Unchurched Mormons: Spiritual but not Religious?

The term “spiritual but not religious” has become popular over the last decade as academics and pollsters have noted a large rise in the number of Americans who eschew affiliation with or participation in any denomination or religious institution but who nevertheless believe in God (variously defined) and often employ a variety of personal spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, service to the poor and needy, reading sacred books, etc. To some extent this demographic overlaps with what Christians of prior eras termed “the unchurched.” As is so often the case, Mormonism has its own terminology. What do we call “spiritual but not religious” Mormons or unchurched Mormons?

A few standard terms leap to mind: inactive, less active, cultural Mormon, Ex-Mormon. All of these are fairly negative terms, in contrast to the vaguely positive “spiritual but not religious” or the fairly neutral “unchurched.” We need better terms! More importantly, we need better concepts. Increasingly, it seems, formerly active Mormons are finding something else to do on Sunday morning (and Tuesday night and Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon) than attend LDS meetings and activities. It seems helpful to recognize that some of the people active Mormons typically categorize using the negative terms listed above are, in fact, choosing to go elsewhere in order to boost their spirituality rather than just opting to add a dozen hours and a couple of hundred bucks to their weekly time and money budgets. Either LDS activity is failing to deliver or alternative spirituality options are doing a much better job. The idea that there are some “spiritual but not religious” Mormons out there at least captures that possibility and invites deeper reflection on the topic.

So I’m presently reading Robert C. Fuller’s Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (OUP, 2001). Here’s a paragraph that helps put some flesh on the bones of these “spiritual but not religious” folks and helps distinguish them from atheists, agnostics, and secular hedonists who are neither religious nor spiritual:

An important first step toward understanding unchurched spirituality is to realize that it has its own traditions and recurring themes. Surprisingly, few scholars or journalists have been interested in providing a broad overview of America’s nonecclesial religious history. There have, however, been some excellent studies of a closely related topic — popular religion. … Popular religion comprises religious beliefs and practices that, while not officially sanctioned by church authorities, are nonetheless part of everyday piety. Examples of popular religion include athletes praying on the playing field, the use of artifacts associated with Catholic saints to obtain prosperity, or traditions connected with family celebrations of Hannukah or Christmas. Most kinds of popular religiosity are in some way connected with formal religious institutions and are thought of by laypersons as acts of piety consistent with these traditions. In contrast, unchurched spirituality consists of beliefs and practices that originate wholly outside our dominant religious institutions. (p. 7-8.)

This raises some interesting questions in an LDS context. Are there “spiritual but not religious” Mormons? Do they tend to embrace strands of Mormon folk doctrine, or is folk doctrine more of a problem for active LDS, perhaps folk doctrine even being a reason that some Mormons choose to disaffiliate? And is it even possible within Mormonism, with its lay clergy and underdefined doctrinal and theological structure, to distinguish between Mormon folk doctrine (LDS “beliefs and practices” that are not “officially sanctioned” but originate within LDS circles) and beliefs that originate entirely outside of Mormonism?


Unchurched Mormons: Spiritual but not Religious? — 13 Comments

  1. We seem to have a lot of definitions of Mormons these days — that suggest types of Mormons goe beyond the simple “active” and “less active” definitions: New Order Mormon, Cultural Mormon, True Blue Mormon, Cafeteria Mormon and more. I think the Internet is allowing various assortment of Mormons to group together — or perhaps new options for some Mormons to find their Mormon identity.

    Good food for thought Dave.

  2. I wonder where spiritual but not religious Mormons live. Would that be in Utah, or outside? (I’d guess outside of Utah, that inside Utah you’d be more of a cultural Mormon, but don’t really have anything to back that up.)

  3. What does “increasingly, it seems” mean? Twenty years ago there were seven people in your ward who stayed home studying and meditating rather than go to church meetings, and now there are eighteen?

  4. Don’t forget: Albrecht and Bahr demonstrated some years ago that these definitions or ways of being LDS are not static. People may identify more with certain approaches or identities at different points in their lives and drift or cycle between them over time.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    John, obviously numbers are hard to come by. Based on my own observations and various online reports, including alleged comments by LDS leaders here and there, my impression is this is an increasing problem. One point of the post is that this is a general trend across all denominations, not just an LDS development. It may have very little to do with the Internet or with increased availability of information on LDS history; it might just a broader development that is impacting LDS like everyone else.

  6. *Are there “spiritual but not religious” Mormons?*

    My gut intuition is to say, “absolutely.” I don’t really have a clear-cut way of defining this, but I think of examples, and feel like it’s something that I know it when I see it. Think of people who may appreciate certain ideas of the restoration, but who believe either that the institutional church has gone astray or who were most attracted to the personal elements of Mormonism to begin with (e.g., personal revelation rather than institutional prophecy.)

    So, I would look at someone like Rock Waterman from Pure Mormonism as being a “spiritual but not religious” Mormon.

    *Do they tend to embrace strands of Mormon folk doctrine, or is folk doctrine more of a problem for active LDS, perhaps folk doctrine even being a reason that some Mormons choose to disaffiliate?*

    I don’t think that folk doctrine falls along these lines so easily. I think Mormonism does not prioritize doctrine to such an extent that folk doctrine is inevitable for every member.

