Spiritual but not religious

Are you 'spiritual but not religious'?

This phrase is a cliché that describes a significant trend in self-identity.

The trouble with the idea of 'being religious' is that it has become associated with all the ways we humans can make religion bad: things like hypocrisy, oppression, abuse, control, misogyny, closed minds, hatred of those of different beliefs, spiritual blindness.

Because of such things, to be called 'religious' can feel like a criticism - a bad thing to be. To be called 'spiritual' sounds like a compliment - a good thing to be.

It's not surprising that 'spiritual but not religious' (SBNR) has a Facebook page.  I've taken a look. The page invites you to 'like' it if you
"believe that spirituality can exist outside of organised religion".
 The focus of the page is on
"sharing a sense of wonder and the rapture of being alive".
Recent posts on the page follow the theme of 'truth' and the previous week was 'serving others'. These are values that most organized religions hold dear and I noticed that some of the quotations on the page are from members of organized religions, for example quotes from Martin Luther King (a Christian) and Mahatma Ghandi (a Hindu).

'Spiritual but not religious' is not an organized movement in the sense of a society to join. People who self-identify as SBNR do not all share the same perspective and are not necessarily anti-religious, though some may be. Many may take a 'pick and mix' attitude to create an individual spirituality/ethical/belief system. I see the attraction of this. It fits in with a prevailing philosophy of the importance of 'be true to yourself'. One problem though is that this could be a way of avoiding the spiritual and ethical challenges that most religions present. And it can elevate the individual above the community - a particularly western problem I think. 

Jesus could be described as 'spiritual but not religious' in that he strongly criticized religious leaders as hypocrites and as people with hearts of stone who concentrated on outward performance of religious observance while missing the heart. On the other hand he was religious. He worshipped and taught in the Jewish synagogue and temple. He prayed alone and with others. He had faith in God as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures which he knew well. He was deeply spiritual but also religious.

Those of us who try to follow Jesus as 'the Way, the Truth and the Life' find that to be a solitary Christian is a contradiction in terms. Christianity is founded on community, co-operating together as the body of Christ. Sometimes the way the church behaves makes it hard to be spiritual in a Christian sense and is why some leave or never join. 'I can be a Christian on my own' some say. But this makes no sense in relation to New Testament teaching. 

What the popularity of the idea of being 'spiritual but not religious' shows is that there is a deep hunger for spirituality and many do not expect to find that satisfied within organised religion, or have tried it and been disappointed. What are your thought about what Christians could do about this?


  1. The problem is that we associate being religious with organised religion with all its ceremony and tradition. Jesus wasn't interested in most of that stuff - he wanted to draw people into a relationship with his father not be tied down with all the religious ritual that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were obsessed with. When we lose sight of Jesus either by getting tied up in legalism or go our own way and go for pick-and-mix spirituality which ultimately is selfish, then we lose sight of what real religion is.

    1. I agree that pick-and-mix-spirituality is ultimately selfish. Jesus "wanted to draw people into a relationship with his father" but also taught that this goes hand in hand with right relationships with each other e.g 'forgive your debtors', 'love one another', 'love your neighbour as yourself'. Without some form of organised 'religion' how can these teachings/guiding principles be faithfully passed on? Is it possible to keep our eyes on Jesus without the encouragement of the Christian community? It's interesting that the distinction between the meaning of 'spiritual' and 'religious' seems a relatively recent one. I'm thinking of a book written in the mid 20th century - 'The Varieties of Religious Experience' which is actually about what most people would now label 'spiritual experience'.

  2. I am unsure about the ‘spiritual but not religious’ thing. A good deal of the people I work with in palliative care will state, when I asked them about their religious beliefs ‘I’m spiritual, but not religious...’. Obviously, when I’m in the position of social worker (and more often than not the role becomes more counsellor, rather than social worker) I don’t display any thoughts or feelings I may have on the subject. Again and again I am asked by patients ‘What do you think happens to you after you die?’ Several will ask about belief and religion – which, by the way, is why professionals have to put their own religious beliefs (or lack of same) to one side when dealing with vulnerable people. My personal reply to ‘What do you think happens to you when you die?’ would be ‘You are stuck in a hole in the ground and rot... that’s it, lights out, fade to black...’. It is also what I hope happens to you when you die. Up until Job that seems to be much of the thinking in the Old Testament too – until Judaism came cheek by jowl with other religions. I just bounce the question back – it is not my business to force my views on other people, particularly people often too weak, ill and distressed to argue.

