‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is a Prideful Thing to Say

The fashionable doctrine of “spiritual but not religious” condemns every religious doctrine but its own.

U2’s Vertigo Tour makes a stop in Italy on Sept. 22, 2009.
U2’s Vertigo Tour makes a stop in Italy on Sept. 22, 2009. (photo: Bonovox84 / Wikimedia Commons / CC0)

I get the sense that it is fashionable to say, “I am spiritual but not religious.” People nod their heads in agreement and think how open-minded spirituality without religion allows people to be. Spirituality, after all, can take so many different forms and is free from rules and judgment, but religion tends to be dogmatic and restrictive. The spiritual person seems to have reached a state of humility in recognizing the sameness of all religions, while the religious person seems to operate on a prideful rigidity of doctrine and morality.

The problem, of course, is that the caricatures of the spiritual free man and the religious slave are themselves the result of judgmental pride and a lack of critical thought about what the terms “spiritual” and “religious” might mean.

The word “spiritual” can have two meanings. It can refer to the spiritual part of reality, the soul, as opposed to physical reality. In that sense, we are all spiritual, but also physical, because we are both body and soul. I have no quarrel with people if they claim to be “spiritual” in this sense, as long as they are not claiming to be merely spiritual so that they deny the reality of the body.

The second meaning is “relating to religion or religious belief.” This seems to be closer to what people mean. They like to operate in the world of ideas about religion without choosing any particular religion. God, the soul, practices of prayer and meditation are all up for grabs, but no one set of ideas is more or less true than another. It is all mystery with no reality, as opposed to a mysterious reality. It is kind of like someone saying that they like dealing with the ideas of mathematics without committing to any of them as actually descriptive of physical phenomena.

As far as mathematics goes, there are pure mathematicians who deal only with mathematical ideas, but it is not the case that “anything goes” when it comes to mathematical descriptions of the real world. Speed really is the ratio of distance to time or it is not. It is the same with spirituality and religion. There really is a God, or there is not. Humans really do have a soul, or they do not. Jesus really was God, or He was not. Spirituality seems to not care about what is really true when it comes to these most important issues or else imagines that there is no truth. It is like saying that you like trains, as long as they are not on any tracks. Religion without spirituality, on the other hand, is like the tracks without the train: all direction and pointing without actually moving closer into relationship with God.

As Martin Buber wrote, “the spirituality that represents the spirit nowadays is so scattered weakened, degenerate, and full of contradictions that it could not possibly do this until it had first returned to the essence of the spirit: being able to say You.”

The irony of the humble appearance on the face of spirituality without religion is that it actually represents a summit of pride; it is the position that casts condemnation on every set of beliefs and then seeks to create its own, as if the reality of God could be created in the image of the spiritual person. In this way, the spiritual but not religious avoid connecting truly with God. It is a feel-good smokescreen for isolation from any encounter with the true Eternal Thou.

And that brings us to the meaning of “religion.” It comes from the prefix re-, which means “again,” and ligare, which means “to bind” or “connect.” Religion is about binding ourselves to God again. It recognizes that something is wrong, that we are disconnected from God in a fundamental way, but that we need to become reconnected. A religion is about getting back to an encounter with God. If there are rituals or practices in a religion, it is because they are part of the process God has ordained for a relationship with Him. If there are doctrines and statements of faith, they are meant to be expressions of the truth God has communicated to us.

Perhaps one of the biggest differences is that the religious person has discovered a truth, while the merely spiritual person tries to create his own truth or doesn’t care. In the end, it comes down to what is true, and a religion is for those who recognize that they do not have the spiritual insight to invent their own spiritual dogmas and practices. A merely spiritual person claims to have the wisdom to determine his own path, often regardless of logic or the full counsel of many of the people from whom he pulls his ideas.