Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
March 11th, 2010

Spiritual but not religious — Not so fast!

Making the case for moving beyond your own personal God



Everybody seems to be spiritual these days — from your college roommate, to the person in the office cubicle next to yours, to every other celebrity interviewed. But if “spiritual” is fashionable, “religious” is unfashionable. This is usually expressed as follow: “I’m spiritual but just not religious.” It’s even referred to by the acronym SBNR.

The thinking goes like this: being “religious” means abiding by arcane rules and hidebound dogmas, and being the tool of an oppressive institution that doesn’t allow you to think for yourself. (Which would have surprised many thinking believers, like St. Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, Dorothy Day and Reinhold Niebuhr.) Religion is narrow-minded and prejudicial — so goes the thinking — stifling the growth of the human spirit. (Which would have surprised St. Francis of Assisi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, St. Teresa of Ávila, Rumi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Or worse, as several contemporary authors contend, religion is the most despicable of social evils, responsible for all the wars and conflicts around the world.

Sadly, religion is in fact responsible for many ills in the modern world and evils throughout history: among them the persecution of Jews, endless wars of religion, the Inquisition, not to mention the religious intolerance and zealotry that leads to terrorism.

You can add to this list smaller things: your judgmental neighbor who loudly tells you how often he helps out at church, your holier-than-thou relative who trumpets how often she reads the Bible, or that annoying guy at work who keeps telling you that belief in Jesus is sure to bring you amazing financial success.

There is a human and sinful side to religion since religions are human organizations, and therefore prone to sin. And frankly, people within religious organizations know this better than those outside of them.

Some positive aspects

Some say that on balance religion is found wanting. Still, I would stack up against the negatives some positive aspects: traditions of love, forgiveness and charity as well as the more tangible outgrowths of thousands of faith-based organizations that care for the poor, like Catholic Charities or the vast network of Catholic hospitals and schools that care for poor and immigrant populations. Think too of generous men and women like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King again. Speaking of Dr. King, you might add the abolition, women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, all of which were founded on explicitly religious principles. Add to that list the billions of believers who have found in their own religious traditions not only comfort but also a moral voice urging them to live selfless lives and to challenge the status quo.

Consider a person who wants to follow Jesus Christ on her own. Perhaps she has heard that if she follows Christ she will enjoy financial success… Once she falls on hard times financially, she may drop God, who has ceased to meet her personal needs. Despite our best efforts to be spiritual we make mistakes. And when we do, it’s helpful to have the wisdom of a religious tradition.

And Jesus of Nazareth. Remember him? Though he often challenged the religious conventions of his day, he was a deeply religious man. (This is something of an understatement).

By the way, atheism doesn’t have a perfect record either. In his book No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Michael Novak points out that while many atheist thinkers urge us to question everything, especially the record of organized religion, atheists often fail to question their own record. Think of the cruelty and bloodshed perpetrated, just in the 20th century, by totalitarian regimes that have professed “scientific atheism.” Stalinist Russia comes to mind.

On balance, religion comes out on top. And when I think about the examples of the maleficent effects of religion, I remember the English novelist Evelyn Waugh, a dazzling writer who was by many accounts a nasty person. One of Waugh’s friends once expressed astonishment that he could be so mean-spirited and a Christian. Think, said Waugh, how much worse I would be if I were not Christian.

“But I’m my own person”

Still, it’s not surprising that, given all the problems with organized religion, many people would say, “I’m not religious.” They say: “I’m serious about living a moral life, maybe even one that centers on God, but I’m my own person.”

“Spiritual” on the other hand, implies that, freed from unnecessary dogma, you can be yourself before God. The term may also imply that you have sampled a variety of religious beliefs that you have integrated into your life. You meditate at a Buddhist temple, participate in Seders with Jewish friends at Passover, sing in a gospel choir at a local Baptist church (great again), and go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at a Catholic church (also great).

You find what works for you, but don’t subscribe to any one church: that would be too confining. Besides, there’s no one creed that represents exactly what you believe.

But there’s a problem. While “spiritual” is obviously healthy, “not religious” may be another way of saying that faith is something between you and God. And while faith is a question of you and God, it’s not just a question of you and God.

It’s a healthy tension: the wisdom of our religious traditions provides us with a corrective for our propensity to think that we have all the answers; and prophetic individuals can moderate the natural propensity of institutions to resist change and growth.

Because this would mean that you’re relating to God alone. And that means that there’s no one to suggest when you might be off track.

We all tend to think that we’re correct about most things, and spirituality is no exception. And not belonging to a religious community means less of a chance of being challenged by a tradition of belief and experience, less chance to recognize when you are misguided, seeing only part of the picture, or even wrong.

Consider a person who wants to follow Jesus Christ on her own. Perhaps she has heard that if she follows Christ she will enjoy financial success — a popular idea today. Were she part of a mainstream Christian community, though, she would be reminded that suffering is part of the life of even the most devout Christian. Without the wisdom of a community, she may gravitate towards a skewed view of Christianity. Once she falls on hard times financially, she may drop God, who has ceased to meet her personal needs. Despite our best efforts to be spiritual we make mistakes. And when we do, it’s helpful to have the wisdom of a religious tradition.

