“Spiritual but not religious?” What exactly does that mean?

April 25, 2012

Over the years I have encountered many people who inform me that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” I must admit that I’ve never been quite certain of what this ubiquitous little phrase actually means. Clearly, these individuals have rejected membership in any organized religion. However, they are still describe themselves in partaking in some sort of spirituality. But what exactly is this spirituality, and why is it so often described as something separate from religion?

Only once did I meet someone who described herself as “religious, but not spiritual.” In my senior year of college, having experienced my first major crisis of faith, I decided to approach my most excellent ancient Greek philosophy professor, Elfie Raymond, for advice. After teaching me a year-long course on pre-Socratic philosophy and Plato’s dialogues, Elfie had taken me under her wing, mentoring me on academic matters and occasionally treating me to dinner. Between bites of channa masala and sips of my mango lassi, I dared to ask her the question that had been plaguing me for as long as I’d known her. “Elfie, are you religious?” I asked.

She put down her fork and looked at me in something like disgust. “What kind of question is that?”

“An impertinent one,” I replied.

A moment of silence followed as Elfie gathered her thoughts. “I would say that, given my educational and cultural background, I am a religious person,” she said. “However, I would not describe myself as a spiritual person.”

I can’t recall just how that conversation finished, other than that it involved a good deal of frustration and a rapid change of subject. I had always tried to be – or at least to appear – as rational as possible in my formidably intelligent professor’s presence; she knew little of the strange stew of philosophical and personal confusion that had led me to inquire about her religious beliefs. And yet, her answer – as provocative to me now as it was then – has stayed with me.  Now, I think that it might offer some insight into this uneasy relationship between spirituality and religion.

But first, what exactly is religion?  Philosophers, sociologists and theologians have given many definitions to this often inflammatory word. According to Emile Durkheim, religion is an institution that serves a social need. For Clifford Geertz, it is “a system of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive, long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” For Karl Marx, it is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world…the opiate of the people.” In my opinion, however, the best definition of religion can be found in the etymology of the word itself. Although the meaning of the Latin “religio” is disputed, some scholars connected it to the verb “ligare,” to bind or connect. Religion is a tie, a knot, or a bond.

In order to understand this idea, it might help to consider the way we use the word “religion” in our everyday speech. While this word is often associated with a particular faith system or social group, it can also be used to describe the everyday, secular business of one’s life. Think of how many times you may have heard the word used to describe a person’s daily activities: “She exercises religiously…She practices the piano religiously…She clips coupons religiously…” Very often, the word is employed to describe daily activities carried out with discipline and commitment. In this sense, religion is indeed a tie that binds us – perhaps to God and our communities, but also to any value that we deem worth dedicating our lives to. Someone who “exercises religiously” doesn’t just go for a run every couple of weeks or so. Exercising religiously implies waking up early when you’d rather sleep in, ignoring those inner voices urging you to press the snooze button. It means bundling up and facing the weather, no matter how unpleasant. And, it means refusing to give up once muscles become sore and the other demands of life threaten to crowd it out of your schedule.  A person who exercises religiously is not completely free to follow her urges of the moment. For whatever reason, the desire for good health gains priority over other desires. You might substitute for “good health” many other values – human rights, ecological justice, God himself.  Even when it is no longer fun, even when it starts to require genuine sacrifice, a religious person never forgets the tie that binds.

Following this definition, I can begin to understand the ways in which my professor may have been “religious, but not spiritual.” For Elfie, morality was not arbitrary – there really existed an objective good worth striving for. Our overall equality as human beings – what she called our ontological parity – was a sacred law. Reason, or Logos, was not merely a mental faculty, but a reality permeating the entire cosmos, an objective, unquestionable truth binding us to the rest of nature and to one another. The path toward truth could be initiated from many points of origin, but Plato and various medieval and Reformation Christian philosophers were the key for this committed yet undogmatic philosopher. Elfie may or may not have been a churchgoer; she may or may not have believed in a personal God. Nevertheless, she was unquestionably religious, always obedient to Logos on the path toward truth.

I doubt that people who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” would say that they reject religion as I am trying to define it. Indeed, spirituality is itself incredibly difficult to define (and even more so to distinguish from religion). In Catholicism, spirituality is often described in terms of prayer, meditation and contemplation – all practices aimed at achieving a deeply personal communion with God. As Fritjof Schuon has posited in his The Transcendent Unity of Religions, all the world’s religions can be viewed as having two layers: the “exoteric” realm, which concerns beliefs, moral codes, and ritualistic practices, and the “esoteric” realm, which concerns the mystical search for union with the divine. According to Schuon, religions may appear contradictory and incompatible when viewed at the exoteric level; however, at the level of esoteric spirituality, they are very much the same. And so, if I had to define spirituality, I would describe it in similar terms to those by which Schuon describes the esoteric: as an inward journey toward mystical union with God (or nature, or the universe, or perhaps just one’s own inner being).

I would suspect that many people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” are those who have rejected the exoteric side of religion (that of beliefs, doctrines and laws) in favor of the esoteric, experiential side. This seems to be the case for author Tim O’Donnell, whose recently published book A View from the Back Pew narrates his gradual metamorphosis from practicing Catholic (who always questioned his faith) to “spiritual, but not religious.” Alternating between autobiograpy and historically-based critique of church doctrine, O’Donnell concludes his journey with a strong faith in “Our Father, Who Art Inside Us.” The truth is not to be found in doctrines or precepts, but in one’s individual experience.

