Spiritual but not Religious?


When Martin Luther, an ordained Catholic priest and a leader of the Protestant Reformation, left the monastery at age 49, he felt he had to live out his salvation in the world. But he didn’t give up on the idea of religious community.  He served a congregation, preaching and teaching and offering pastoral care and advice.  He also became famous for his table talk conversations with those who visited the Luther household, populated by a wife (an ex-nun) and their six children. In that chosen community, visitors worked out their own religious understanding in the company of others.  The idea of working out your evolving faith understanding in community is the core of the more liberal understanding of Protestant Christianity as a religion.  Salvation (or wholeness) is a lifelong journey.  We need companions to help us to stay on the path and at the same time explore new byways.

Now and then we encounter someone who is religious but not spiritual—someone who wants to be part of a faith community but has little or no interest in experiencing the sacred.  I remember one long-time member of my own congregation, an engineer with a very scientific mindset.  Every few months he would inquire of me, or sometimes of the minister, “Now, what’s this spirituality thing again?”  We would explain and he would nod, but it never stuck.  Another long-term member,was an elegant Southern lady and one of the few people other than the minister who dressed up for church.  She once announced loudly in a church discussion that she was a secular humanist.  I bit my tongue to keep from saying, No, you are actually a religious humanist, because you are here every Sunday! Recently my friend Pater Kandis and his co-author Andy Reese have written a book to make that very point, that humanists need religious community.

But it is the opposite combination that we encounter most often. How many times have you heard people say, “I am spiritual but not religious?”  The last person who said that to me was a Presbyterian friend  who served on her church’s social action committee but never attended worship. Spiritual but not religious is the new mantra, the ultimate in individualism.  My inner life is between me and God and I don’t need anyone else.  This attitude is confirmed by national reports of  declining church affiliation and attendance.. According to the Pew Report, the percentage of American adults who were religiously unaffiliated jumped from 16 percent in 2007 or 23 percent in 2014, and is projected to continue to increase.

So how is spirituality different from religion?  One definition of spirituality come from Unitarian Universalism’s first source,” direct experience of mystery and wonder.” Here are some other definitions, drawn from the University of Minnesota’s web site on Taking Charge of Your Well Being:

  • Christina Puchalski, MD, Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, contends that “spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.”
  • According to Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, researchers and authors of The Spiritual Brain, “spirituality means any experience that is thought to bring the experiencer into contact with the divine (in other words, not just any experience that feels meaningful).”
  • Nurses Ruth Beckmann Murray and Judith Proctor Zenter write that “the spiritual dimension tries to be in harmony with the universe, and strives for answers about the infinite, and comes into focus when the person faces emotional stress, physical illness, or death.”

Based on more than 30 years of psychological counseling and pastoral care, Howard Clinebell believed that humans have seven spiritual hungers. Human beings long to experience the healing and empowerment of love and renewing times of transcendence.  They feel a need for vital beliefs that lend meaning and hope in the midst of losses, tragedies, and failures., to have values, priorities, and life commitments centered in issues of justice, integrity, and love to provide guidance in personally and socially responsible living.  They want to discover and develop inner wisdom, creativity, and love of self and, develop a deepening awareness of oneness with other people, the natural world, and all living things.  Finally, they are seeking find spiritual resources to help them deal with grief, guilt, resentment, , and self-rejection and to deepen their experiences of trust, self-esteem, hope, joy and love of life.

Some of those longings can be achieved in isolation, or between spouses and friends, but many of them would benefit from a supportive community of fellow seekers—in other words, from religion.  Religion comes from the Latin word religio, which means the ties that bind us to one another and to the sacred. In general, it refers to an organized faith community with a shared story, shared values, and sometimes (but not always) shared beliefs, and rituals.  Regular weekly gatherings are a common practice of the three Western religions that trace their descent from Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The more liberal forms of the three traditional Western religions encourage exploration, personal spiritual development, and mutual support.  More traditional forms of Christianity may insist that their members affirm specific beliefs, such as the virgin birth, scriptural inerrancy, and Jesus died for our sins.  Conservative branches of all three religions may also require certain practices, such as keeping kosher, praying five times a day, fasting, or abstaining from work on the Sabbath that set them apart as people of a particular tradition.

The attitude of spiritual but not religious is reinforced by common misperceptions of organized religion, particularly in not recognizing the diversity within faith traditions. An example of these misperceptions comes from Aging Well by George Vaillant.  In explaining the limited participation of his aging subjects in organized religion, Vaillant writes, “Religion involves creeds and catechisms.  Spirituality involves feelings and experiences that transcend mere words.  Religion is imitative and comes from without; religion is “’so I’ve been taught.’  Spirituality comes from within; spirituality comes from ‘my strength, hope and experience’… Most religious beliefs involved dogma.  Spiritual trust involves metaphor…Metaphors are open ended and playful; dogma is rigid and serious…. Metaphors allow the truth of our dreams to become clearer with every retelling.  In contrast, dogma may insist that heretics be executed.” Anyone who read that caricature would be likely to go straight to spirituality, rejecting religion as a hindrance rather than an aid to spiritual development. It may well describe some faith communities, but it does not describe any of the three to which I have belonged.

Some of those who choose to call themselves spiritual but not religious are just loners. One friend who is very introverted confessed that she did not go to church mainly because it would be “full of people.” She is, however, open to attending meditation, even if it is in a group, because they won’t be talking!  Others who avoid church are refugees from bad church experiences, unwilling to give church community another try in a different congregation or even a different faith tradition. Many find the literal interpretations of the Christian story, or the beliefs, an obstacle, and do not realize that there are alternative forms of religious community where members are free to affirm those stories as stories, or as metaphors that are covey truth and meaning rather than a set of empirical facts.

Millennials so far show little interest in organized religion.  They are in a stage of their life between adolescence and parenthood, and may or may not eventually return to church but are presently satisfied with their casual companions, close friends and virtual communities. Still others of all ages are part of the growing army of the never-churched.  Raised without a faith community, they have no idea what it can offer to enrich their lives.  Whatever the reason, many of the unchurched, formerly churched, or anti-churched who call themselves spiritual but not religious feel that they have found a solitary relationship with the sacred that gives them strength and comfort, and they have stopped looking for anything more.

My friend Fran and I taught a class in downsizing and decluttering to older adults for  five years.  I jokingly refer to the class as weight watchers for your house.  Weight watchers, like other support groups with a common goal, provides companions and direction for those struggling unsuccessfully to lose weight on their own.  In our five week class we offered support and encouragement as part of a group facing a common challenge. A church is, among other things, a long-term spiritual support group. Yes, it’s possible to be spiritual but not religious, just as it is possible to be religious but not spiritual (to belong to a church solely for the community aspects).  But both the spiritual and the religious part of our lives will be enriched and deepened by having companions on the journey.


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