Internal Diversity Among “Spiritual But Not Religious” Adolescents in the United States: A Person-Centered Examination Using Latent Class Analysis

Abstract

Americans who self-identify as spiritual but not religious (SBNR) have increased in recent years. Existing studies of American religion often assume the SBNR as a homogeneous group. Recently some scholars suggest they are not all the same. Instead, SBNR people may differ in the pattern of religious practice, attitude, and affection. This study examines the heterogeneity of the SBNR using a person-centered approach of latent class analysis. We first identified four distinct types of SBNR adolescents in the Wave 2 data of the National Survey of Youth and Religion. Then, we explored how subgroups changed their religious identity over time by tracking them in Wave 3 data.

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Data Availability

The study uses the three-wave data from National Study of Youth and Religion, which are available online (www.thearda.com/Archive/NSYR.asp).

Notes

  1. 1.

    The survey asked respondents this question “Some teenagers say that they ‘are spiritual but not religious.’ How true or not would you say that is of you,”, they are provided with three options, “very true,” “somewhat true,” and “not true at all.” In this study, we identify respondents answering either “very true” or “somewhat true” as SBNR for their failure to reject this religious identity. The percentage shown here is calculated based on respondents who had participated in both Wave 1 and 3.

  2. 2.

    In Wave 1, the average age of teens surveyed was 15.5, and almost 40 percent of the sampled respondents were early teens, while in Wave 2, a majority of the sample fell in the category of late teens.

  3. 3.

    In this study, we assume belief in God is a common characteristic of SBNR people which distinguishes them from atheists (see Smith 2011).

  4. 4.

    Wave 1 was conducted in 2003 when respondents were between the ages 13 and 17. Wave 2 and 3 were conducted in 2005 and 2007–2008, respectively, surveying respondents who had participated in Wave 1. Thus, we used from Wave 2 data of the NSYR to explore the subgroups among SBNR people.

  5. 5.

    We intent to include listening to music, light a candle, reading books that you consider as spiritual, meditation as the practice of unconventional spirituality. Yet, the survey of Wave 2 only included one of them, meditation. The survey asked about reading a spiritual book, it was worded as follows “Have you ever read a devotional, religious, or spiritual book other than the Scripture?” The question is more like a measurement for involvement of conventional activities than that of new spirituality. We used the two to measure the engagement in spirituality of SBNR respondents.

  6. 6.

    Owing to the high level of classification certainty of the 4-class model of LCA, these proportions only slightly differ from the proportions based on estimated item-response probabilities. Because of the uncertainty in assigning membership, usually it is not recommended to use the assigned class membership with statistical analyses, for instance, predicting class membership. But exploratory analysis is an exception (Collins and Lanza 2010: 149).

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank Dan Olson, Dan Winchester, and Tyler Anderson at Purdue University for their helpful comments as well as the anonymous reviews for their valuable suggestions for the study.

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Correspondence to Yunping Tong.

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Tong, Y., Yang, F. Internal Diversity Among “Spiritual But Not Religious” Adolescents in the United States: A Person-Centered Examination Using Latent Class Analysis. Rev Relig Res 60, 435–453 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-018-0350-9

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Keywords

  • Spiritual but not religious
  • Latent class analysis
  • Adolescents