This reminds me of a passage from a book called Habits of the Heart, written by Robert Bellah, sociologist of religion, and other colleagues, in which they interviewed a woman named Sheila, about her religious beliefs. “I believe in God,” she said. “I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”

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The Author : James Martin, SJ
James Martin SJ is the culture editor of America magazine the national Catholic Weekly published by the Jesuits. He is the author of numerous books including My Life with the Saints and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything but is perhaps best known as "chaplain" to The Colbert Report due to his frequent appearances on the show.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • WooWoo

    But I do not need to attend church once a week to have a personal relationship with Christ, God, the Archangels, and my personal team of guides and angels. Too much hypocrisy within organized religion. Our Earth’s histories demonstrate this (war, hatred, intolerance, etc. – all stem from extreme religious beliefs). I BELIEVE in God, our Creator, but there is more to our purpose than belonging to a “congregation” or what “church” leads us to believe.

    Do everything for the good of all. Meditation IS prayer.

  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    JLK, I heartily endorse your comments. Human beings do not have the understanding and ability of how to create a universe. How, then, could any rational person claim in good conscience that any religion has all the answers?
    Certainly there are non-religious people who do claim to have special knowledge. But you have only to look to religious people to find a great meny more of them.

    “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” — Steven Weinberg

    • Fernando Garcia

      On the contrary, religion has evil people do good things.

      • JuliePurple

        Fernando, the two points are not mutually exclusive.

      • Fernando Garcia

        Nope, they’re not. But the second part of my sentence stands, and not everyone sees that.

  • Barbara Bray

    Thank you, Fr. Martin, Pete and Steve for their exchanges — keep searching..I have six spiritual children who do not believe in organized religion. I’ve asked them if they believe in unorganized religion — no answer. I love them all dearly and when they or someone they know gets in serious trouble, they ask me to pray for them, to which I will do but ask them to add their prayers. Seems this spirituality is a form of control — we cannot control when and how we are born, nor can we control when we die — we can only try to control what happens in between. I applaud those who question, but keep an open mind — this is the only way we can learn what God and religion is about. Keep up a healthy dialogue. Fr. — will see you at the Congress in a week.

  • Michelle

    Love the article, Martin, thanks

  • JLK

    Interesting article, although you may be making assumptions.  There are numerous reasons people deviate from organized religion.  Some feel betrayed by religion, some just don’t feel like they “fit”.   Some people don’t know what to believe & don’t want to pretend.  Some people have tried to feel the connection for years & just never did.  To assume that these same individuals become focused only on the self is unfair.  I am spiritual, I question my behavior, my words, my thoughts.  I am very charitable to food banks, animal rights & human rights because those are areas in life which resonate most with my heart.  I don’t hesitate to offer a helping hand to my friends & neighbors, even at my own inconvenience.  I believe, there is a spiritual place but the definitions organized religion have given do not make sense to me.  Every living thing on this planet is both male & female, yet I’m supposed to believe the Creator is exclusively male?  I have read numerous books from different religious disciplines to understand them all more & to seek the similarities because I feel the similarities draw us to the closest truth of what the Divine really is.  And, if the medical field is unable to define the human body in a single book, how can we define the Creator that way?  Does this sound lazy, indifferent or uncaring to you?  We are given an inquiring mind, but religion seems to want to limit how we inquire.  I think it’s beautiful that you are able to connect spiritually through your religion.  But, “thou shalt not judge”…just because an individual doesn’t seek spirituality through organized religion, doesn’t mean they are lazy, self-absorbed or don’t care.  Maybe that individual is more vested in their soul-purpose than individuals who blindly attend church one day a week.  We are all individuals, we are all unique & one size does not always fit all.

  • William Grogan

    I’m not a church goer but also not an atheist. I’m perplexed at the author implying that non church goers who may think of themselves as spiritual are atheists. Not that there is anything wrong with atheism, mind you. I’m sure many non believers live far more ethical lives than many church goers. If one is serious about living an upstanding, compassionate and moral life, I feel religious dogma is just not needed. In some instances it even gets in the way. One writer here mentioned catholic bishops threatening to ostracize or excommunicate catholic politicians who believe in choice for women. Or how about the midwestern bishop who excommunicated a catholic nun for her decision in allowing an abortion within a catholic hospital to save the mother’s life. These are, I believe, decisions born from compassion to fellow human beings, even when there are sorrowful consequences. In either case, where was the compassion from church hierarchy toward those whom they felt so violated church doctrine? I’m sure that decision by the nun was heart wrenching. Yet she made it based on the premise of better to save a life rather than watch as two people die. I don’t know. I grapple with faith and religion almost daily but for now am content with talking with my God in my own way and trying to live an authentic, moral life. That does not make me a non believer.

  • Pekka

    Dear Martin.

    Surely if religion or church would been essential to your spirituality Jesus would have left such an organisation here on earth in the first place. Instead these organizations with built in hierarchies and rules where developed later.

    In my mind worst part of religion is not that you try to convince me about what God wants. But the same time you try to give the same rules to God.

    You state that religion is even necessary and doesn’t damage your spiritual self. But if you yourself grow above dogma. Then how can you continue teach it to others?

    This is the part of organized religion i don’t understand and i can only come up with negative reasons like power, money…

    Please help me to see otherwise.



  • pete

    Thanx Mike I love your last sentence.I found this to be true of many priests I had as friends. God Bless Pete

  • Mike Hayes

    Great comments! I would also add that we all end up in some kind of informal religion simply by saying that we are spiritual. In other words we develop our own systems of belief. This is even true for the formally religious who tend towards certain principles over others within their own tradition.

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