    *And is it even possible within Mormonism, with its lay clergy and underdefined doctrinal and theological structure, to distinguish between Mormon folk doctrine (LDS “beliefs and practices” that are not “officially sanctioned” but originate within LDS circles) and beliefs that originate entirely outside of Mormonism?*

    I think that this is mixing two different things.

    I’m guessing that is not possible to distinguish between Mormon folk doctrine and institutionally sanctioned doctrine.

    But I think it is probably more possible to distinguish between Mormon folk doctrine and beliefs that originate entirely outside of Mormonism. I mean, you may say that the idea that those who aren’t in the celestial kingdom will not have genitals is folk doctrinal…but there’s no question that that sort of folk doctrine/speculation/idea definitely comes from Mormonism.

  7. My experience as a missionary in Russia was that most people that left the church very quickly ‘forgot’ or lost most of the values they learned in the church. Often they left because of word of wisdom concerns and a desire to not live the commandments. Those that left for reasons of doctrine were the overwhelming minority. Perhaps in America where there are a few more that leave because of doctrinal or historical concerns there may be more ‘cultural’ Mormons that maintain the values, but this seems to me a small minority on the whole. I was interested in the finding of the recent PEW study about political views on members. Active members are overwhelmingly conservative, while inactives are no more conservative or liberal than the population on the whole. That shows to me that those who are not active lose an immense amount of their political and social values.

  8. Daniel,

    While I definitely think there is something to the idea that there are different kinds of inactive/less active/former members, and that we probably would do well not to conflate them all under the same roof (e.g., those with doctrinal or intellectual issues are very different from those who simply found the church, its moral code, its truth claims, to lack relevance to their lives), I would push back.

    In renegotiating one’s position with Mormonism, we should expect a renegotiation of values too. In your comment, you talk about people “forgetting” or “losing” the values they had learned in the church…but I think that many of them would see it instead as finding those values no longer being relevant to them and finding other values that are more resonant with them.

  9. In response to #8, I would point out that active members also may tend to be conservative because the LDS Church is attractive to people with that perspective in the first place. Since it is the politically conservative Mormons who tend to be the most vocal and comfortable in the social environment of the modern LDS ward, such people find the experience of being their more rewarding and reaffirming, while those whose political views differ, but nevertheless have the spiritual conviction and keep their covenants, can find the ward social environment more challenging or even off-putting.

    I also take exception to what appears to me to be a conflation of political and moral values in your post. There is no simple correlation between conservative politics and strong moral values. I will, however, grant that there does seem to be a strong correlation between Republican politics and pushing one’s moral values on others by law, which accounts for the continuing differences between principled Libertarians and Republicans. The LDS Church itself occupies its own position on these issues–a position which is theologically defined and not identical with the Republican position. The Church may line up well with the Republican position on gay marriage, but does not line up as closely on the issue of abortion. There was also quite a stir among conservative Mormons when the Church took a position on immigration that conflicted with the Republican view. So much so, in fact, that some seemed willing to privilege their politics over their religion.

    The last bit I find particularly telling, and it contradicts your apparent assumptions about the overlap of conservative politics and Mormon spirituality. There actually is a history of members on the Right leaving Mormonism because the Church disappointed them over one of their pet issues. We saw this in 1978 when Official Declaration #2 extended the priesthood to all worthy males. A number of racists, finding themselves unwilling or unable to accept this revelation, split with the LDS Church. Some started small sects–at least one of which transformed into a Christian Identity (white supremacist) group.

    While it would be foolish not to concede that most Mormons in the US tend to be politically conservative, I am not sure this is a function of their superior morality or spirituality over liberals. Indeed, when we move out of the geographic boundaries of the US to other countries, where the political landscape changes and politics in general lean much more to the left, such a rubric would immediately become problematic.

    I don’t know that you were pressing a facile correlation between conservative politics and good Mormon values, but I would take exception with your position if you were.

  10. Daniel (#8), I’d agree with you that some people who exit the LDS Church lose their moral bearings and act out an adult form of teenage rebellion. But it is wrong to think that describes all who exit. Some exit because their own moral views don’t fit well within LDS culture (and it’s not always clear how conservative LDS cultural values agree or differ with official LDS religious values). In other words, some LDS exit the Church *because* of their moral values. I think as LDS we are better served by recognizing a broad spectrum of reasons people reduce their activity or fully exit the LDS Church.

    Of course, there’s a different dynamic in areas where the LDS Church presence is fairly new and there are relatively few Mormons. Describing or categorizing why people leave the Church in Russia or Japan might be much different from describing why people leave the Church in Utah or California.

  11. I know a lot of people who have left the church or skidded into inactivity and there is no common denominator. The closest I can come is pretty much to your point: they have a longing for spiritual things but do not feel they get this in church. Church is about going from one meeting to the next, giving the right answers to questions, fulfilling service duties. Even the temple is lacking because lingering very long is frowned upon. Praying, soul-searching, meditating — we’re basically encouraged to do all these things on our own anyway. I’m not surprised, but I don’t know what can be done about it.

  12. This was a great article. I see that this is not a new trend or problem. People have decided many times not to follow or conduct their lives as others do. What I feel is a damaging trend is to divide ourselves in groups, we are ALL Latter-day Saints, we follow God and His Son Jesus Christ. Our level of commitment to this cause should be between the Lord and us. To classify people in groups is like the -ites of the Book of Mormon. It seems that some people just want to disregard the Lord’s way of doing things, that is their prerogative, and then call it “spirituality”.