the fact that we are playing them? How is it that by practicing doctrines of conduct, we can become entangled in game play? Are these games addictive? Can my religiosity game theory explain our violent behaviors leading to all those protracted conflicts mentioned above? If some of these games are harmful to us, can we protect ourselves from their harmful effects? To address all these and many other related questions, I researched further and eventually published Games of Mass Delusions: The origin of religions, ideologies, and their resulting conflicts.  


Unlike religiosity, which has to cope with a complicated list of issues, spirituality takes on just one: How can a person best live a meaningful life? Its answer: One shall face life (through grief and joy, thick and thin, and everything else in between) wholeheartedly—with only sincere intentions. This is because only in such an attitude can one genuinely experience life. Indeed, life is all about experience, and the genuineness of one’s life experience determines the meaningfulness of that life.  

This so-called genuineness refers to our attitudes, irrespective of our deeds. For example, how renowned we are among our friends and neighbors for being kind and charitable, or how professionally respected/famous we are among our colleagues, is totally irrelevant here. Life’s meaningfulness rests not on observable achievements or notable reputations, but on the very attitudes we carry as we interact with people and face our daily activities. Whenever we act with one hundred percent sincerity in intent—without ego or ulterior motive—we are experiencing a genuine moment, or in religious terminology, a spiritual moment. Borrowing the concept of “duality of existence” (Yin and Yang, self and Self, body and spirit), having such a spiritual moment is equivalent to having one’s duality in perfect harmony—when the given individual is completely at one with Nature. 

One who wishes to live a spiritually enriched life should try to seek genuine experiences in as many aspects of his/her life as possible, including such things as traveling to and from work, discussing work projects with colleagues, caring for family members, receiving criticisms, and doing the laundry. In reality, a typical person on an average day can only achieve moments of genuineness. To improve those odds, one needs to practice on how to be more mindful of one’s attitudes. The so-called spiritual practice simply means the cultivation of mindfulness skills to help one increase in his/her life the frequency and duration of genuine moments.  

Toward that cultivation, a reliable and always available judge of the sincerity of attitudes is the conscience. So, while attempting to take on a given attitude, if one’s conscience does not feel peaceful, one should abandon the attitude. Insisting on adopting the attitude will only result in life experiences that are untruthful or illusory.  

Consider the case of a one discussing work projects with a group of colleagues, taken from the list of examples mentioned above. If instead of sincerely asking questions about a colleague’s ideas for the sake of learning, one asks for the sake of showing off one’s own wealth of knowledge, such a person’s attitude is driven by ego. The life experiences resulting from such an attitude cannot be genuine. Suppose the conscience points out such an error in attitude by causing this individual to inwardly feel not peaceful. If the person acknowledges the lack of peace and corrects the corresponding attitude, he/she is appropriately practicing spirituality, by way of heeding the conscience.  

Consider also the case of an “evil” person “sincerely” doing evil deeds. Is it fair to say that this person is also experiencing genuine, or spiritual, moments? The answer depends on whether the attitudes such a person carries while doing those deeds can face the conscience test. For example, a psychopath with a record of committing heinous crimes may very well have lost his/her ability to perceive conscience thus cannot meaningfully take the test. The common description for such a person is: “devoid of conscience” or “inhuman.” This individual is seriously ill and mentally abnormal, to whom the principles of spirituality discussed here do not apply. These principles are meant for “normal” people—those who can meaningfully interact with the conscience—for such interactions are the necessary foundation of spiritual practice.  

Regardless of religious affiliations, when it comes to spiritual practice, one can always count on the conscience as guide. Aside from the conscience guide, the world’s seven different religions also offer their own respective guides, with all guiding paths ultimately leading to the same spiritual goal described above. Because the spiritual practices of all these religions share a common goal, it can be said that spirituality is universal across religions, hence also capable of uniting humanity.  

As early as 1500 BC, the Hindus already recognized spirituality to be universal and stated so in their scripture book, the Rig Veda, which effectively says that the core essence (the spiritual message) of the many religions of the world is best referred to as “The One truth sages call by many names.” The Muslim holy book of the Qur’an, written around 600 AD, states to the effect that one who wholeheartedly follows the teachings of God will go to “heaven,” whether that individual is a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, or a Sabian (3). The nineteenth-century Hindu saint, Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886), having spent many years of his life living as a devotee to several major religions, one religion at a time, arrived at a conclusion that echoes the above sentiments. 

God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with wholehearted devotion. One may eat a cake with icing either straight or sideways. It will taste sweet either way (4).

The twentieth-century mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell, having studied the world’s many religions, folklores, fairytales, and idioms, concluded in the end that all of them tell the same story. It is the story of the spiritual journey of the common human being. In his title that discusses this finding, he calls this human being “the hero.” 

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of the bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told (5).  

By “constant story,” Campbell means that the inward essence of religion (spirituality) is the same, since the central theme of the hero’s spiritual journey is the same across the world, regardless of time or location. By “shape-shifting,” he is referring to the cosmetic, or decorative, aspect of the hero’s journey, which represents the outward appearance of religion (religiosity), being quite varied across the world. By “more remaining to be experienced,” he is hinting that by way of genuinely experiencing life step by step, the hero learns to increasingly appreciate its meaningfulness.

So, how is it that all the major religions of the world share the same spiritual message? I believe it is because, ultimately, human beings around the world are by nature the same. We all share the same spiritual needs––the same desire to live a meaningful life. For further details about the universality of spirituality and how best to live a meaningful life by way of accruing genuine life experiences, please consult another title of mine (6).  


Religion comprises two facets—religiosity and spirituality—that can have diametrical impacts on the individual and society, with the former being potentially destructive and the latter constructive. Irrespective of our specific religious affiliations, we would do well to recognize how these facets are differentially impacting our individual lives.  

On the surface, religiosity is merely a set of complicated conduct doctrines that seem largely benign. But, we have a tendency to overplay these doctrines, causing them to transform into a variety of games. Some of these games can seriously pervert our emotions and minds, to the point that we, as a species, become self-destructive. For the sake of our survival, we need to stay clear of it, or at least not take it too seriously. 

Spirituality, on the other hand, is very useful. On the individual level, it guides one how to live a meaningful life, by way of having genuine experiences through ego-free attitudes. On the species level, its quality of being universal across religions can help nurture cultural harmony—a crucial social ingredient for peace in a world that is rapidly globalizing. We should, by all means, embrace and promote it. 

Now, we can appreciate why more and more young adults in America are becoming SBNR. For some, it is probably because they have carefully analyzed the difference between religiosity and spirituality, similar to what is done here. Others are probably following their natural instincts. They are dissociating from religiosity because their instincts tell them that beneath its perplexed surface lies in wait a sinister potential. On the other hand, they are gravitating toward spirituality because they instinctively yearn for peace in the world, as well as thirst for knowledge about the meaning of life.


2 .

3. Haleem, M.A.S. Abdel, “The Cow.” In The Qur’an, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 2:62


5. Campbell, Joseph. “The Monomyth.” In The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Novato: New World Library, 2008, 1

6. Grace, Forest. God Is An Illusion: To Live Is To Experience, Toronto, The Key Publishing House, 2011

You can learn about Forest Grace and his books at his web page.