Stanislav Panin holds a PhD in Philosophy from Moscow State University and is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Religion at Rice University
One persistent theoretical debate in the study of religion revolves around this question: whether religion is primarily a collective or individual phenomenon. Among classical figures within the study of religion, some, like Émile Durkheim, insisted on the inherently collective nature of religion, while others, like William James, emphasized its personal, individual aspect. The distinction roughly reflects the difference between the disciplines and methodologies that these scholars relied on; at the same time, it also demonstrates the complexity of the phenomenon in question and the fact that religion has appeared in many shapes throughout history.
Privatization of Religion in the Age of Reason
From a historical perspective, one cannot ignore changes that were brought on by the secularization, industrialization, and urbanization associated with modernity. The primary outcome of these changes, particularly in Europe, was that religion was increasingly understood as a private matter. Religion, of course, did not disappear from public life; however, as a result of the Reformation people started to realize that religion could no longer constitute the core of a shared European identity. Prior to the Reformation, Western Europe had only one religion, but the Reformation turned it into a place where different religious groups were forced to co-exist. This shift made necessary the separation of politics, law, sciences, and other spheres of life from religion in order to allow people of different faiths to live together peacefully.
This change was accompanied by a disenchantment with religious institutions that led some to explore religion outside the boundaries of churches. In philosophical literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a concept of natural religion was advanced to refer to ideas about the divine and morality rooted within human reason rather than in traditions, scriptures, and institutions. While in theory the concept of natural religion presumed shared, universal religious ideas, these ideas were considered something that people should believe because of their personal convictions and experience, not external authority.
At the same time, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word “mysticism” as a noun was introduced in French and later in other European languages as well . This emergence of a new term demarcated a significant shift in European spiritual life. The new word, mysticism, both came from and separated itself from the pre-Modern concept of “mystical theology” that was originally considered a branch of Christian theology. Mysticism, in contrast, was understood as something transcending borders of particular theological traditions and churches. Even though the concepts of natural religion and mysticism marked different frameworks for reevaluating religion, they both reflected a shared feeling of the increasing understanding of religion as something that grows from within an individual rather than from a community or tradition.
These early shifts in terminology reflected a search for language aimed to describe a new social reality. In the core of this new reality were diverse attempts to come to terms with religion in what was proclaimed to be the Age of Reason that led to a search for religion outside the walls of established religious institutions. Throughout the following two centuries, the tendency never diminished, and contemporary scholars of religion face an even more pluralistic and complex religious situation today.
In 2018, the Pew Research Center introduced a typology of religion that aimed to describe various levels of affiliation between individuals and particular religious traditions. The typology suggested seven levels of religious belonging from entirely secular people to those who strictly adhere to a particular religious group and accurately follow its teaching. However, between the two poles of non-religious and highly religious people, the research identified a large and diverse group of “somewhat religious” which, according to the center’s report, accounted for 32% of the U.S. population.
People who belong to the “somewhat religious” category are, in turn, separated into two types. Some claim that religion occupies an important place in their lives but rarely participate in traditional religious practices and groups. Others simply share some ideas that could be considered religious, such as a belief in the afterlife, spirits, or divine beings, but do not associate with a particular religion. Many of this latter group share what sometimes are identified as New Age ideas, for instance, beliefs in angelic guides or spiritual energies. For this type of “somewhat religious” people, Pew’s report proposes the term “spiritually awake.”
Individualization and the Borders of Religion
Although “spiritually awake” people are not atheists, the question remains as to whether we can really call them “religious.” It, of course, depends on our definition of religion; however, at least some scholars avoid the term “religious” when referring to such amorphous phenomena. Among alternative terms used to describe this category of people, the most prominent one is, probably, “spiritual but not religious.”
