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date: 23 April 2021

News Media Creation and Recreation of the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious

Abstract and Keywords

This article explores news media coverage of the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) population in the United States in the context of spirituality and religion. It considers how the phrase “spiritual but not religious” came into the popular lexicon before describing the demographics of the SBNR population. It then traces the development of the SBNR population from the 1980s by focusing on news reporting in national print media such as Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times as well as online news sources such as the Huffington Post. The article also considers the relationship between Baby Boomers and the SBNR population, along with the SBNR’s political role in relation to issues of religious pluralism, identity, and tolerance following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Finally, it discusses media representations of the SBNR as a reflection of America’s changing religious and spiritual character.

Keywords: media coverage, spiritual-but-not-religious, United States, spirituality, religion, news reporting, Baby Boomers, religious pluralism, print media

In late 2011, the Reverend Lillian Daniel, a United Church of Christ minister and blogger, ranted to readers of the Huffington Post about a category of the religiously unaffiliated that has come to define a significant element in the American religious and spiritual landscape since the 1980s: people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Adding her own condemnation to what is frequently characterized as inherent shallowness and narcissism among the growing population of the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR), Daniel insisted:

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.1

Among the religiously unaffiliated—the so-called “Nones” (those who answer “none” or “nothing in particular” when asked with what religious group they affiliate or identify)—the SBNR cohort is regularly held up for the sort scolding offered by Daniel. Indeed, Daniel’s post was so popular that it won her a book-length opportunity to inveigh against those who locate their meaning-making practices significantly—though by no means entirely—outside of institutional religious communities.2 Further, this dressing down is by no means limited to clergy or other religious leaders who have much greater access to broad media platforms in the Digital Age than would ever have been possible in the days of broadcast or print media dominance. Writing in the New York Times in 2006 about the pervasiveness of the SBNR identifier on online dating sites, and an apparent promiscuousness with which men of the set don jewelry with religious symbols they often do not understand, David Coleman offered a similarly dismissive characterization:

The most inclusive of sects, SBNR appears to shelter nouveau Buddhists, 12-step adherents, lapsed Catholics, nonobservant Jews, people who burn incense and others who just don’t, you know, like how negative “atheism” sounds.3

What, we might fairly ask, marks those who identify as SBNR for such popular and news media disdain? Any attempt to answer this question requires that we understand not only who the SBNR are in demographic terms and how this compares to their representation in news reporting. It also requires that we understand how the population of self-identified SBNRs is situated within a wider American cultural field in which patterns of religious, spiritual, and unreligious identification and affiliation have shifted dramatically since the 1960s, with particular turbulence since the Baby Boomers began reaching early middle age in the 1980s. This chapter considers, then, how news media coverage of the SBNR population contends, through the optic of spirituality and religion, with the maturation of the generation born between 1943 and 1960.4 We begin with demographic background on the SBNR population at the beginning of the twenty-first century then trace its development from the 1980s as this is reflected in news reporting in, for the most part, national print publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, and Time, with some reference to online news sources such as the Huffington Post after 2000. The chapter concludes by reflecting on what media representations of the SBNR suggest about the changing American religious and spiritual character more generally.

First, however, it is worth noting how the phrase “spiritual but not religious” came into the popular lexicon, this trajectory in itself pointing to the sources of Daniel’s ire. Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, as Baby Boomers were coping with the more negative effects of the drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s, the term “spiritual but not religious” moved from the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and associated programs into more popular use.5 Chief in this mainstreaming of AA spirituality was the bestselling Melody Beattie self-help book, Codependent No More,6 which spawned a wide array of programs modeled on the AA twelve-steps approach for virtually anyone connected in any way with a drug or alcohol abuse as well as those with “dependencies” on food, work, sex, and co-dependency itself. The pervasiveness of the wider twelve-step movement would make “spiritual but not religious” not merely a description of one’s existential outlook in relation to organized religion, or, as it originally was in AA parlance, a way of talking about the transcendent without insisting on a particular doctrinal viewpoint, but a new identity label with its own acronym—SBNR—around which all manner of affinity groups would form.7 As will become clear in what follows, the relationship between Baby Boomer indulgences and increasingly negative media assessments of the SBNR is not insignificant.

Who Are the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious?

