From atheist churches to finding healing in the 'sacred flower of cannabis,' spiritual but not religious Americans are finding new ways of pursuing meaning

According to a recent Pew Center report, American Christianity remains in a nearly three-decade decline. Responding as “none” or “unaffiliated” on religious surveys, people increasingly identify as humanists, atheists, agnostics, or simply spiritual. If current trends continue, by 2070 Christianity may no longer be the dominant expression of American religion.

As a scholar who studies alternative spirituality and new religious movements in the United States, I believe the reality of America’s diverse religious and spiritual landscape is more complex than often presented.

The nones – or those claiming no particular religious affiliation – range from atheists to individuals searching for spiritual answers outside traditional religious groups. This last group commonly identifies as spiritual but not religious – or SBNR. Dissatisfied with traditional religion, these individuals think about spirituality in a more secular way, as representing their pursuit of meaning, healing, purpose and belonging.

The many expressions of spirituality

In her study of multiple SBNR identities, theologian Linda Mercadante found that the turn away from organized religion does not necessarily come at the expense of faith, ritual or practice. For “post-Christianity” seekers, Mercadante stresses how spiritual fulfillment moves from “religious and civic institutions to ‘gathering places.’”

Such “gathering places” range widely.

Many turn to practices appropriated from different religious contexts. Mindfulness and yoga, in particular, have emerged as popular alternatives for seeking spiritual, psychological and physical healing.

These practices point to the growing connection between spirituality and health. Twelve-step meetings for addiction recovery and contemporary medicine, for example, stress the need to balance spirit and body for wellness.

Several nonreligious practices create opportunities to explore spirituality beyond religious affiliation. People find a sense of belonging through the internet and social media. Others turn to self-help literature or elements of popular culture.

Sports similarly provide an avenue for spiritual renewal. The rituals of training, competing and camaraderie reflect the spiritual quest for personal growth and locating community. Digital communities and online options likewise afford new modes for spiritual practice and connection.

Accordingly, some scholars, such as religious studies professor Robert Fuller, have stressed the “unchurched” nature of the SBNR.

At the same time, the continued desire to find meaning and connection has led to the development of secular, spiritual and atheist churches. Although almost universally understood as physical spaces for religious practice, the rise of nonreligious churches demonstrate the benefits and shared opportunities many nones and SBNR people associate with the experience of “going to church.”

Secular and atheist churches

Emerging over the past decade, and although still small in scale, secular and atheist churches indicate how changes in religious affiliation do not necessarily include a rejection of the communal structures that provide avenues for spiritual rejuvenation.