That venerable Sunday morning publication, Parade magazine, has released a poll on religiosity in the US. In addition to telling us what we already know … i.e. that a large majority of Americans are religious … the Parade article makes a big deal out of how many Americans call themselves “spiritual but not religious”:

America is generally thought to be among the most religious nations in the Western world. We Americans are often portrayed as people who believe in God, pray often, and teach our children to do the same. All true, confirms PARADE’s new national poll on spirituality. …

More than a quarter (27%) of respondents said they don’t practice any kind of religion. As books with titles like God Is Not Great and The God Delusion have climbed the best-seller lists in recent years, sociologists have speculated about a new atheism in the U.S. No such thing, according to PARADE’s survey—only 5% of respondents didn’t believe in God, 7% weren’t sure about the existence of God, and 12% didn’t believe in an afterlife. …

What Americans are doing today is separating spirituality from religion, with many people disavowing organized practice altogether while privately maintaining some form of worship. The old terms—“atheist” and “agnostic”—are no longer catch-alls for everyone outside traditional belief. In fact, 24% of respondents put themselves into a whole new category: “spiritual but not religious.”

That phrase means different things to different people. Some may be members of traditional religions but want to signal that they aren’t legalistic or rigid. At the other end of the spectrum, “spiritual but not religious” can apply to someone who has combined diverse beliefs and practices into a personal faith that fits no standard definition.

The problem here is that the phrase “spiritual but not religious” is nonsensical. There is no such thing! Everything one can call “spiritual,” also meets the definition of “religious.” Here are several dictionary definitions of “religious” for your perusal:

Source Definition

Dictionary.Com

a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Encarta Dictionary

people’s beliefs and opinions concerning the existence, nature, and worship of a deity or deities, and divine involvement in the universe and human life

American Heritage Dictionary

Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe

Merriam-Webster

a personal set or institutionalized system of religious
attitudes, beliefs, and practices (with religious meaning “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity”)

Compact Oxford English Dictionary

the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods

People appear to associate “religion” with “organization,” however, none of these definitions indicates that an organization is required for a “religion.” The M-W definition, moreover, explicitly says that “religion” can be either “personal” or “institutional.” In other words, it’s possible to have both an “organized religion” and a “non-organized religion.” The latter is not automatically excluded.

The bottom line, then, is that if you are “spiritual,” then you must also be “religious.” That’s just the way it is.

The Parade poll comes up with an odd measure of American religious sentiment; it asked respondents to pick their favorite from a brief list of religion-related movies:

Spirituality also plays a role in our entertainment choices. There, too, Americans veered away from the mystical and weird. When asked to pick their favorite of these films involving spirituality—The Da Vinci Code, The Exorcist, The Omen, The Sixth Sense, The Ten Commandments, Ghost, and It’s a Wonderful Life—one out of every four people selectedThe Ten Commandments. It was the hands-down winner, showing us that old-time religion still rules supreme and unchallenged—at least at the movies.

I’m not sure that a preference, out of that restrictive list, for Cecile B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments really means anything. It’s a great epic movie (I admit liking it myself, if only for its majestic production), of the sort that Hollywood likely will never recreate, making this an unfair comparison. Some of the other movies on that list, like The Omen, are not really “spiritual” movies so much as “horror” movies involving spiritual forces; people who aren’t big fans of horror movies are going to write it off immediately. Also, there are other obvious “spiritual” or “religious” films I could think of which are not on this list, such as The Passion of the Christ. I wouldn’t, therefore, place any significance on this poll question.

Finally, the poll results page reports that this was an online poll:

The PARADE Spirituality Poll was conducted by Insight Express among a national online panel of adults ages 18 and over. Surveys were completed by 1,051 respondents from May 8-12, 2009.

While a sample size of 1,051 is enough to be meaningful, even if it sounds like a small number, that it included only online respondents definitely skews the results. It leaves out anyone without ready Internet access.

P.S. In the fine mass-media tradition known as “make-news,” this “poll” — which is not very scientific, doesn’t tell us anything new, and delves deeply into a non-existent distinction — has been shoveled out to additional outlets … it was featured on today’s CBS Sunday Morning. What a waste of time and effort … a waste which was essentially duplicated.

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