While demographers report that the SBNR make up nearly 40 percent of the religiously unaffiliated at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is important to bear in mind that 15 percent of the religiously affiliated also self-identify as SBNR,8 the latter figure growing along with the former in the past decade.9 Given this mixed cohort, news media representation of the SBNR offers insight into the changing character of religiosity and spirituality within and outside conventional religious institutions. Further, the presence of the SBNR among both the affiliated and unaffiliated also points to what is almost certainly a core truth about American religious and spiritual practice that is consistently ignored in both academic commentary and news reporting. This is the idea that religious affiliation and religious identity are often fluid rather than fixed realities that play out neither exclusively within nor entirely beyond institutional religions.10 They change across life stages and in response to other factors such as education, opportunity to travel, the relative religious diversity of different geographical and cultural regions, and so on.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Americans are increasingly polyspiritual and religiously pluralistic,11 both personally and in blended religious family and other social contexts that would have been subject to considerable scrutiny and often outright condemnation in past generations. A key challenge in understanding news coverage on the SBNR is resisting the insider/outsider, churched/unchurched dichotomy, which tends to dominate cultural discourse on religion and spirituality. Beginning in the 1980s, when the designation “spiritual-but-not-religious” became part of the popular lexicon as a distinctive marker of spiritual identity and practice, this chapter, then, explores the ways in which news reporting documents the development of the SBNR demographic while also expressing, and perhaps shaping, the interests and anxieties of Americans about the changing religious landscape.

The 1980s to 1990s: Regan Religionists and New Age Seekers

The 1980s mark an important turning point in the relationship between media and religion, with changing media platforms shaping somewhat divergent strands of conversation that bear upon media representation of the religiously unaffiliated in important ways. In the main, this has to do with the dominance through the mid-1980s of Evangelical Christians in television—among the most notable, Jerry Falwell’s Oldtime Gospel Hour, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Club—and the near absence of Mainline Protestants, non-Christian religions, and unbelievers in broadcast endeavors, either on radio or television.12 To the extent that American Evangelicalism tracked to conservative, Republican political viewpoints allied to the Reagan and Bush presidencies,13 Evangelical prowess in television meant that they could largely bypass mainstream news media, which they had long denounced as harboring liberal, suspiciously anti-Christian biases. Indeed, the rise of digital media has allowed a number of conservative religious and political organizations to sponsor websites that track and analyze what they identify as liberal bias against religion in the news media.14

The Evangelical pullback from mainstream media had at least two effects in news coverage, one of which was to render conservative Christians as more narrowly drawn objects of media scrutiny, especially as the Moral Majority gained greater influence in national politics. Another effect was to brand Evangelicals—with their condemnations of the many of social reforms of the previous decades and constant fundraising appeals—as the face of American Christianity more broadly, and perhaps of religion in general. The New Republic reported in 2012, for example, on a persistent characterization in the New York Times of conservative or Evangelical Christians as “Christians,” without modification to denote theological outlook or practice.15 Evangelical Christians themselves seemed to welcome this overgeneralization of their particular doctrinal viewpoints and ministry practices as normative Christianity despite the fact that the characterization would damage the credibility and moral authority of both conservative and liberal religious groups.16 This was perhaps especially the case as televangelist scandal upon scandal raged through the late 1980s and religious conservatives developed greater political influence through the presidency of George W. Bush, provoking a backlash from a wide range of progressive, nonreligious, and antireligious commentators, most notably atheists Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and, in broadcast media, through the comedic political commentary of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher.17

In the increasingly polarized and politicalized environment for reporting on religion, news media representation of the unaffiliated in general, and the SBNR in particular, moved in new directions. Waning interest in stories of efforts to bring the “unchurched” into the fold, for instance, can be seen as opening mainstream news reporting to explorations of alternative meaning-making practices in America in themselves. An article in the New York Times on the 1997 death of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl highlighted the spiritual dimension of Frankl’s logotherapy as particularly appealing “in a world in which many people see themselves as spiritual but not religious.”18 Newsweek, in the 1994 cover story, “In Search of the Sacred,” highlighted a wide range of “spiritual seekers” pursuing eclectic practices drawing from Buddhist, Christian, and Native American traditions along with the advice of talk show host Oprah Winfrey and spiritual guides such as Deepak Chopra, who appeared regularly on Winfrey’s program.19 In neither case did the reporting focus on the SBNR as a problem to be solved by the leaders of institutional religious groups. Indeed, even the U.S. Catholic offered readers only a short summary of data points in the SBNR, absent commentary on how to “re-church” or “church” them. Rather, the article highlighted the SBNR cohorts’ interest in and motivations for prayer without further discussion.20

