How many Canadians are spiritual but not religious?

Of all the questions people ask me about the spiritual but not religious phenomenon, the “How many?” question is one of the most common. But don’t expect a simple answer.  It is not easy to estimate how many Canadians view their religious identity this way.

The issue is complicated by a number of factors including unreliable and inconsistent data collection methods, and a general lack of agreement about what “spiritual but not religious” means. Are we talking about people who go to “church,” people who never go to “church” or both?  Are people spiritual but not religious if they don’t call themselves that? I have spoken to many people who tell me they are atheists, only to find that they meditate, pray, or believe in some kind of “Higher Power.” Some will even say outright they are spiritual. Spiritual atheism, go figure. What about “religious nones,” those people who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation? Again, we know that many of these folks say they have spiritual needs, pray and believe in the afterlife.

In my doctoral research (2011) I estimated that by the broadest measure, somewhere around 50% of Canadians might be considered spiritual but not religious. But before you go citing this, please take note! That was a very preliminary figure based on educated guesswork. I was casting the net very wide. In fact, the polling and social survey research places the figure somewhere between 9% and 30%.

If I had to pin it down, I would go with what seems to be the magic number of about 25% (but I think this is growing rapidly). This would include people who go to church, those who don’t and even some “atheists.” This would be people inclined to liberal social and political views who also care about spirituality, and have a strong belief in the interconnectedness of all life.

Pretty vague, huh.