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.
  • pete

    I guess when someone tells me that you must be religious rather than spiritual it get’s my Irish up.There are many paths to the Fathers house. It is the journey that is important.And each of us has our own personal journey and has to choose the path that is right for us.
    I don’t think anyone would have told the Desert Fathers,the Irish Monks/Hermits or the Russian Monks that they had to quit their solitude and become religious. To each his/her own path to eternal life as long as we follow the words of Christ and believe in the Father. Let’s keep it simple whatever your path might be-Religious or Spiritual.
    God Bless Pete

  • Angie

    I completely agree with the article. It seems to me that many people chose to be SBNR simply because it’s not easy to be religious. They would then have to realize that someone else (God) is making the rules about what is right and what is wrong, and they might have to change something they like. It’s as if people want to treat their faith like a spiritual salad bar. “I’ll take some lettuce, and some forgiveness. Everlasting life! I like that. I‚Äôll take TWO helpings! Um… most of these commandments look pretty good, but you can hold off on the whole ‚ÄòHonor your father and mother‚Äô thing‚Ķ‚Äù etc.

    I also hear people (not just Pete here, but many) say that the church is full of, and run by hypocrites, but what isn’t? The point is that we do our best, and God knows what’s truly in our hearts. If you only trust yourself with your religion, aren’t YOU now the one that fills and runs the You-religion you have just created? Are you saying that you’re the only person in the world who isn’t a hypocrite? Who isn’t judgmental? I doubt that. I think that to be SBNR is just as detrimental as being an atheist, but rather than out right rejecting God, you have determined that you now know the best way to approach faith, and that is down the path of making yourself and your knowledge on a pedestal. What are those other things we put on pedestals? Oh yeah, idols.

    Finally, I hear a lot of people say, “It’s between me and God, and as long as I spend time with Him, read my Bible, and do what He wants me to do, I’m in good shape.” I, myself fell for this same argument for a time. But how often DID I actually read my Bible when I was not in church? I can answer that with a solid “never.” And how could I be sure I was doing what God wanted me to do, without verification from other Godly people? God may speak to me individually, but so does Satan (called the “Great Deceiver” in the book of Rev) and he can sound just as convincing if I’m not careful. (If I was the one in the desert when he starts throwing scripture at me about angels catching me when I fall, I probably would have jumped! I’m not going to pretend I have it all together all the time.)

    God made us so that we would want to be with other people, and He was fully aware that we are all imperfect. But we had better chances of surviving this rough world together, paired with other hypocrites like ourselves, than to go at it alone.

  • pete


  • Phil Fox Rose

    It’s just that people are running it.

  • pete

    Of course He built a church.It’s just that hypocrites are running it.

    • JuliePurple

      And do remember that it’s the hypocrites who are saying that he built a church. What if he didn’t? How would we know? We only have their word for it. There are no eyewitness accounts of his activities. None. All accounts of his supposed life are written well after he was said to have lived. And this is very strange, considering that such an apparently political figure would have been very likely to have shown up in the writings of some of the prolific Roman historians, who wrote extensively on other topics of local interest.

  • Bruce

    We each have to decide. god either exists, or He doesn’t. Either god has revealed Himself, or He hasn’t. Jesus is either God, or He isn’t. Either Jesus built a Church, or He didn’t.

    There is only one good reason to be Catholic – because it’s true.

    • JuliePurple

      There is absolutely no proof for that. As Mark Twain said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

  • pete

    That note on ins.coverage was just for new employees

  • pete

    Dick You are probably right. I guess after 73 years as a Roman Catholic I’ve come to the conclusion that I am being hypocritical and less than honest were I to attend services at a church whose very actions I consider hypocrisy in so many areas,some of which are above.The last straw was the decision of the D.C. archbishop to withhold dependent health coverage for it’s employees because they might have to provide it to same sex partners.Hurt the spouses and the children to make a point.Idiocy of the first magnitude in order to prove what?
    The church has gotten away from the message of Christ and it’s simplicity.No wonder people are leaving in droves.
    I get my community from my friends,family, work and everybody I come in contact with on my daily journey and it is indeed a magnificent one. Why can’t we get a Pope who walks the walk and not just talks the talk and bring the simplicity of the message to the faithful.We have made religion too complicated when it was given to us so simply,but then man never has been too bright when it came to religion.Look at where the world is today.He must be looking at us and shaking His head saying how could you screw up this bad on something so simple. God Bless Pete