However, the sharpness of the conservative, Evangelical representation of Christianity, which bled into wider representations of institutional religion, also meant that the opening that allowed for explorations of unaffiliated practices also diminished consideration of variant Christianities and religion more generally. In effect, representation of the SBNR and various unaffiliated spiritualities tended in news media to form the soft, gooey middle between the hard edges of conservative, Evangelical Christianity and hard-edged New Atheists. This brought the SBNR more fully into the center of media representations of religion and spirituality, but it shaped their representation, first, largely within the persistent stereotype of those presumed to be unaffiliated as spiritual dilettantes, wending their way more or less mindlessly from one feel-good, self-affirming practice to the next. Likewise, because most coverage focused on the SBNR who were not engaged with religious institutions, it tended to shape a perception that a new mode of spiritual seeking was taking place outside of organized religions—a force entirely separate from a hyper-politicized Evangelicalism and rapidly declining Mainline Protestantism that seemed headed toward a “dead end.”21 Such coverage ignored new spiritual seeking as it was expressed in the primarily Evangelical “emergent church”22 movement and in less organized Mainline Protestant experiments with “new monasticism”23 and the embrace of premodern traditions such as walking labyrinths and chanting psalms.

Coverage of the SBNR in the 1980s and 1990s can be distinguished both from earlier reporting on the unchurched and the overwhelmed amazement at the spiritual practices of 1960s and 1970s hippies and other young people24 in at least three ways. It is characterized by (a) an increased focus on the commercialization of religion and spirituality, especially among unaffiliated “New Agers”; (b) greater attention to the evolving, increasingly unaffiliated spiritualities of maturing Baby Boomers; and (c) an interest in approaches to pluralism that extended from traditional and unaffiliated belief to unbelief at the personal level rather than diversity of doctrine among institutional religious groups. As print, broadcast, and online outlets explored the new contours of American religiosity outside of institutional religions, the range of spiritual or religious approaches to meaning-making in everyday life could be seen in somewhat greater complexity than had been apparent in previous decades.

Selling and Buying the American New Age Soul

One marker of this shift in consideration of the religiously unaffiliated and the SBNR as a central component of that demographic can be seen in news coverage of California’s Esalen Institute, nestled along the beautiful Big Sur coastline between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Esalen was, as one journalist put it, “the mother church of New Age ideas.”25 However, as the defining emblem of deinstitutionalized spirituality and an important (counter)cultural center for the religiously unaffiliated came of age in 1980, a New York Times headline complained, “Esalen Wrestles with a Staid Present.” Though once “a cultural landmark, the point at the continent’s edge from which a stream of new ideas and methods emanated,” Daniel Goleman lamented, “much of what Esalen once offered as novel has become commonplace, absorbed into the mainstream, or fallen by the wayside.”26 More ominously, the article suggested, Esalen had become more of a high-end resort than a center of new metaphysical thought, with pricey seminars and gourmet meals for well-heeled seekers.

The mainstreaming and commercializing of what would in the 1980s and 1990s come to be known as the “New Age” movement provoked a certain assessment of its presumed unaffiliated adherents that paralleled criticism of fundamentalist televangelists. If Bakker, Falwell, Swaggart, and their ilk could be called out as Broadcast Age Elmer Gantrys—and they often were27—“New Agers” and other unaffiliated “spiritual seekers” often appeared in the mainstream press as vapidly self-absorbed spiritual mall rats bent on paving the road to self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment with a steady stream of crystals, God’s eyes, aromatherapy essential oils, colon cleansers, sage wands, past-life regression sessions, reiki healings, mindfulness meditation retreats, and the occasional Esalen seminar. “Where once [New Age] believers stayed in the closet,” wrote Carol McGraw in the Lost Angeles Times, “today the new mysticism claims a burgeoning clientele of yuppies who mix moneymaking with their mantras.”28 This characterization would be transferred to the SBNR cohort as the New Age movement waned at the dawn of the new millennium.

The institutionally unmoored spiritualities of the period created a do-it-yourself appeal, particularly as the exploration of them was supported extensively by the growing self-help book industry that made them adaptable in contexts that would not have been seen as appropriate for traditional religious or spiritual practice in previous eras. Increasingly, this included corporate boardrooms and training centers, university centers, government offices, and military programs where New Age-influenced “programs try to transform clients’ thought processes and make them better, more creative people.”29 The integration of spirituality, self-improvement, and corporate productivity enhancement would foster the development of a multibillion-dollar industry and begin the workplace spirituality movement. Being “spiritual but not religious” rapidly shifted from being a description of one’s approach to existential meaning-making to being an identity and lifestyle moniker that could be easily commodified.

