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?