Evolving Norms of Spirituality Replacing Religion

June 25, 2024
IONS Communications Team

In 2023, 28% of Americans identified as “nones”; that is, they answered “none” when surveyed about their religion. That’s up from 16% in 2007. Still, 71% of the nones – or spiritual but not religious – believe in a higher power or some kind of universal intelligence, some of them even in God. These people are known as “spiritual but not religious”.

In this article, we’ll explore how the norms around spirituality and religion have evolved in America lately. Is spirituality really replacing religion? And what does it mean to be spiritual? 

Astrology as a guiding light

Swipe left or right? It depends on whether your prospective date is a Scorpio or a Libra. At least, that’s how many Millennials reason. 

Astrology is one spiritual modality that fills a function traditionally catered to by religion. 

An increasing amount of Americans turn to the planets and celestial bodies for life advice. A study from January 2024 reveals that 85% of Americans are either positive or neutral to astrology. This is an average across age groups from 18 to 59+, with Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) showing particularly strong beliefs. 

Astrology and dating 

This trend seems even more prominent in dating, especially among Millennials. Eighty-one percent of them have turned to astrology for relationship advice. Over 50% asked for their date’s sign before, and 4 out of 10 have canceled a date after they discovered their date had the “wrong” sign. It seems fair to say the fault is in the stars! The most popular sign to date is Libra, while Millennials avoid Scorpios. Moreover, 64% claim astrology has improved their relationships, and 58% that it has helped their dating life. 

Besides dating, respondents claim they turn to astrology for self-care tips and career advice.

Astrology and gender (not what you may think!)

An unexpected finding from the study is that contrary to popular belief, men affiliate more with astrology than women. The male respondents were slightly more likely to be total believers (19% vs. 18% of women) and more likely to consult astrology for guidance and pay for astrological advice. 

Is astrology replacing religion?

The answer seems to be: it depends on who you’re asking. 

About 70% turn to astrology for comfort in uncertain times – just like people turned to religion in the past. An equal amount of people consult the ‘stars’ on how to navigate sticky situations. Twenty percent say it gives something bigger than themselves to believe in. However, this number is much greater for Millennials: 31% responded affirmatively to this question. 56% say more of their friends believe in astrology than in religion. 

That said, this doesn’t mean that astrology is replacing religion. Across age groups, the main reason for engaging with astrology was for entertainment purposes (58%). And 59% of the respondents claimed that astrology was not important in their lives. 

Changing behaviors – consistent needs

We may have become less religious, but the underlying need that religion fulfills hasn’t disappeared. It simply seems like the form by which we prefer to meet this need has evolved.

As seen above, astrology is one way for people to fulfill the needs previously met by religion.

Casper Ter Kuile gives another example in his book The Power of Ritual by making a parallel with the music industry. People are buying fewer CDs today than in the early 2000s, but that doesn’t mean the love for music has dropped: the listening experience has just taken on a different format. 

Similarly, the elements of traditional religious practices are mirrored in society: people are attending weekend retreats and meditating. They have mystical experiences and get spiritual connection from yoga classes. Karaoke and festivals give opportunities to get together and sing; podcasts and tarot decks serve as wisdom teachings.

Another trend is that people turn to apps and virtual communities to have their spiritual needs met. 

Spiritual but not religious 

A study from Pew Research Center shows similar findings: young Americans are turning away from religion and replacing it with their own mix of spiritual elements, including New Age practices, things like tarot cards and crystals, and elements from Asian religions and Native American traditions. In this study, 22% considered themselves spiritual but not religious. 

The biggest difference between spiritual vs. spiritual but not religious people is that the latter group believes that animals, nature (like trees and mountains), and inanimate objects can have a soul or spirit. The latter group also has a greater tendency to think that being connected to nature is a central part of spirituality. 

It seems like the biggest reason for abandoning religion was criticism against organizations or people or how religions handle social and political issues. 

That said, the beliefs in something bigger than the physical world remain strong overall:

  • 83% believe humans have a soul or spirit on top of our physical bodies.
  • 81% think there’s something spiritual beyond what we can perceive.
  • 71% of Americans believe in heaven. 57% felt that we can reunite with passed loved ones in the afterlife. 
  • 77% spend time in nature at least 5 times a month. 50% say they do it for health benefits, to enjoy themselves, or for other reasons. 26% do so to feel connected with something bigger than themselves or their true selves.

It was found that spiritual but not religious people tend to attend less gatherings dedicated to spirituality, such as ceremonies, while in-person gatherings play a central role in religions. One could imagine that, for the spiritual but not religious, the communal element of organized religion is indirectly replaced by attending festivals or seeing friends.

The relationship with God

Another intriguing topic is that of God. According to a 2023 survey, people who considered themselves spiritual but not religious were far less likely to believe in the God described in the Bible (20% believed in God vs. 84% of those who self-identified as “religious and spiritual”). However, 73% believed in “some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe” (73% vs. 15% of those who were religious and spiritual). 

Does it matter if we lose touch with God, when there are other sources that bring community and meaning? Having a personal relationship with God still seems to provide myriad psychological benefits. God is perceived as an attachment figure, giving a sense of safety similar to that of a parent or caregiver in human form. The personal relationship with God seems extra important during difficult times. 

The decrease in religious affiliation slowed down in 2020

A 2020 study showed an interesting pattern in those who were religiously unaffiliated. While the numbers showed a steady uptick between 1986 and 2016, the number of self-identifying non-religious people actually dropped in 2020  vs. 2016 (across all age groups except for 50-64 years old, where it remained unchanged). One could speculate that the pandemic urged people to seek comfort in religion. 

Can spirituality replace religion?

It remains to be examined whether this ” mix-and-match” style of spiritual practices provides the same benefits as following an organized religion. Furthermore, more comprehensive studies would be needed to clearly state the trends in spirituality vs. religion.  

So, we can’t make any science-backed judgments about spirituality as a replacement for religion. What remains clear is that many people still believe in God. And whether or not people identify as religious, a vast majority feel a connection to the noetic realms. 

That’s great news, since beliefs in the noetic have shown numerous mental health benefits. A win for the well-being of humanity!

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