The relationship between commercial enterprise, spiritual exploration, and unaffiliation was not lost on traditional religions, however. In 1986, for instance, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York turned to a market research company and an advertising firm to suss out the interests of and possible new approaches to the unaffiliated in time for a “Come Home for Christmas” campaign.30 For their part, more conservative Christian groups, with gurus like Ken Blanchard, would add their own Bible-infused management leadership products to the more actively commercialized American religious landscape. And religious institutions across the ideological and denominational spectrum would invest heavily in marketing aimed at “capturing” the growing population of the SBNR.31

However, while news media would often continue to represent the SBNR cohort through the lens of spiritually debased consumerism, they generally ignored the consumerist approaches of institutional religions to engage or reengage with them. Where media outlets did move outside of the Evangelical/Mainline, conservative/progressive, affiliated/unaffiliated string of dichotomies to show interaction across religious and spiritual categories, they tended to rely on conventional religious figures to reinforce uncommitted, vapidity of the SBNR. Thus popular Jesuit priest James Martin, in an article promoting his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, was deployed by CNN to call out the SBNR lot as “narcissistic,” “egotistical,” “complacent,” and “self-centered.”32

Spiritual Balm for Aging Boomers

The unaffiliated, who in prior decades had been cast variously as lost souls, intellectual elites, the workaday uneducated, and political threats, were often painted in the era of Shirley MacLaine, Oprah, Ronald Reagan, and Gordon Gekko as self-absorbed consumerists whose souls could be readily bought and sold on the open market. As the SBNR of the new millennium, they were “the ‘lost generation’ of Baby Boomers who left mainline Protestantism in the 1970’s and 80’s [and are] not coming back.”33 The link between Baby Boomers, the growth of the SBNR population, and increasingly negative media characterizations through the early 2000s weaves together a number of religious, political, and economic concerns. As Boomers maintained an unaffiliated distance from the mainline religions of their childhoods, in the news media they appeared repeatedly as “spiritual seekers” reconciling the realities of middle-aged life with the Who’s “I hope I die before I get old” mantra of their youth. At the turn of the millennium, however, Boomer aging in the light of economic pressures created a certain national resentment. A 2007 cartoon in U.S. News and World Report, for example, showed an older woman approaching two male bureaucrats. “The first baby boomer has come to collect social security. How cute …,” reads the bubble above the head of one of the bureaucrats. He does not see, apparently, the tsunami of Boomers following behind her.34

Against this wider cultural backdrop, the SBNR designation that grew out of the Boomer generation’s spiritual seeking within and outside institutional religion received an increasingly negative assessment in the news media. The hook here was generally the indulgences of Boomer young adulthood, which, as we will see shortly, in fact brought the term “spiritual but not religious” into the popular culture. The language used by the Rev. Daniel, Father Martin and others to condemn SNBR seeking and unaffiliation sounds within the same register as media coverage of the havoc caused by Boomers to the Social Security, health care, and other social systems. As Boomers were undermining other social systems with their overblown personal needs, this narrative suggests, so too were they undermining bedrock American religiosity.

The ethos of Baby Boomer seeking was captured in Wade Clark Roof’s 1994 book A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of Baby Boomers, which features prominently in a number of stories through the late 1990s. For Boomers, Clark argued, spiritual seeking was a key to self-definition, and their midlife spiritual roiling had much to do with facing the challenges of family life, career, and aging though spiritual practices centered on eclectic experience and personal fulfillment rather than the doctrinal like-mindedness and commitment to community that characterize institutional religious affiliation.

