Spiritual or Religious?

A recent issue of Newsweek featured several articles on spirituality and religious beliefs, including a cover story titled “In Search of the Spiritual.” Once you cut through the anecdotes and admiring talk of how “diverse” Americans are when it comes to believing (and believing nearly anything), the bottom line is a knowing insistence that “spirituality” is more popular than “religion.”

According to Patricia O’Connell Killen of Pacific Lutheran University, the fastest-growing category on surveys asking people to give their religious affiliation is “none.” But “spirituality” — defined as the impulse to seek communion with the divine — is thriving. A Newsweek/Beliefnet Poll found that more Americans, especially those younger than 60, described themselves as “spiritual” (79%) than “religious” (64%). Almost two-thirds of Americans say they pray every day and nearly a third meditate.

I don't think Newsweek's findings are surprising in the least. In fact, such findings come out at least once or twice a year in the mainstream media.

Is any of this interest truly new? On the surface it would seem that Americans in the 1950s, 1910s, or the 1860s had more homogenous beliefs about God and religion than they do today. But while the profile of esoteric spiritualities has increased since the 1960s, America has long featured a more diverse religious landscape than is commonly acknowledged — and has often been a hotbed for individualistic, anti-authoritarian and esoteric strands of religious belief. As those beliefs have grown, more and more people have tossed aside shallow and anemic forms of Christianity.

Unfortunately, the terms “religion” and “spirituality” have been so corrupted and distorted that they've lost nearly all of their traditional meaning. In post-modern lingo, such as that which Newsweek seems to be using, the two words can be defined roughly as follows:

Religion: The organized worship of a judgmental, angry God who makes unrealistic moral demands, hates women and hopes to send nearly everyone to hell. Most strains were created by old, white men in order to dominate women, oppress Third World countries and repress open-minded people.

Spirituality: The personal beliefs of enlightened people who seek direct, intimate contact with the divine (she, he, it, whatever) without being hindered by dogma, ritual, authority, structure, commandments or rigid notions about truth, logic, or religion.

Severing the two requires tearing the inner life away from the outer life. This leads to the popular idea that spirituality is a private matter while religion is a public display that may or may not taken seriously. Spirituality becomes freedom from religion. But spirituality divorced from authentic religion is a self-absorption leading away from true and abiding spirituality. This self-absorption, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in Truth and Tolerance, causes people to “look for what is irrational, superstitious, and magical,” so they easily fall into “an anarchic and destructive form of relationship with hidden powers and forces.”

“The spiritual man,” writes St. Paul, “judges all things.” The spiritual man is united to Jesus Christ, who rightly judges all things. That is not mere news — it is the Good News. Don't expect to see it on the cover of Newsweek anytime soon.

Carl E. Olson is editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.