‘Spiritual but not religious’: A Response

Mind open, mind closed.

The real reason ‘spiritual but not religious’ is a cop-out
A guest post by Robert Kroese

Robert Kroese is the author of Mercury Falls, Mercury Rises, and many other engaging apocalyptic adventures!  This post was originally published on his blog at robertkroese.com, and was a thoughtful response to Alan Miller’s post.


Recently I ran across a blog post with the title My Take: “I’m spiritual but not religious” is a cop-out. I read the post with interest because I’ve often thought this very thing: that claiming to be “spiritual” isn’t an answer to a question about one’s religious beliefs, but rather a way to avoid the question while sounding like one has put some thought into it.

Sadly, the post almost immediately devolves into unverifiable, baseless generalizations. For example:

Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent – by choosing an “individual relationship” to some concept of “higher power”, energy, oneness or something-or-other – they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.

Whoa, what now? That’s a bold statement. And it doesn’t appear at the end of a chain of rigorous reasoning or citation of studies about beliefs; it’s just thrown out there, as if it’s a brute fact of reality. The author follows this up with all manner of other vague and unsupported statements, somehow managing in an 800-word blog post to attack moral relativism, a culture centered on “feelings,” and megachurches — and going on to defend “old fashioned” values and the King James Bible (which has done all right for 400 years without his support, thank you very much).

Hidden in that rhetorical avalanche are two short paragraphs that I think actually come close to dealing with the matter at hand:

The trouble is that “spiritual but not religious” offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind.

What is it, this “spiritual” identity as such? What is practiced? What is believed?

The problem, as these paragraphs indicate, isn’t that “spiritual but not religious” is a bad answer to the question “what are your religious beliefs?” (as Miller seems to argue in the rest of the post) but rather that it’s a non-answer.

Imagine a group of plane crash survivors stranded on an island, debating the best way to get off the island. Some argue that the best way is to build a signal fire. Others argue that they should try to build a raft. Still others say that trying to get off the island is a waste of time; that they should focus their efforts on basic survival. Finally one person pipes up with, “Well, I don’t agree with any of you, but I definitely think we’re on an island.”

The man isn’t wrong, but his answer doesn’t get them anywhere. It doesn’t add anything to the discussion. It’s just an acknowledgement of the predicament. And worse, it’s an answer that seems calculated to put the speaker above or outside of the arena of discussion: “Have your petty disagreements amongst yourself; meanwhile I will sit here and contemplate the ocean surrounding us.”

Let me clarify that I’m not saying that the “spiritual but not religious” person is being intentionally smug or provocative, but that this is how is answer is going to be received by people who have been pulling their hair out trying to figure out a way off the island. It could be that he has already considered and rejected as wanting all possible attempts to get off the island and possesses some knowledge about the island that the other survivors aren’t privy to. But if so, then he’s doing a disservice to the other survivors by not sharing his knowledge. And if not, then he’s just wasting their time by pointing out the obvious.

The “spiritual but not religious” label points to three possibilities, as far as I can see:

1. The person has done a thorough study of the world’s religions, found them wanting, and took a different path.

2. The person is largely ignorant of religious beliefs but has been blessed with a mystical understanding that allows him or her to see the shortcomings of any “man-made” religion, and took a different path.

3. The person is largely ignorant of religious beliefs, has no real wisdom to offer, and is parroting an answer that he or she has heard various celebrities use in interviews with some success.

Without lapsing into pure cynicism, I’ll point out that (1) requires a lot of work, and (2) requires that the person be able to see a reality that is evidently hidden to most of the world’s traditional religious believers, whereas (3) requires only pure ignorance, which is in bountiful supply on this planet.

Of course, answering a question about religious beliefs by saying “I’m a Baptist,” “I’m Jewish,” or “I’m an atheist,” isn’t any more inherently difficult than saying “I’m spiritual but not religious.” In other words, there are lazy and ignorant Baptists, Jews and atheists as well as lazy and ignorant “spiritual-but-not-religious” people. Some Baptists have thought long and hard about what they believe and why. Others are just parroting answers they learned in Sunday school. But to their credit, at least they are answering the question.

Further, it seems odd to me that “spiritual but not religious” is such a common answer to the question about one’s religious beliefs. If you really want me to believe that you’ve made a deliberate choice to walk the road less traveled, then you might try giving a different answer to a question about your religious beliefs than that given by, say, Lady Gaga. Otherwise, aren’t you just a Gagaist? What’s the difference between you and every other “spiritual but not religious” person? If there is a difference, then tell me what it is. If there isn’t, then you’re just a member of another vaguely defined religion.

If you are asked about your religious and you don’t really have any religious beliefs, I suggest saying, “I don’t really have any religious beliefs.” If you have some vague belief that people have souls and that there are bad consequences to immoral behavior, say that. If you think that we’re all part of the Great Mystical Oneness, then say that. Saying that you’re “spiritual” doesn’t communicate anything. And saying that you’re “not religious” only communicates that while you may not know what the answer is, you suspect that most of the answers other people have come up with are wrong, or at least deficient.

You might have some really interesting thoughts about God, souls, sin, redemption, justice, forgiveness, love, purpose and oneness. But if you start out by saying that you’re “spiritual but not religious,” I’m going to seriously doubt it.

This post reflects the views of its author.