  • Dick Host

    A balance between the two, religion and spirituality, is necessary. To have one without the other is comparable to having a house without a home. Spirituality is a time with the God of my understanding and experience. Religion is a expression I share with other people sharing our journeys with each other. Each lack what the other offers. Solitude and community. Dick

  • pete

    Augustine had his first mistress for over 20 years and his mother insisted he get married,found a bride for him,but she was too young so he got another mistress for a short duration.
    As to property going to family it got so bad that is why the Pope stepped in.Lands and buildings were going to families.This was not a question of personal property.
    If we did away with celibacy we could end the shortage of priests and possibly solve some other problems which seem to be growing in Europe as we chat. A survey was done and showed that a good number of priests would come back if we did away with celibacy which is the way Jesus ordained it from the beginning by his very example.
    I firmly believe that celibacy and infallibility are the areas that are keeping the christian religions apart when they are simply something man in his fallibility dreamed up without any basis in fact or scripture. I believe in simplicity and I guess my faith follows John5 vs.24 “listen(hear) my words and believe in He who sent me and you will have eternal life.” The rest is all dressing made up by man mostly for his own purposes(albeit with mostly good intentions).K.I.S.S. Keep it spiritually simple.
    With respect Pete

  • Steve


    Once again, I disagree. St. Augustine did have mistresses, but he also didn’t enter the church until he was in his 30s. After that, I believe he was celibate, at least from what I can gather from a quick internet search.

    When it comes to the “inheriting the property” issue, the reason why I think we’re talking past each other is the distinction between things owned by the priest and the things owned by the diocese. From my understanding, often during post-Roman Europe, priests often took it upon themselves to purchase the things used during mass, sometimes even building churches themselves with their own money. Over time, this distinction got blurred and nepotism set it, with priests arranging the ordination of sons in a dynastic manner. We should also keep in mind that the fact that celibacy was introduced and argued for in the earliest writings of the Church and biblical documents and became mandatory in the during the early middle ages only applies to the Western branch of the Catholic church. To the day, celibacy is not required of most priests in the Eastern rites.

    Regarding infallibility, take the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, which is perhaps the clearest infallibly-defined dogma of recent years. This is clearly a matter of faith, directed at the whole church by the pope. This is also a statement of fact – Mary was either assumed into heaven like Enoch and Elijah or she wasn’t. That is a clear-cut right or wrong statement. Now whether it can be shown 2000 years later to be right or wrong is tough to say – I guess we won’t know until we get to heaven, though Rev 12 seems to suggest Mary definitely has a body…

    The better question of infallibility concerns not whether a pope can be proven to be right, but if he can be proven to be wrong. Infallibility does not mean that a pope is always going to be completely right (even when the other requirements are fulfilled). Infallibility only guarantees that the pope is prevented by the Holy Spirit from teaching error to the entire church.

    Also, whether or not a pope wanted everything he spoke to be infallible (if that is even a true story) is besides the point, as it does not fulfill the requirements for a statement to be infallible.

    With regard to whether there were dioceses in the early church, the term “diocese” did not originate until much later. However, it is clear from Acts, as well as history that certain areas (read: dioceses) were overseen by particular individuals (read: bishops). For instance, after Judas kills himself, in Acts 1, he is replaced by Matthias and Psalm is quoted “And his bishopric let another take.” Additionally, there are historical accounts of very early bishops. In Acts, James is the bishop of Jerusalem. The Patriarch of Antioch was first Peter, St. Evodius (d. 67), and then St. Ignatius (d. 108). St. Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna. Of course, the unbroken list of the Bishops of Rome can be found at any encylopedia (Peter, Linus, Anacletus, Clement…)

    In a way, it seems kind of odd that we’re arguing about something as small as priestly celibacy. I cannot see why anyone cares about the subject who is not a priest, as it doesn’t affect them in the slightest. In my humble opinion, a celibate priest will always be able to devote himself fully to the church rather than to his family. When loyalties as strong as those are divided, neither the church nor the family are given the full attention they deserve.