Following Roof’s work and a 2001 study by Robert Fuller specifically on the SBNR, news reporting on the Boomers’ midlife seeking also highlighted the extent to which the spiritually oriented unaffiliated were inclined to see the whole of their daily lives as occasions for spiritual meaning-making and, indeed, their whole life trajectories, including careers, as spiritually rich and purposeful. To a certain extent, this narrative of the search for a deeper sense of meaning tends to mute the drumbeat of spiritual consumerism heard through the 1980s. The 1994 Newsweek feature mentioned earlier, for instance, shared the stories of several Boomers who changed careers midstream, including a hospital administrator who gave up her well-paying job to become the other kind of “nun”—a Catholic religious sister.35

Spiritual But Not Religious and Religious Pluralism

Other elements of unaffiliated Boomer seeking likewise emerge from media representations at the end of the millennium, indicating important new directions in American religiosity and spirituality. Not least is the challenge of integrating diverse modes of religious, spiritual, or unreligious belief and practice in families and communities. “But, mom, why do we have to go to church and Hebrew school?” the child of a mother who is a minister in the United Church of Christ and a father who is an agnostic Jew asks in a New York Times opinion piece. The child’s question yielded a pastoral response encouraging religious training for the unaffiliated so that they, too, could join in the interreligious conversation and “as adults or young adults … make a choice based on knowledge and experience regarding the direction they wish to choose.”36

This religious blending shows up at the intersection of institutional religion and extra-institutional spirituality, according to a 2010 article in the Chicago Tribune exploring the complexities of interfaith marriages. “Most brides tell me, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’” the article quotes a wedding officiant as reporting, “But they have parents or grandparents whose religious traditions they want to incorporate in some way.”37

On the one hand, this reporting highlights what the sociologist Grace Davie has described as “vicarious religion,” through which established religions hold spiritual space in the culture for less engaged practitioners who draw on their rituals during life transitions such as marriage, birth, and death.38 On the other hand, it reveals the SBNR category itself as a site of social and spiritual cohesion in that it has capacity for the multiple religious and spiritual viewpoints and practices that now comprise a more religiously diverse nation with more spiritually complex networks of family and other personal relationships. A 2011 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times recognizes this capaciousness, pressing against the negative portrayals of SBNR “spiritual restlessness,” “god-hopping,” and general “spiritual promiscuity” to suggest that the religious and spiritual openness that characterized the 1960s onward affected a “theodiversity” that has revitalized many traditions and invited their growth—as with American Buddhism—in new contexts. Further, the article argues, this theodiversity creates a kind of Durkheimian cohesion in that it allows into relationship across institutional religious boundaries that once would have been far more rigid, limiting relationship and the development of multiply resourced spiritualities. “We cross religious lines much more easily than political ones,” the article concludes, marking SBNR practice as a productive, positive social space in an increasingly religiously pluralist America. That is, perhaps counter-intuitively, in light of its association with religious unaffiliation, the SBNR category itself creates social cohesion across religious, denominational, and nonreligious boundaries that in previous eras would have excluded those with differing affiliations.39

Into the New Millennium: From “Spiritual-But-Not-Religious” to “Nothing-In-Particular”

By the late 1990s, the phrase “spiritual but not religious” appeared in mainstream news reporting to signal a search for meaning and fulfillment uncoupled from particular institutional or dogmatic commitments. Neither atheists nor agnostics, the SBNR were “looking for God everywhere but in church,” crafting eclectic approaches to the spiritual life outside of traditional religions “because they sought a means of melding science and religion, rejected the church’s sexism or authoritarianism, or found more inspiration and metaphysical excitement in spiritual exploration and discoveries.”40

Being SBNR also took on a political role as American’s grappled with questions of religious identity, pluralism, and tolerance in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For some American Muslims, highlighting what was likely a longstanding secularity or stressing the same sort of lack of regular devotion that characterizes many nominal Christians or Jews was at least one way to negotiate post-9/11 stereotyping and hostility. Claiming an essentially SBNR, only quasi-ethnic Muslim identity was a meaningful way of signaling a nonextremist, mainstream American religiosity, even if it was not a Christian one.41

Such gestures were also part of a gradual turn away from the term, which never seemed to shake its indulgent, consumeristic, Boomer heritage. Rather, SBNR came more and more to describe, “people [who] seem not to have the time nor the energy or interest to delve deeply into any one faith or religious tradition. … So they move through, collecting ideas and practices and tenets that most appeal to the self, but making no connections to groups or communities,” as a professor quoted in an article on emerging vocabulary put it.42

Between the release of surveys showing dramatic growth in religious unaffiliation and disidentification in 2008 and 2009,43 and another in 2012,44 the SBNR were called out as “uncommitted,”45 “immature,” “boring,”46 and just plain “stupid.” From 1990 to 2007, a the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported in its “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” the percentage of the unaffiliated in the United States more than doubled to just over 16 percent. A separate American Religious Identification Survey by researchers at Trinity College showed similar patterns in religious identification, with self-identified Nones growing from 8.2 percent of the population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The 2012 Pew study showed continued growth in the unaffiliated population, which ticked up to a full 20 percent.