I can certainly empathize with O’Donnell’s conclusion. Even a cursory glance at my blog should reveal that I take issue with many “exoteric” Catholic doctrines; meanwhile, spiritual, mystical communion with God remains one of my greatest desires. Whenever my belief in the divine has floundered, spiritual experiences – often of the most subtle  quality as a walk in the city park or a conversation with a kind stranger on a bus – have managed to restore my faith. I can certainly understand why many people have remained dedicated to spirituality while rejecting religion as it is so commonly (even if contraditorily) defined.

But, what of religion in the sense that I am trying to describe it here? In seeking the divinity within, do we not come in danger of forgetting the tie that binds? What of living in the service of higher values? What of sacrificing one’s urges for the sake of a greater good? What of the connections we forge and maintain with our families, communities and indeed the human race as a whole?

In recent years many thinkers have sounded the alarm about the breakdown of our communities. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor states that we are in a “malaise of modernity” in which we strive to live authentically – true to ourselves, one might say – but inevitably suffer grave isolation from one another due to the erosion of once-shared value systems. Meanwhile, following the lead of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, some Marxist economists have observed that the changes in our North American and European economic system – from mass production during the Henry Ford era to increased specialization and job instability during this present “post-Fordist” age – have made it an economic necessity to focus much more intently on the “I” than the “we.” In this framework, it is possible that “spirituality” as practiced by so many of us in this secular age might risk appearing like just one more facet of a cultural turn toward greater individualism.

However, I do not believe that religio is in danger of being untied any time soon. Following the definition that I have offered, the Occupy movement might be seen as religious, as is the Arab Spring, as are countless other social movements through which individuals come together in support of a commonly held value. In an age of ever-increasing freedom of choice, it may be true that the ties between individuals and communities – as well as individuals and higher moral values – may be loosening, but many people are choosing to tighten them up once again.

I can easily understand how it might be possible to be “spiritual but not religious,” just as I can understand that many people are “religious but not spiritual.” In my own experience, both religion and spirituality – however you choose to define them – are difficult paths to follow. The discipline demanded by religion is hard to cultivate; meanwhile, the openness and stillness required for spirituality can be equally hard to put into practice. Ultimately, though, I believe that these two slippery yet important concepts are complementary. Spirituality without religion runs the risk of becoming solipsistic and fickle. Religion without spirituality runs the risk of becoming stale and passionless.







3 Responses to ““Spiritual but not religious?” What exactly does that mean?”

  1. Syphax said

    I have touched on this issue on my blog – actually it’s a hot topic in the last couple decades in religious research because indeed, the number of “spiritual, not religious” in America has grown dramatically. While on the one hand some may see this as the growth of some kind of inner spiritual movement, I am not sure that’s the case. I think it’s just the result of people caring less. And actually, in my generation (I was born in the mid-’80s), people are caring much less about lots of things, such as civic organizations, environmental movements, charities, etc. It’s a very bland time to be young. So many digital gadgets to keep us busy.

    I see religion as a solid buttress – something to support and something to push up against. I couldn’t imagine myself being spiritual but not religious. I need the support of that buttress AND I need something to push against every now and then too. Pushing against something immovable and solid actually has the effect of strengthening a person.

  2. Thank you for such an interesting post. You explained both sides very thoughtfully without putting down either one. Most people fight for either side of the spectrum. It isn’t always easy to see the relevant points both sides have to offer, religion or spirituality.

    Maybe I’ll explain my background a bit, and the difference between religion and spirituality speaks so relevantly to me. I myself was baptized as an evangelical (Methodist) Christian so my thoughts are coloured by Protestantism (and I apologize for any assumptions I may automatically make on Catholicism). I’m glad you reminded me of the etymology of “religion” because the movement to seperate faith from “religion” is heavily ingrained within seveal evangelical groups today, including Power to Change. I think it’s misleading to conflate “religion” with “system” and “institution” or even “cultural norm”. “Religion” seems to connotate stuffy Sunday school clothes, dogmatic rituals, and “conservative” values in family and politics. This is not the case. I like the more value-neutral and embracing definition of “religion” – in that it’s the system, the structure, the practical aspect that makes faith possible.

    So for me “religion” was never the issue – it’s more a matter of if THIS system, or THIS structure, “works” for me. Atheism is a religion if one practices it consistently enough. I’ll even argue there’s some systemic value to staying “spiritually open” or “agnostic” if such beliefs are institutionalized and practiced.This is where many of my “religious” friends have disagreed, arguing for objective truths, the one word of Jaweh, holiness, or so forth. Christianity isn’t a matter of relevance: it’s THE way, the TRUTH of God! I do believe in objective truths, in a sentient and all-powerful being, and in the gift of salvation as the ultimate form of love and goodness. But the systems that practice it, I beg to differ. Chinese Christian, Black Christian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Catholic, etc. etc. – all are just systems nonetheless.

    Ultimately I do think faith is one thing, religion another. I see faith as the core and the nexus while religion nurtures and augments it. One does not exactly live without the other, but neither should one conflate them. The core values we believe are eternal, but the systems that practice them are more or less arbirtrary. And just rereading my post I realize how much I, am, too, influenced by Postmodern thought and education (I do not think some people, or even you, would take kindly to my belief that religion is more-or-less culturally and socially specific, and so arbitrary). But talk to me about science and I would offer the same spiele on paradigms and narrativity. 🙂

    I’ll be back for more, it was great reading your blog!

  3. Thanks to both of you for your comments. Syphax, I agree that very often “spiritual but not religious” is a sign of people’s apathy and, as you mention, the general decline in civic engagement in our generation (I am also a child of the 80’s). However, I also know people who consciously reject religion while embracing spirituality. Maybelle, I appreciate your post. Yes, this blog is very much influenced by postmodernism…I am not so sure that I would go so far to say that religion is arbitrary, though Yes, it is culturally and socially specific, but it’s amazing how much different religions have in common, despite vast distances in time and space.

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