  • pete

    I believe celibacy for priests and bishops at the councils you suggested was implemented but not followed as Augustine who lived later than either council was married and prior to that had two mistresses. And I’m sorry but they did leave property to their wives and children and to the year 1000 we still had married priests and bishops.As a point of info it got so bad that Pope Benedict VIII forbade descendants of priests from inheriting property in 1018 and subsequently Pope Gregory forbade married priests from saying Mass.It finally became official doctrine in 1563 at the Council of Trent and has stayed that way ever since.
    Name one infallible statement made by any Pope that can be proven.As a matter of fact the Pope that started the infallibility wanted every word he spoke to be infallible but thank god saner minds prevailed.I honestly don’t believe we had diocese’ in the early years of the church.
    With Respect Pete

  • Steve

    Pete, your arguments against priestly celibacy and the Church are quite flawed. I lovingly invite you to consider the matter more fully. First off, celibacy was not invented 1000 years after Christ. The Council of Elvira (between 295 and 302) ordered celibacy for priests and bishops. This was reaffirmed by the Council of Nicaea (325).

    The whole argument about priests leaving church property to decedents is an old anti-Catholic slander that has no basis in fact. At the most basic level, it is impossible for a priest to leave church property to a son because, by definition, it is the property of the church and not the priest! The idea that a priest could take the land and buildings owned by the diocese and give them to an heir is ridiculous.

    Now, the celibacy issue is just a discipline (like not eating meat on Fridays during Lent) and not an infallible issue, so its merits can be discussed in good faith, however, stick to the facts. In the past there have been a handful of really bad examples breaking the rules, but that does not convict the other 99% who are faithful to their vows. For more reading on the matter, I suggest Matthew 19:12, where Christ clearly commends those who, “for the sake of the kingdom of God”, have not pursued the married state. Also, St. Paul is more explicit in 1 Corinthians 7:7-8 and 32-35.

    Regarding papal infallibility, if it is such an “impossibility,” can you please provide one instance in which a pope contradicted a previously-infallible teaching? It hasn’t happened. Surely if it were “impossible,” there would be something, throughout these 2000 years, that would support your case.

    The thing to keep in mind about papal infallibility, is that it is a negative charism. It does not mean that a pope will be “right” or always do the right thing, but instead guarantees that he is prevented from teaching error. This does not mean that popes cannot sin (they do!) or that they will always do the right thing (Peter didn’t!). Instead, it just prevents the pope from teaching error under three (very limiting) circumstances: when he is speaking 1. as the pope, ex cathedra (he means to) 2. to the entire Church (not just privately to friends, or a particular region) and 3. on matters of faith and morals (his opinions about sports don’t mean squat). As you can see, Peter’s denial falls apart here because it fails to meet all three criteria.

    Pete, I understand that one can become very discouraged because of hypocrisy in the church. However, the hypocrisy by individual members does not preclude the fact that the Catholic Church is the only church founded directly by Jesus Christ and has existed in an unbroken line of succession since Cavalry. I really recommend that you carefully and prayerfully consider the matter. Perhaps visiting a site like catholicscomehome.org and poking around for more information. Another good site for particular questions is catholic.com.

    God bless

  • pete

    Probably both.But as you say there are married priests in the Eastern Rite,any Anglican that comes over can be married and a large number of African priests are married as the flock would not accept them if they weren’t.So to say you have to celibate to be a good example is slightly hypocritical,especially as Christ Himself picked a married man as the first Pope and not a eunuch.The only reason for single men is that for the first 1000 years they had married priests,Popes and Bishops until they realized that when they died they were leaving the church property to their wives and children,so it had nothing to do with the imitation of Christ.

  • Bruce

    @ pete,

    Except that there ARE married priests in the Latin Rite, although if you ask one of them, they may tell you how much more difficult it is to balance wife and children. The discipline (not doctrine nor dogma) of celibacy is a gift in imitation of Christ. Something Jesus said about making oneself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom.

