Spiritual but not Religious?

spiritual but not religiousLike me you’ve probably heard someone say they’re “spiritual but not religious.”

Maybe it’s a friend; maybe it’s you.

No one has told me they’re “religious but not spiritual.” And let’s hope that’s not the case! But I’m sure it is sometimes.

What does it all mean?

An oil-tanker of ink has been spilled about this topic so let me contribute another inkwell. Why? Because I’ve read a lot about it, have had many conversations with people, and think both the ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ and double-dippers can benefit from a few thoughts.

First, what do the words mean?

It’s hard to nail down a specific definition because many people have different understandings. But perhaps I can put forward a broad definition like this: Someone who feels a connection to the divine, and whose actions can be influenced by this connection, but who may or may not express their faith in traditional ways.

So yes, a ‘religious’ person can also be spiritual.

This word has some baggage these days. It has been lassoed with thoughts of someone who seems self-righteous, or who has a black-and-white view of complex moral issues. Think Ned Flanders. (No offence, Ned.)

But let me offer 2 thoughts that I think help widen our understanding:

1. “Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing.” (Thanks Rabbi Kushner)

2. The word “religion” has the same Latin root as the word for ligament. There is a ‘binding’ sense—not only to wise teaching, but to a flesh-and-blood community of people. It’s about the family of faith who supports us through the stumbles.

So maybe we can define “religious” like this: Someone who feels a connection to God, and whose actions can be influenced by this connection, and who often expresses their faith in traditional ways.

For the record, I am, of course, someone who falls in the spiritual and religious category.

A Way Forward?
Unfortunately, both “sides” (if there are sides) can be un-gracious with the other. A dog in a corner tends to attack (which, I think, says something about our spiritual maturity, or lack thereof.) Spiritual-only people can think that the religious people are those who unthinkingly say dogmatic things, “push” their faith on people, engage in dusty rituals, and seem self-superior.

And the religious-only people can think of the spiritual-only people as aloof new agers who don’t really believe in anything substantive, and don’t really do anything substantive about it.

Both are unhelpful generalizations. (And even I’m being very simplistic in my generalizations!)

What if those who are “spiritual but not religious” are seekers who earnestly want a connection with something divine, and who sometimes find some success with it, and live in response to this connection in sometimes dynamic ways?

And what if the “religious” folks were those who also have a connection with the divine, and are trying to graciously live on the historic path of faith with other travelers?

In all, it’s about a relationship, not rules and regulations.

I think we are all wise to honour the journeys of other people.

And I’m clearly not totally unbiased here: I think that any spirituality that doesn’t find expression in concrete ways with other people is deeply flawed (and troubling). And I also think and feel that the ‘divine’ finds its perfect and fullest expression in Jesus, the World-Rescuer.

But I also think that anyone who calls themselves “religious” but who doesn’t have a vibrant connection with God or thinks they are superior or has all the answers is also walking a path that is deeply flawed (and troubling).

In everything, we need grace.

Thomas Aquinas said that “Grace is a certain beginning of glory in us.” No matter where we’re at in our journey, may that be true for us all.

A final moment with Einstein
Here’s a final thought. In 1930 Einstein bothered some of his colleagues by saying he was religious. So a Rabbi wrote him to ask him what he meant. Here’s Einstein’s reply:

“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

If Einstein were still alive (and opening fan mail) I would reply by saying this:

Thank you for your thoughts, and for your mind, which has a capacity far beyond my own! But let me share something I have gleaned from the depths of my being, and from the whispers of angels: You say that this “something” behind it all can only reach us “indirectly.” I must disagree. It reaches us directly in Jesus. But even so, you are right further still when you say that much remains “mysterious.”


  1. Most folk here in the West seem to be “spiritual and not religious.” It seems a badge of honour and thus somewhat irritating to those of us who think ourselves both spiritual and religious. However, I have long since realized that only the Lord can bring people to wholesome faith in him and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. We all do our best but the miracle of faith is finally God’s to accomplish.


    1. Hi Tony, thanks for your words. In my experience, it depends on who you talk to with respect to how the phrase is used. And I would certainly agree with you that faith itself is not an accomplishment but an act of God.


  2. Thanks Matt. It is indeed a very current point of discussion. It took me a while to understand it. For the church I think it presents a wonderful mission field, when we here that 60% or more Canadians say they are spiritual but not religious. It’s a great starting point.


    1. Hi Bob. Agreed! I’ve seen church consultant Kennon Callahan speak several times now and he has a way of saying it: “Welcome to the 1st century. Welcome to the mission field.” :o)


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