Spirituality, With or Without Religion

Photo by Fran McColman

Photo by Fran McColman

“I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”

It’s become such a common way of self-describing spiritual identity that observers have attacked it (“Spiritual But Not Religious”? Please Stop Boring Me), have defended it (God in the Gray Areas), have tried to reduce it to an acronym (“SBNR”) or even come up with cutesy abbreviations (Nones, since such persons when asked what their religious affiliation is will say “None”). This segment of our society is very diverse, covering people who may prefer to self-identify as atheists or agnostics, to new agers and solitary Neopagans, interspiritual seekers, and folks who just don’t believe much of anything in particular, even if they are comfortable with the idea of spirituality as a meaningful name for experiences of a transcendent, transpersonal, or simply inspirational nature.

I don’t qualify as a member of this club, for the simple reason that I am a practicing Christian. So I am a “SWAR” (“Spiritual While Also Religious”), if there is such a thing. And indeed, in my travels both within Christianity and also the interfaith community, I am inspired by the number of deeply spiritual while also committedly religious people who I have encountered.

Spiritual-while-also-religious folks, in my experience, tend to bust our society’s stereotypes of religious people. SWARs are educated, compassionate, thoughtful, often open to the gifts of religious traditions outside their own, and — of particular interest to me — many are committed to contemplative forms of prayer or spiritual practice. SWARs include Shambhala Buddhists and Benedictine Oblates, Pagan Unitarians and Renewal Jews, Muslim Sufis and Advaita Vedantists. And if my experience is at all reliable, then SWARs enjoy learning about other faiths and find that the gifts of wisdom traditions outside their own deeply enhance their own, religiously-grounded spirituality.

I like being a SWAR. And in saying this, I don’t mean to attack people who are SBNR, because I know that so many people disaffiliate with religion because the religion they had been a part of was fundamentalist or abusive or otherwise deeply constricting. So I affirm the basic goodness of all spiritual seekers, regardless of their present affiliation with religion (or religions). But this leads to the point of this blog-post: I think we need to deconstruct this idea that “religion” and “spirituality” are somehow at odds.

Okay, I’ll grant that fundamentalist religion is often overtly anti-spiritual, and is especially hostile to interspirituality. Likewise, there is a type of liberal religion that dismisses spirituality as superstitious or irrational (as a child of mainstream Protestantism, I know this one well). But let’s give religion its due: at its best, let me repeat, at its best, religion is the traditional container by which mystical and spiritual wisdom has been conveyed from generation to generation. Are we, the people who truly value spirituality, really content to abandon religion to the fundamentalists and the liberal-skeptics?

Meanwhile, we also need to consider another force that often gets overlooked. That’s the socio-economic forces of American individualism, corporate-capitalism, and entertainment-ism, social and economic forces which religion has traditionally criticized for being narcissistic, uncaring to the poor, and un-concerned with authentic spiritual transformation. In other words, we live in a society that has vested social and economic interests in divorcing religion from spirituality, because by doing so it will marginalize both. Religion has lost so much power and prestige in our day, while spirituality is being turned into merely another consumer commodity, just a form of psycho-emotional entertainment that distracts people from the real work of inner transformation and outer justice.

Religion without spirituality devolves into either fundamentalism or skepticism. Everyone can see that, even those who remain committed to religion. But what our society would just as soon people not see is the consequences of spirituality without some form of community: it devolves into narcissism, into mysticism-as-a-hobby, into a powerless force unable to address the injustices and social evils that bedevil our culture at large.

Once again: my purpose in writing this is not to guilt-trip the SBNRs into finding and joining a church. Since so few churches really know how to deal with deep, authentic spiritual searching, it is probably just as well that the SBNRs have abandoned them. But I think we need to find a way to create community (not necessarily “religion”) that unites the “Spiritual-But-Not-Religious” folks with the “Spiritual-While-Also-Religious” community.