    I may be misreading you, but it seems to me you have a problem with authority, not hypocrisy.

  • pete

    There is no church that is true to the bible.They all pick and choose what suits them at the moment to make a particular point. Example of hypocricy.No married priests. The first Pope was married.Thechurch is in direct conflict with the example set by Christ. Rome is violating the first command given to us by The Father”Go forth and multiply”. He didn’t say except for priests. Infallibility isn’t even in the Bible and is an impossibility anyway.The first Pope blew that when he denied Christ(matter of Faith).I could go on and on but it would show my frustration with the Catholic Church after 70+ years in dealing with it’s hypocricy.This is the only reason Christ got mad at the religious leaders of the times. Hypocrites!

  • Suzy

    I agree with Christy. I’m 47 and searched for years for a church that would be as true to the Bible as many claim to be. Surprise to me, found it in the Catholic Church. Man has a fallen nature. Satan will use that to his advantage to divide us as expertly as he can. I applaud and encourage Tom and Pete in their quest for Christ, and in their continued study of Him. There IS something to be said for authority (as in that of the Catholic Church). I believe it is Biblical. If one believes it is flawed in some way, work to understand it and perhaps accomplish change. I see great and profound love in the teachings of the Catholic Church. Jesus called a spade a spade. He identified sin and said, “Now go and sin no more.” He didn’t say we could decide what was sin and what wasn’t. But he travelled and he ate with sinners. He loved to the point of sacrifice and death. That’s our example.

    • JuliePurple

      Suzy, have you actually read the bible? Are you really sure you want a church that would be true to it? Please don’t tell me you believe that the myth of Adam and Eve and the talking snake are for real. And do you really think it’s okay to slaughter people just because they come from a different cultural group? How about selling your daughters in exchange for livestock? The list goes on. I think you probably mean you would like to find a church that would be true to a reliable source of guidelines. And to any rational person, the bible just isn’t it.

  • Tom

    As opposed to being spiritual, I am a devout Christian, but am a church alumnus. I left my church of 30 years as it grew intolerant, and my views were no longer acceptable. I am not the only one who has noticed this. In his 2006 book, Pres. Jimmy Carter notes how the Southern Baptists were becoming rigid in doctrine, intolerant of those of differ, and exclusionary if those who differ do not fall in line.

    It is these characteristics and its corruption of the visible church that causes people to say they are spiritual. Yet, spiritual is the word they use for lack of another. I think they are like myself – Christian, but church alumni.

    I am not Catholic! Yet, Catholic Bishops have threatened US congressman with exclusion if they do not adhere to abortion doctrine. Others have argued that the Catholic church is trying to keep secret both the doctrine of Probabilism and the idea that it is your conscience, not the Pope, that has the final say.

    Sadly, the Christian good news – the idea that, aside from salvation, Christianity can maximize your happiness today is lost in the intolerance and exclusion which at times looks more like hate than Christian love. So I continue my Christianity with a loose net of other church alumni, and we wait. We wait for the visible church to once again tolerate the devout Christian who does not take the Bible literally and maybe, as an example, does not believe that the earth is 10,000 years old and believes that evolution really happened.

  • pete

    After 73 years of Religion I find the path for me is Spirituality and not religion. Religions rules and regulations are written by man and as such are written with the bias of the writer.John 5-vs24 outlines the simplicity of the message as taught to us by Christ:Listen to my words and believe in He who sent Me.Nothing more is needed for eternal salvation.Merton was right on the money: Love and thank God all day long for the people we are surrounded with; the beauty of nature;for who we are :for what we have been blessed with and the joy of life as we know it.The Church of Rome is becoming more hypocritical every day and is losing intelligent people who see through the fallacy of her arguments in many areas that are in direct conflict with the actions and teachings of Christ.

  • Christy

    Well said Rev. James! I was just having a discussion with one of my coworkers who is SBNR & she was complaining about how every church/religion seems to think they are better that every other church/religion. She said that she would join a church/religion when she could find one that is full of people who aren’t continually judging other people within the religion, or judging people from other religions in a negative light.

    I was at a complete loss of what to say, except, “good luck finding an entire community of people wherein every single person is nonjudgmental & loving.”

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