Spiritual But Not Religious

[Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the new book by James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker).]


Marcus Mumford is the 26-year-old lead singer of the phenomenally successful British band Mumford & Sons. Mumford is the son of John and Eleanor Mumford, the national leaders of the Vineyard Church in the U.K. and Ireland, part of the international evangelical Christian Vineyard Movement. He recently married actress Carey Mulligan, whom he’d met years earlier at a Christian youth camp. As the main lyricist for the band, he has lavished the music of Mumford & Sons with the themes and imagery of faith, often drawing specifically on the Christian tradition. As Cathleen Falsani has observed, they “explore relationships with God and others; fears and doubts; sin, redemption, and most of all, grace.”

Yet in a Rolling Stone interview, Mumford declined to claim the “Christian” label as his own. The reporter asked Mumford whether he “still consider(s) himself a Christian.” Mumford replied, “I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was...I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.”

Describing his spiritual journey as a “work in progress,” Mumford said that he’s never doubted the existence of God and that his parents are not bothered about his ambivalence toward the Christian label. Before anyone makes a rush to judgment, Falsani suggests that we “consider why he chose to answer the way he did.”

“What I heard in his reticence to label himself a Christian was not a denial of faith, but instead something that falls between Dorothy Day’s famous ‘Don’t call me a saint – I don’t want to be dismissed so easily,’ and Soren Kierkegaard’s, ‘Once you label me you negate me.’” She also hears echoes of another rock star whose own Christian faith has been a topic of conversation. When Bono was the same age Mumford is now, he shied away from Christian labels and stopped talking about his faith in public forums. When asked about his faith in 1987, also by Rolling Stone, Bono said: “I am a Christian, but at times I feel very removed from Christianity. The Jesus Christ that I believe in was the man who turned over the tables in the temple and threw the money-changers out.” Fifteen years later, in 2002, Bono told Falsani, “By the way, I don’t set myself up to be any kind of Christian.  I can’t live up to that. It’s something I aspire to, but I don’t feel comfortable with that badge.”

Such statements by Mumford and Bono, and the legions of “nones” like them, are not disavowals of faith or beliefs. Instead, it is the rejection of a label related to faith or belief. In years past, an unchurched individual might still claim to be “Baptist” or “Catholic.” Now there is great cultural freedom to drop the label entirely.

But it’s more than simply being “nothing.” Perhaps one of the more disconcerting marks of the typical “none” is that they are very content with holding their “nothing in particular” stance toward religion. Among those who say they believe in “nothing in particular,” 88 percent are not even looking for a specific faith or religion.

Think of their stance like this:

Spirituality? “Yes.”

God? “Probably.”

A specific religion? “Not for me.”

But at least seeking? “No, not really. Not a priority.”

The breakdown for a church or denomination could not be more complete. It is akin to having a world full of people being open and even interested in coffee, but purposefully driving past Starbucks with complete disinterest.

The significance of this cannot be overstated. For the last few decades, the key word in most conversations about evangelism and church growth has been the word “seeker.” As in “seeker churches”, being “seeker-targeted” in strategy, talking about reaching “seekers”, or what a “seeker” might think about our service. Let’s not forget the widespread embrace of being “seeker-driven” and “seeker-sensitive.”

All things “seeker” came on to the scene during the late seventies, and was vibrant until the mid-nineties. It is now irrelevant at best and terribly misleading at worst. The term “seeker” was used to refer in a general way to the unchurched who were turned off to church, but open to both spirituality and religion. Think back to the flood of baby boomers wanting to find a church for their kids, but feeling freedom from the religious and denominational moorings of their youth. They weren’t rejecting religion per se; they just felt the freedom to explore other traditions. For example, consider the number of Catholics who explored non-denominational evangelical megachurches. These were people who were truly “seeking,” open to exploring the Christian faith for their life, and often in active search mode for a religious faith, and even home, in order to plant themselves. They had rejected the religion of their upbringing (often Catholicism), not religion itself.

As the ARIS report concludes, “the challenge to Christianity…does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.” Barry Kosmin, co-researcher for the survey, adds “They’re not thinking about religion and rejecting it; they’re not thinking about it at all.” Or as the research of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found, “the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them.

So much for seeking.

Jonathan Rauch, in an article for the Atlantic Monthly, coined a term to describe his own spiritual condition. After a couple of glasses of Merlot, someone asked him about his religion. He was about to say “Atheist” when it dawned on him that this wasn’t quite accurate. “I used to call myself an atheist,” he finally responded, “and I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it has been years since I really cared one way or another. I’m” – and this was when it hit him – “an...apatheist!” Rauch went on to describe his state as a “disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s.”

He’s not alone.

According to the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey, 44 percent said they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom.” And 46 percent told Lifeway Research they never wonder whether they will go to heaven. So when it comes to matters related to God, religion, or even atheism, millions simply shrug their shoulders and say, “So what?”

In his book Society Without God, sociologist Phil Zuckerman chronicles his 14 months investigating Danes and Swedes about religion. His conclusion? Religion “wasn’t really so much a private, personal issue, but rather, a non-issue.” His interviewees just didn’t care about it. As one replied, “I really have never thought about that…It’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about.” It brings to mind how sociologist Peter Berger once quipped “If India is the most religious country on our planet, and Sweden is the least religious, America is a land of Indians ruled by Swedes.”

What we must now realize is that we are increasingly becoming simply a land of Swedes.




This has been adapted from James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker, 2014).

“Marcus Mumford & the trouble with labels,” Cathleen Falsani, Orange County Register, April 23, 2013, as carried by Religion News Service, read online; see also “Marcus Mumford: ‘I Wouldn’t Call Myself a Christian,’” Brian Hiatt, Rolling Stone, March 13, 2013, read online.