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“I’m spiritual but not religious.” – I must say this phrase has always annoyed me. It is not that I have no sympathy towards those who have problems with “religion” or the church. I describe myself under the “about me” tab, in part, as a reluctant Christian in recovery from disappointing church experiences. I can understand the frustrations some people have with organized religion. Other people may use the phrase to clarify that they believe in God and certainly aren’t atheists. That’s a positive thing. But…

My problem is that it typically seems more like a lazy cop out. What spirituality? I don’t observe any spirituality in their life, or at least nothing consistent or thoughtful. If you ask them “So what are your spiritual practices?” -or-  “What are your spiritual beliefs?”, the response is “oh, uh, well…” and they don’t really have much to say. They are actually neither spiritual nor religious.

Of course, I know there are more genuine “spiritual but not religious” people who may have consistent personal spiritual practices. But is this spirituality an ideal? It can be a cop out in another sense. It can be a way to evade accountability and personal challenge. It can be a way to keep beliefs fuzzy and vague, rather than reaching some clarity. For these things we need community.

I came across this Time magazine article by a Rabbi: The Limitations of Being ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’, Only organized religion can mobilize communities and lead to real action. The word “only” may not be accurate or an exaggeration, but I appreciated the general points he made.  Here is an excerpt:

Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world. Religions create aid organizations….To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror. Ask others. Be part of a community. In short, join.

I also appreciated this article by a UCC minister: Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me. Perhaps she is a bit too caustic, but I love sarcasm and got to laughing at her witty points. She says on airplanes, when her seatmate finds out that she is a minister, they sometimes want to elaborate on how they are “spiritual but not religious.” Her thoughts?

Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset!...Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you...Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.

Perhaps you’ve had the “spiritual but not religious” phrase thrown at you too. How about using it in a gentle way to create discussion? Ask a casual question. They have claimed to be spiritual, right? So ask them about it! For those of us who are not so good at discussion (we clam up or our minds go blank) – the skillful art of learning to ask questions can be great. Talk less, listen more! The right questions can get someone thinking and help them reach conclusions for themselves. If they are claiming to be spiritual, and then realize they don’t actually have any concrete spirituality in their lives…this realization is certainly a good beginning! If they answer with some specific spiritual practices, you can still listen and learn, and the door has been opened for further interaction.


Recently Lisa Robinson, over on her blog, had a post on a somewhat similar issue – The Bible and Hypocrisy: Another Take. “I’m coming to the conclusion that hypocrisy is not just Christians who behave in contradiction to what they profess they believe they Bible says. Another kind of hypocrisy is non-Christians who embrace the Bible but reject it’s author – Jesus Christ…It’s being spiritual but not Christian and using the Bible as some kind of inspirational talisman. It’s saying “God” but not “Christ” and portraying a form of Christianity.  In a way, it’s like stealing – going into a store and taking stuff without paying for it. That’s thievery and it’s hypocrisy.”