In other words, we need to find a way to talk about spirituality that is inclusive of creative spiritual seekers, regardless of their religious commitment(s) or lack thereof. We need a more holistic spiritual identity; one that can respect the kind of spiritual diversity and burgeoning creativity occurring among spiritual seekers and practitioners of many various backgrounds, values, practices and belief structures.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro has a book coming out next week called Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent, where he offers the idea of being “Spiritually Independent” as an alternative to the clunkier labels SBNR or Nones. I think this is an excellent step forward, but “Spiritually Independent” still implies a certain distance from religion. So it’s not truly inclusive of those of us who have anchored our intentional spiritual quest within a specific religious context.

So I’d like to propose another label. Following the idea of the “cultural creatives,” first put forth by sociologist Paul Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson in their book by the same title, I propose we identify people in our society with a strong commitment to spiritual growth and development as the Spiritual Creatives. Such a term would acknowledge that this is an innovative, forward-thinking movement in our society; it has room for those who are religious, semi-religious, multi-religious, or not religious at all; and it can work well with those who follow one particular path, or those who are interspiritual, or those who “mix and match” their spiritual beliefs and practices from a variety of sources. Best of all, it is an identity that might foster creative ways in which the spiritual religious and the spiritual non-religious might be able to meet, connect, and engage in dialogue. Such conversation, I believe, would be a blessing for us all.

What do you think? Does the idea of an inclusive label like “Spiritual Creatives” appeal to you? Why or why not? And if not, what would you suggest instead?

Disclosure: if you follow the link of a book mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receive a small commission from Amazon. Thank you for doing so — it is the easiest way you can support this blog.




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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • https://www.facebook.com/kenneth.r.mcintosh Kenneth R McIntosh

    Carl, you are onto something. “Spiritual Creatives” is a good term bridging SWAR’s like you and me with SBNR–or–whatever term we use. We all need a dialogue. Lead on.

  • Regina Kay

    So you are not recommending the rabbi’s book but do recommend the other one. I am not clear as to the title of the book you suggest. I very much agree with your comments here.

    • Carl McColman

      I’m not saying I don’t recommend Rabbi Rami’s book. I just think his alternative to SBNR, “Spiritually Independent” still connotes an exclusion of the spiritually religious persons. I think for what the book is trying to do — offer insight for those who are spiritual but not religious — it does a good job.

      The book by Ray & Anderson is called “The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World.”

  • https://www.facebook.com/jack.gillespie.73 Jack Gillespie

    I agree with Kenneth, Carl. You’re onto something. I like “Spiritual Creatives” and how you’ve spelled it out. It makes sense and, indeed, it seems like a very inclusive community. Let’s keep thinking about this. I walk with you on this path. It seems like a good one.

  • Sherry

    Having recently left the Catholic church for the second time, I guess I’m in this category, trying desperately to find my way but not finding any tradition that makes me excited. Living in a conservative area as far as religion goes (traditional Catholic), doesn’t help. Slowly I am building a personal practice of reading, praying, meditation and so forth that hopefully supplies what I need. Still I would like to have some sense of community. That part I have not yet figured out. I guess I should be looking for an online group? If you have any suggestions I’d be most appreciative.

    • Carl McColman

      Sherry, thanks for your comment. And many blessings to you on your journey. I would say that if I were in your position I would very much rely on online ways to connect with people who shared my interests and values. I’d try to find friends in my geographical area so that we could form a meetup or a book club or something like that, but if that simply weren’t available, then I’d at least enjoy the friendships I could find through social media. Best of luck to you. You really aren’t alone, for there are angels and guides who will help you, both earthly and heavenly. Trust in your own heart and in the heart of the Divine. Many blessings!

    • http://www.thecloudofunknowingguide.blogspot.com Andy Harnack


      I’m always appreciative of all that Carl McColman writes and shares. In fact, 15 of us in our little south-of-Atlanta parish have been reading and discussing his Answering the Contemplation Call for the past six months. Recently I meet with another gathering of contemplative-minded folks in St. Augustine, and we have formed an online community. Together we have just begun working our way through The Cloud of Unknowing. You may be interested in joining us; we come from all backgrounds: Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalians, Baptists, and so on. We’d be delighted to share The Cloud and ourselves with you. To see what we’re doing, visit http://www.thecloudofunknowingguide.blogspot.com.