In 2013, reporting focused on two academic studies, one on the mental stability47 of the SBNR, another on their criminality,48 as a further, apparently more empirically grounded go at the worthiness of the unaffiliated or untraditionally religious. Despite significant questions about both the motivation for and the structuring of such research projects,49 news media jumped on the opportunity to further stigmatize the SBNR. CNN’s Religion Blog, for instance, highlighted the mental health study findings on drug use, depression, and schizophrenia among the SBNR but ignored the study’s finding of greater mental resiliency among those who identified as neither spiritual nor religious.50 In response to the latter study, the Vancouver Sun offered the provocatively headlined story, “Here Come the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious.’ Lock Your Doors.”51 A further demographic study by the Pew Forum in mid-2013, which shows disapproval of the growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated, can be seen alternatively as either amplifying or reflecting the damning tone of media coverage of the SBNR.52

The data on religious unaffiliation and disidentification was attention-grabbing enough on its face in a nation that plenty of people still claim as essentially “Christian” or at least “religious” in character. As the data spilled out in the news, the “spiritual but not religious” moniker gave way to the more capacious “Nones”—people who answer “none” when asked with what religious group they are affiliated—as a preferred term in reporting and among many of the unaffiliated themselves. This, along with the wide designation offered in the 2012 Pew survey to respondents, “nothing in particular,” seemed to open space for continued exploration and clarification. Two further elements factored into news reporting on the unaffiliated in the early 2000s, contributing to a still-developing understanding of who the SBNR really are and how their identity shapes behavior.

Spiritual, Religious, and Political Identity in a New Media World

The first factor is that the 2008 Pew U.S. Religious Landscape survey and American Religious Identification Survey were released into an early social media environment, as was Daniel’s snarky Huffington Post reflection on the spiritual languor of the SBNR. While broad Internet access since the mid-1990s had no small impact on religious practice, spiritual seeking, and interreligious engagement, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook would, along with a growing number of online news sites and blogs, create a deluge of perspectives on any given topic that changed from minute to minute. Diverse, multiplatform mediation of reporting on the religiously unaffiliated continues to construct a complex understanding of who Nones are, including the SBNR, and what their growing presence means for American religiosity and spirituality in decades ahead.

The second factor is associated more with the 2012 Pew survey, which itself was conducted as a multimedia project in collaboration with the Public Broadcasting System’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly53 program to coincide with the build-up to the 2012 presidential election. The survey, thus, focused more than might otherwise have been the case on the political leanings of the affiliated and unaffiliated, including the SBNR. When, as had been the case in 2008 as well, the religiously unaffiliated were revealed as having voted primarily for Barack Obama, what had long been a loosely classified demographic remainder morphed into a political force, their influence felt particularly with regard to social issues such as marriage equality. This focus led Jacques Berlinerblau to opine that “it is essential that the ‘nones’ be mobilized into a self-conscious political movement, one capable of neutralizing the GOP’s conservative Christian column.”54

The wide array of media coverage of the survey data created considerable confusion about the unaffiliated and generated no small measure of debate, which spilled across social media platforms, online news sites, and blogs. A series of reports from National Public Radio highlighted one major element of misunderstanding related to the beliefs of the unaffiliated. Despite the fact that the Pew survey showed that nearly 70 percent of Nones believe in God, the series title, “Losing Our Religion,”55 reinforced the idea of the unaffiliated as unbelievers. The libertarian online journal The Blaze skewed the data in a headline insisting, “Pew: 20 percent of Americans are Now Atheist, Agnostic, or Unaffiliated with a Religion.”56 Religious groups, likewise, moved to claim Nones as their own prodigals, with newly elected Pope Francis reaching out to Nones as “allies for the church.”57

Within this jockeying, the position of the SBNR could likewise be seen to shift, the capaciousness of their spiritual beliefs and practices, within and outside of conventional religious institutions, limiting their availability for ready political deployment. Unlike closet atheists, who might be invited into the open in light of the new data; the religiously and spiritually apathetic, whose political engagement expresses itself in a strident nonreligious secularity;58 or the religiously conservative, the SBNR are characterized most by an inquisitive openness that resists participation in the politics of polarization. This makes the SBNR hard to claim, impossible to even pretend to mobilize, and, therefore, politically useless. By the early 2000s, then, the negative news media assessment of the SBNR cohort that had expressed frustrations with the excesses of the Boomer generation in the 1980s and 1990s had morphed into an amped-up hostility over an unavailability for political conversion that parallels their unavailability for religious conversion. Nonetheless, the Millennial SBNR offspring of the Boomers can be seen in news media as a force for social cohesion—if somewhat nebulously so. Whether “None” or “Nothing In Particular” will function as a new site for cohesion, or as an ongoing target for political and religious frustration, remains to be seen.


