Spiritual but Not Religious” (SBNR) is a popular phrase and initialism used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that takes issue with organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Spirituality places an emphasis upon the well-being of the “mind-body-spirit,” so “holistic” activities such as tai chi, reiki, and yoga are common within the SBNR movement.   In contrast to religion, spirituality has often been associated with the interior life of the individual.

Even as the specific expression “Spiritual but not religious” was first coined in 2000 by Sven Erlandsson, the phenomenon has been thought to emerge as a result of a new Romantic movement that began in the 1960s.  The relationship between the two has been linked to William James’ definition of religious experience, which he defines as the “feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”  Romantic movements tend to lean away from traditional religion and resemble spiritual movements in their endorsement of mystical, unorthodox, and exotic ways.   Owen Thomas also states that the ambiguity and lack of structure present in Romantic movements are also present within spiritual movements.

According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2012, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has increased from 15% in 2007 to 20% in 2012, and this number continues to grow.  One fifth of the US public and a third of adults under the age of 30 are reportedly unaffiliated with any religion, however they identify as being spiritual in some way. Of these religiously unaffiliated Americans, 37% classify themselves as spiritual but not religious, while 68% say they do believe in God, and 58% feel a deep connection to the earth. 

Generational replacement has been understood as a significant factor of the growth of religiously unaffiliated individuals.  Notable differences were found amongst the percentage of those considered younger millennials (born 1990-1994, with 34% reporting to be religiously unaffiliated; when compared to Gen Xers (born 1965-1980) with 21% reporting to be religiously unaffiliated. 

Demographically, research has found that the religiously unaffiliated population is younger, predominantly male, and 35% are between the ages of 18-29.  Conversely, only 8% of religiously unaffiliated individuals are 65 and older.  Among those unaffiliated with organized religion as a whole, 56% are men and 44% are women. 

Another possible explanation for the emergence of SBNR is its linguistic.  Owen Thomas highlights the fact that spirituality movements tend to be localized to English and North American cultures.  The meaning of the term “Spirit” is more narrow in English than that of other languages, referring to all of the uniquely human capacities and cultural functions.