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10 thoughts on “‘Spiritual but not religious’: A Response

  1. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both equally educative and engaging, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is an issue that too few men and women are speaking intelligently about. Whatever the church or religion is serving them, just isn’t satisfying anymore for them… I’m very happy I found your blog during my hunt for something concerning this topic “Spiritual but not religious”…!

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  2. So, here is my honest answer to this issue, because I think “Spiritual but not Religious” is actually a cop out, but for a different reason than you may think. It is a cop out usually for the real reason behind this answer, and that is the pain and suffering some have experienced either from, or in a church. Maybe the person would rather not discuss how their family has disowned them because they are gay? Maybe the person has vowed never to return to a church for the rest of their lives because they were taken advantage of by a minister? Ever check out Pastor Watch? Perhaps the individual grew up in a religious environment that was constantly using emotional drama to manipulate them with false guilt and shame until one day, they left and never turned back?

    Think,, for a moment of all the possible reasons why someone would use this description? Just last year I sat across from a man who had left his church, and his own son decided he had backslide and was going to hell. The minister called out to all of this persons family and friends to shun him, for leaving what would appear to you or me to be a standard evangelical church. And before you say, “that should not happen,” or “they were wrong,” the point is this happens, and a lot, and gods people usually never stand up for the person, and just stand by the pastor. Wrong or Right, it is the reason the person leaves and turns away from anything religious again.

    As for me, why do I call myself Spiritual vs. Religious? I will not go into all the details however, if you gave me a choice on a plane to sit between a Preacher and Politician on one side, and a Prostitute and Porn Star on the other side, guess what side I am going to sit on? I would not even think about it.

    I once sat in room full of people, and the speaker asked “who here has felt they have been hurt from an religious organization?” Very few hands were not up in the air. Then he asked, “And how many feel you have been hurt to the point you will never trust religion again?” There were fewer hands, but still a lot in the air.

    So, in my opinion, “Spiritual, but not Religious” is a cop out, because the person would rather not go into the real reason. They have moved on, and do not wish to dwell upon the past.

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    1. David – That’s really a longer version of “None of your business”. 🙂

      I think you’re right in a lot of cases, but you are making a generalization that doesn’t necessarily fit everybody.

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      1. You are right, and there are those whom this generalization does not fit. Perhaps they have a anti-social personality. Maybe instead of suffering at the hands of the church, they have had some life experience that gives them problems which their religious faith can’t resolve. Death often triggers this, and usually a disaster. Then, there are those who see the description from someone else, and think, “ya, that is cool, I like that, it fits me.” The term is a catch all, and generalization in itself, but so is the term “Christian” or “Jew” or “Muslim”, because within each of those terms, there are all kinds of various belief systems, both mystical, and doctrinaire.

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  3. By the way, a couple of people have mentioned in other threads that saying “I’m spiritual” in some cases is a polite way of saying “None of your business.” I think that’s a good point, and one that I probably should have mentioned in the post.

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  4. Great post. I’ve dealt with the mantra before, but really, the point is that it really is a non-answer. Biblically-speaking everybody is spiritual in some sense. What spirit are we dealing with? That’s the real question.

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    1. Derek – Exactly. Most religious people would reply, “Well, of *course* you’re spiritual. That’s part of being human.” So now that you’ve acknowledged being human, what do you believe? Saying “I’m not religious” isn’t an answer. It’s just a rejection of other answers.

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  5. I would argue the exact same thing for people who say they’re religious. There are so many flavours of just Christianity, let alone every other world religion, that for a Christian to tell me they’re a Christian tells me very little about what they believe or how it affects the conduct of their life.

    I say spiritual but not religious, because when I say “atheist”, people assume I lack belief in a greater force in the universe, and I don’t lack that belief. Atheist, religious, or spiritual but not religious: none of these is any clearer than the other without deeper explanation.

    I think this post better reflects your bias toward religion and a mistaken conflation of religion with spirituality than it does the subject you’re trying to discuss.

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    1. Schmutzie – No short answer to the question “What are your religious beliefs” is going to tell you anything about how someone’s beliefs affect their conduct. That isn’t the question being asked.

      It’s true that there are many flavors of Christianity (which is one reason why I suggested answering the question with one’s denomination rather than saying “Christian”), but it simply isn’t true that a person saying they are a Christian tells you nothing about what they believe. At the very least, it tells you that Jesus Christ is the central figure in their religious life. Generally you can assume that the person believes in God and that Jesus was a manifestation of God’s presence on earth. You can assume the person believes that people have souls, that there are consequences to good or bad behavior, that the Bible is an authoritative book, etc. Of course it’s possible for someone to say they are a Christian while claiming that the Bible is full of fairy tales or that God doesn’t exist, but then they are using the term “Christian” in a way that doesn’t correspond to the commonly accepted meaning — just like I could claim to be a pacifist who believes in violence or a Liberal who thinks that labor unions should be forcibly disbanded.

      The word “Christian” is a term with content. That content may not be 100% agreed on by all people calling themselves Christians, but the basics principles of the faith are largely known. Saying that you are “spiritual but not religious”, on the other hand, is virtually meaningless. You could be a non-religious but Spiritual Buddhist, or a non-religious but Spiritual atheist, or a non-religious but Spiritual Satanist. Do you believe in the soul? Do you believe in God? Do you believe in an afterlife? Do you believe in meaning or purpose? Do you believe that people should be good? None of these questions are answered by “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

      Again, I’m not saying that it’s BAD to be “spiritual but not religious,” I’m just saying that claiming that as your belief system tells me almost nothing about what you believe.

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