Chaves, Mark. American Religion: Contemporary Trends. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Fuller, Robert C. Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Goldman, Marion. The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege. New York: New York University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 2012.Find this resource:


(1) Lillian Daniel, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me,” Huffington Post Religion Blog (September 13, 2011),

(2) Lillian Daniel, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (New York: Jericho Books, 2013).

(3) David Coleman, “Must-Have Accessories for the Spiritual Man,” New York Times (July 25, 2006). Accessed online at

(4) Dating of the Boomer generation is imprecise, with some demographers setting the beginning of the “boom” after World War II, in 1946, and marking the generational end in 1964. I rely here, however, on the dating schema used in William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (New York: William Morrow, 1991), 297–299.

(5) David R. Rudy and Arthur L. Greil, “Is Alcoholics Anonymous a Religious Organization? Meditations on Marginality,” Sociological Analysis 51 (1989): 41–51.

(6) Melody Beattie, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself (Center City, MN: Hazelden Books, 1992).

(7) Leigh Eric Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 2012), xiv.

(8) Cary Funk and Greg Smith, “‘Nones’ on the Rise: One-In-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation,” (Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, October 9, 2012), 22.

(9) Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (Washington, DC, 2008), 22.

(10) Thus, in his otherwise fine study of the SBNR, Robert C. Fuller begins by insisting that “Almost 40 percent of Americans have no connection with organized religion.” Spiritual, But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1; emphasis added.

(11) Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths: Eastern, New Age Beliefs Widespread,” (Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, December 2009).

(12) On Evangelical television in the 1980s, see Jeffrey K. Hadden, “The Rise and Fall of American Televangelism,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 527 (1993): 113–130.

(13) On the political practices of Evangelicals and their effect on perceptions of American Christianity in the United States, see Mark Chavez, American Religion: Contemporary Trends (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

(14) For instance,, sponsored by the conservative Media Research Center, and GetReligion, online at, which reviews religion in the news from an expressly Christian perspective that leans mostly in a conservative Evangelical direction.

(15) Timothy Noah, “NYT Mislabels ‘Christians,’” New Republic (April 12, 2012). Available online at

(16) On the latent effects of this overgeneralization, see David Kinnaman, Unchristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007).

(17) It is beyond the scope of the article to explore the emergence of new forms of comedic news reporting at the turn of the twentieth century, but the phenomenon is nonetheless a significant factor in wider media representations of religion and spirituality in America as this impacts representations of the SBNR and other parts of the religiously unaffiliated population. On this see, e.g., Geoffrey Baym, “The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism, Political Communication 22, no. 3 (2005): 259–276; Lisa Colletta, “Political Satire and Postmodern Irony in the Age of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart,” The Journal of Popular Culture 42, no. 5 (October 2009): 856–874; and Jeffrey P. Jones, Entertaining Politics: New Political Television and Civic Culture (Oxford: Rowan & Littlefield, 2005).

(18) Richard A. Shweder, “You’re Getting Very Unsleepy,” New York Times (September 7, 1997).

(19) Barbara Kantrowitz and Patricia King, “The Search for the Sacred,” Newsweek 124, no. 22 (November 11, 1994): 52.

(20) “Spiritual But Not Religious?” U.S. Catholic (December 9, 2009): 9.

(21) Kenneth L. Woodward, “Dead End for the Mainline?” Newsweek 122, no. 6 (August 9, 1993): 46.

(22) Scott McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” Christianity Today 51, no. 32 (February 2007): 35.

(23) Rob Moll, “The New Monasticism,” Christianity Today 49, no. 9 (September 2005): 38; and Caty Hirst, “New Monastics Share Community, Offer Hope,” USA Today (June 28, 2011).

(24) Andrew Greeley, “There’s a New-Time Religion on Campus,” New York Times (June 1, 1969).