A 1997 study by Brian J. Zinnbauer et al. has demonstrated a sharp distinction between Americans who identify themselves as religious and those who claim to be spiritual but not religious. The former have more orthodox views on religion as well as more conservative political leanings, attend churches more frequently, and often grew up in religious families. Spiritual but not religious people, on the other hand, tend to be more educated, often participate in New Age practices, and claim personal mystical experience more frequently than people who describe themselves as religious .
A 2017 study by the Barna Group demonstrates that, although spiritual but not religious people constitute a distinct group, there is no way to identify particular religious traits shared by them. For instance, approximately half of this group believe in only one God, while the other half adheres to polytheism; 22% believe that God “represents a state of higher consciousness that a person may reach” rather than a transcendent being, while 30% subscribe to a view of an “all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today.” As the authors of the report conclude, “what’s noteworthy is that what counts as ‘God’ for the spiritual but not religious is contested among them, and that’s probably just the way they like it.”
Overall, spiritual but not religious people are united primarily by their belief that people should rely on themselves rather than established or organized religious traditions in a search for answers to spiritual questions. At the same time, 73% of the spiritual but not religious believe that all religions teach the same and therefore that it is worthwhile exploring different religions to learn something from them. In this sense, the spiritual but not religious identity is not a religion of its own, but rather a shared attitude to traditional forms of religious life that promises a means of solving religious questions without subscribing to a particular established religion.
What Does It Mean for Our Understanding of Religion?
This situation demonstrates a complexity of religion and religious belonging in the contemporary world. In contrast with a more traditional approach where we could simply operate with clear-cut distinctions like “believers” and “atheists,” or describe religious people as simply belonging to specific religious groups, today it is clear that a much more subtle categorization is necessary that would account for vast gray areas in between those poles.
In these circumstances it might be tempting to turn to extremely wide definitions of religion that would include all various forms of spiritual life under the same, all-encompassing umbrella category. This, however, seems not to be a good solution. From a sociological perspective, being “religious” is something that is associated much more with belonging to certain institutions, following family traditions, and adhering to a particular religious doctrine rather than simply having spiritual questions or personal mystical experiences. There is a clear, empirical distinction between spiritual but not religious and religious people.
In an attempt to find a better way to talk about these topics, I think, it might be beneficial to turn to the history of the concept itself. The term “religion” in its modern sense appeared in Latin around the first century BCE, as most famously represented in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. This linguistic innovation was not just a random fluctuation. It represented a change of attitude towards spiritual life within Roman culture. A shift from republic to empire implied centralization of social life that also affected a sphere of religion introducing the Roman imperial cult that eventually became mandatory for the majority of Roman citizens. The new term came into play, in part, to describe these changes.
When Christianity appeared, it utilized the term “religion”—together with other Greek and Latin words—providing it with a new meaning. What remained constant was a sense of centralization and unification implicit in it. As we have seen above, these characteristics are still important nowadays for understanding the word religion, even despite a centuries-long attempt to speak about it in a wider way that would incorporate various individual modes of spirituality.
If that is the case, maybe it would serve us better to restrict the use of the word “religion” to its narrow sense and acknowledge that it represents just one possible strategy of many to address spiritual needs in a particular historical context. It reflected particular social shifts, dominated in usage when it resonated with existing social structure, and was challenged when this social structure was questioned. Our contemporary situation is better described as a world where religions compete with various non-religious ways to approach spiritual questions that include secular philosophies, non-confessional mysticism, and other methods to explore spiritual life.
 Pevateaux, Chad J. “Mysticism Emergent: The Beginning of the Study of Mysticism in the Academy.” Religion: Secret Religion, edited by April D. DeConick, Macmillan Reference USA, 2016, p. 266.
 Brian J. Zinnbauer, Kenneth I. Pargament, Brenda Cole, Mark S. Rye, Eric M. Butter, Timothy G. Belavich, Kathleen M. Hipp, Allie B. Scott and Jill L. Kadar. “Religion and Spirituality: Unfuzzying the Fuzzy.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 549-564.