Spiritual But Not Religious? Beyond Binary Choices in the Study of Religion


  • Acknowledgments: The author thanks the John Templeton Foundation for the funding that supported the research on which this article is based, and the Louisville Institute for sabbatical support that made analysis and writing possible. Early presentations of these ideas were invited by the Culture Workshop in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University and at the meetings of the International Society for Sociology of Religion. Thanks go especially to Roman Williams, Emily Ronald, Kevin Taylor, and Amy Moff Hudec, who assisted with this research and provided valuable feedback on this article. Additional research assistance was provided by Tracy Scott and Melissa Scardaville. Other helpful comments came from Wendy Cadge. Anne Birgitte Pessi and Stefania Palmisano provided both detailed critique and access to ongoing research from the European context, and Stephen Warner read multiple drafts, providing his usual astute guidance. Data on which this article is based may be reviewed for replication by permission of the author.

Correspondence should be addressed to Nancy T. Ammerman, Department of Sociology, Boston University, 96-100 Cummington Street, Boston, MA 02215. E-mail: nta@bu.edu


“Spirituality” often has been framed in social science research as an alternative to organized “religion,” implicitly or explicitly extending theoretical arguments about the privatization of religion. This article uses in-depth qualitative data from a religiously diverse U.S. sample to argue that this either/or distinction not only fails to capture the empirical reality of American religion, it does no justice to the complexity of spirituality. An inductive discursive analysis reveals four primary cultural “packages,” or ways in which people construct the meaning of spirituality in conversation: a Theistic Package tying spirituality to personal deities, an Extra-Theistic Package locating spirituality in various naturalistic forms of transcendence, an Ethical Spirituality focusing on everyday compassion, and a contested Belief and Belonging Spirituality tied to cultural notions of religiosity. Spirituality, then, is neither a diffuse individualized phenomenon nor a single cultural alternative to “religion.” Analysis of the contested evaluations of Belief and Belonging Spirituality allows a window on the “moral boundary work” being done through identifying as “spiritual but not religious.” The empirical boundary between spirituality and religion is far more orous than is the moral and political one.