The seeker next door: What drives the ‘spiritual but not religious’?

If you’re asked to imagine a typical “spiritual but not religious” person (SBNR), you might envision a middle-class white woman with time on her hands, wearing a new yoga outfit, sitting in a lotus position and meditating. The television series Enlightened offers such an example: it features a disillusioned corporate manager (played by Laura Dern) who spends $50,000 at a New Age treatment center in Hawaii, where she meditates on the beach, practices yoga and attends support groups. She comes back “enlightened” and tries, fairly unsuccessfully, to live out her new vision of life and communicate it to coworkers, friends and family.

It’s tempting to dismiss SBNRs as salad-bar spiritualists concerned primarily with themselves. But for both demographic and theological reasons it is important to think more deeply about the people who invoke that description. They represent a profound challenge and an opportunity for religious groups today. Furthermore, from my intensive series of interviews over the past few years with people who regard themselves as SBNR, I’ve learned that many popular assumptions about this group are off target.

The SBNR phenomenon is not restricted to any part of the country. One can find SBNRs among rural Ohioans and small-town Michiganders, not just among bicoastal urbanites. They come from various socioeconomic and educational levels and racial-ethnic backgrounds. Politically, they tend to be more liberal than conservative, in large part because they identify closed-minded, harmful religion with right-wing politics.