(25) Robert Lindsey, “Spiritual Concepts Drawing a Different Breed of Adherent,” New York Times (September 29, 1986).

(26) Daniel Goleman, “Esalen Wrestles with a Staid Present,” New York Times (December 10, 1985). See also, Marion Goldman, American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

(27) E.g., Godfrey Sperling, Jr., “The Elmer Gantry Exception,” Christian Science Monitor (June 9, 1987).

(28) Carol McGraw, “From Mystics to Holistics: Seekers of Self Now Herald the ‘New Age,’” Los Angeles Times (February 17, 1987).

(30) Ari L. Goldman, “Archdiocese Tries Market Research,” New York Times (June 20, 1986).

(31) See, for example, the Center for Church Communication’s “Church Marketing Sucks” project at

(32) John Blake, “Are There Dangers in Being ‘Spiritual But Not Religious?” CNN Living (June 9, 2010). Available online at

(33) “Protestant Baby Boomers Not Returning to the Church,” New York Times (June 7, 1992): 1–28.

(34) U.S. News & World Report, “Washington Whispers” (October 19, 2007). Available online at

(35) Barbara Kantrowitz and Patricia King, “In Search of the Sacred,” Newsweek 124, no. 22 (November 28, 1994).

(36) Donna Schaper, “Long Island Option: Weaving Symbols into Interfaith Union,” New York Times (December 4, 1988); Kenneth P. Marion, “Interfaith Union: Teach the Children,” New York Times (December 25, 1988).

(37) Leslie Mann, “Couples Blending Religious Traditions,” Chicago Tribune (October 8, 2010).

(38) Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1946 (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1994).

(39) “One Nation, Under Gods,” Los Angeles Times (December 25, 2011). Available online at

(40) Jane Lipman, “Looking for God Everywhere But in Church,” Christian Science Monitor (November 29, 2001).

(41) Laurie Goodstein, “Stereotyping Rankles Silent, Secular Majority of American Muslims,” New York Times (December 23, 2001).

(42) “Schott’s Vocab: SBNR,” New York Times (June 16, 2010).

(43) Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2008); Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, “American Religious Identification Survey [ARIS 2008]” (Hartford, CT: Trinity College, March 2009).

(44) Cary Funk and Greg Smith, “‘Nones’ on the Rise: One-In-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation,” (Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, October 9, 2012).

(45) David Wolpe, “The Limitations of Being Spiritual But Not Religious,” Time (March 21, 2013).

(47) Mark King, et al., “Religion, Spirituality, and Mental Health: Results for a National Study of English Households,” The British Journal of Psychiatry, col. 202 (May 1, 2013): 385–386.

(48) Sung Joon Jang, et al. “Is Being ‘Spiritual’ Enough Without Being Religious? A Study of Violent and Property Crimes among Emerging Adults,” Journal of Criminology 52 no.52 (June 2013). Available online at

(49) On this, see my “New Research Links Spiritual-Not-Religious to Mental Disorder,” Religion Dispatches, January 12, 2013. Available online at

(50) Dan Mercia, “The Spiritual But Not Religious Likely to Face Health Issues, Drug Use, Study Says,” CNN Belief Blog (January 9, 2013). Available online at

(51) Douglas Todd, “Here Come the Spiritual But Not Religious. Lock Your Doors,” Vancouver Sun (June 13, 2013). Available online at

(52) Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “Growth of Nonreligious: Many Say Trend is Bad for America” (July 2, 2013). Available online at See also, Jaweed Kaleem, Some Religiously Unaffiliated Say Their Growth is Bad: Survey,” Huffington Post (July 3, 2013). Available online at

(53) The network produced a three-part series, “Nones on the Rise: The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated,” which aired in October 2012. The series is available online at

(54) “Who are the Nones and Why Did They Vote for Obama?” Huffington Post (February 11, 2013). Available online at

(55) National Public Radio, “The Two-Way,” “Losing Our Religion” (January 15–18, 2013). Available online at

(56) Billy Hallowell, “Pew: 20 percent of Americans are Now Atheist, Agnostic, or Unaffiliated with a Religion,” The Blaze (October 9, 2012). Available online at

(57) Alessandro Speciale, “Pope Says the ‘Nones’ Can be Allies for the Church,” Religion News Service (March 20, 2013). Available online at

(58) See, Cathy Lynn Grossman, “For Many, ‘Losing My Religion’ Isn’t Just a Song: It’s a Life,” USA Today (January 3, 2012). Available online at