    I was out in Islington earlier this week, having dinner with a fellow PhD and we were lamenting how studying religion close up has basically shaken our own beliefs in organised religion. She is ‘doing’ Islam, I’m ‘doing’ Christianity and neither inspire – the tenets and beliefs of the religion may be wonderful on paper, but the actuality of congregational life is pretty miserable. I suppose – if you’re going to make headway in a church – then the best thing to do is ensure that the personal is not overcome by the communal – which perhaps explains (as my friend and I have both concluded from our research and our personal experience of church life) why there is such unbridled egotism evident in a good number of the research interviews we have done. It is all ‘me’ ‘me’ ‘me’ with a goodly number of my research subjects – how God has planned their lives, done things just for them and how everything works out just fine for them, because they are Spirit filled Christians. The irony is for much of the recorded interview they moan about their fellow believers and the church in general. Hence they employ that old tactic of pathology – the Devil seems to be the root cause of almost everything that goes wrong or that they perceive as wrong in their church and their experience of belief. As an observer, my own assessment is rather more mundane: we’re all responsible for shit and just saying it is the Devil, is yet more inverted pride, so endemic with some of our believing brethren, as the subtext is ‘I’m so special, the Devil attacks/tempts me...’.

    I think the main reason the churches aren’t doing very well is quite simple: the welfare state, greater equality before the law, universal health care and leisure time, has eroded the power of existential uncertainty that was a great stalwart of religious belief. Moreover, people have time to enjoy themselves in this life: something illness, poverty, the factory/feudal system and economic and political uncertainty left little time for in the lives of our forebears. The hope was that the next life might be better than the present. Now the present is very good, so who needs another ‘make believe’ life to come?

    Whatever, I think we all know that you don’t have to go to church to be a good person – in fact, from my own experience (and this encompasses some 30 years as an adult member of several churches of differing flavours) some of the biggest shits I have ever met have been found in the pews, rather than outside of the church. It is just that in the ongoing effort to seem special and believe one’s life is special and different to that of our wider kith and kin, we like to think there is something special about church folk, because in doing so we magnify ourselves and say there is something special about us too!

    1. Thank you for your interesting comments. I'd love to know more about your research - Is it still in progress? What is your thesis?

      If the power of existential uncertainty has been eroded for the reasons you suggest, why do so many patients facing their own deaths ask you what you think happens after death? Isn't that an indication of existential uncertainty? I'm sure you are right in your professional role to bounce the question back rather than force your views on a person in a very vulnerable situation.

      As a Christian I believe that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. This belief is based on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Death and decomposition of the body is an inescapable fact that we all have to face. Hope in resurrection to new life is a real hope for the Christian but also a great mystery because it is completely outside our experience. Our ideas about what you call a 'make believe' life to come have been much confused by certain Victorian hymn writers and their romantic pictures of 'heaven' which owe more to wishful thinking than the actual teaching found in the Bible. Thinking of 'heaven' as if it were a place in the same way as the earth or the moon are places, is not helpful I think. Jesus preached about the 'kingdom of heaven'which is more about a state of communal well-being. Jesus taught us to pray 'your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven'.

      It's rather depressing to hear that so many of the Christians you have interviewed have displayed 'unbridled egotism'and moaned about other believers and the church in general. You probably know that Mahatma Ghandi said he admired Christ but did not see Christ in Christians - a sad indictment. I do agree that many of us Christians are hypocrites and don't display the characteristics like love, joy, peace, that we say are the fruit of the Holy Spirit. When faced with that accusation, we have to acknowledge the truth of it, but also say, don't look at my life, look at the life of Christ.

      I agree you don't have to go to church to be a good person. There are good and bad people both inside and outside the Christian church. That's because we are all human with the same struggles between being the best we can be or the worst. Personally I need help to try to be 'good' and I do find that help from God and within the community of believers. Sometimes that help comes in the form of things going wrong, or difficult people to work with - I don't mean God makes everything easy!

      You have an intriguing phrase about "the ongoing effort to seem special..." I believe that all human beings are 'special' to God, totally loved by God. My reason for that? Because of Jesus.

      I could say a lot more - but no more time. Once again, thank you for taking the trouble to comment. I do appreciate it.


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