  • John Horner

    My initial response is very positive. Well stated, Carl.

  • Pam Neidig

    I agree with your “the point of this blog-post: I think we need to deconstruct this idea that “religion” and “spirituality” are somehow at odds.” I also think that is true of religion and science: they do not need to be at odds. However, (in your comment posted at 2:24 on 9/13) I am not sure how Spiritually Independent connotes exclusion of spiritually religious folks were as spiritually creative does not connote exclusion of those same people.

    • Carl McColman

      It may just be my own bias showing up here, but to me, “independent” means “not needing anyone else” which I see as a refutation of community (and, therefore, religion). I am a religious person precisely because I recognize that I need others. “Creative,” however, I see as a universal value. Speaking as a Christian, I believe all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and since God is creative, that makes us creative too. We are creative by virtue of being human: whether we are religious (or not) does not erase that essential human characteristic.

      A friend of mine on Facebook suggested another alternative: “Spiritually Interdependent.” I like that one too, since it doesn’t have that same sense of “not needing others.”

  • http://Obscuritus.blogspot.com Obscuritus

    As an ex-minister who spent 25 years trying to do “cutting edge” worship and produce creative and attractive weekly “shows” to compete for the time of American consumers of religion, I wholeheartedly welcome your suggestion. I walked away from institutional church both professionally and personally four years ago. I don’t like being a part of a new demographic of people who have quit church and I don’t think I am typical in that category. Most bloggers simply urge us nonattenders to get over ourselves and humbly find another institution to attend. I am of the hungry belief that someday, somewhere and somehow I’ll collect with a group of Spiritual Creatives to practice our spiritual religion in a way that may more accurately reflect that kind of organic community described in the Bible. I simply am not attracted to weekly presentations in which attenders vicariously be the church through worship leaders and professional preachers. I want to practice religion with a group of creative and mutually interactive NONES.

    • Carl McColman

      Keep searching! I think you’re asking the right questions and I have great faith that those who seek to foster new forms of community (that may look nothing like traditional religion) will be blessed by the Spirit for their creative faithfulness. Let me know how things progress.

    • http://gravatar.com/ecumenicus ecumenicus

      Boy do I hear you, Obs! I have been very active and participant in the Christian church, doing all kinds of things – really loving prayer practices, so that has been my latest emphasis…Christian mystics and prayer practices. I am finishing a degree in theology….but i am a mystic – through and through and my local Christian world is not ready for mysticism. They just dont “see” in a nondual, spiritually mature way. They are skeptical of what I say and often revert right back to dualistic discussion and interpretation of scripture/reality. I am now attending Buddhist meditation services and enjoying a community on Facebook of people that want to explore in a more spiritually mature way. I attend small group with some friends at a Presbysterian church who also go to events like the Sounds True Wake Up Festival and teach/practice yoga, and read books by Adyashanti and Deepak Chopra and Caroline Myss….I learned how to interpret Christianity from these New Agers! I practice Spiritual Direction with a variety of people, not of the same community. I think community is changing. I truly think that one cannot squeeze herself into a community of skeptics and feel confident and nurtured for her own growth. Until we realize that all paths lead to the same Ultimate Reality, which is a mystery and will remain such, we will continue to exclude and marginalize those who have spirits that are simply confined by dogma. Some people have to “get it” from the outside in. Its really hard to see the outside when all you do is talk in terms of what you see inside (the Religion)….when the only language you use is “Christian” and all you look for are differences, not similarities.

    • http://gravatar.com/blueheron53 Heron

      So very with you on this, Obscuritus. On one level, I’m sorry we had to leave. I sorely miss doing the big music and worship of a church service. Because no matter who else was there or what they were doing, I *meant* it, and received so much through it. Way beyond. But finally I could no longer deal with the “consumers of Christianity” there, as well as the growing number of wolves among the sheep. All glaring lumps sitting on the pews. It is difficult and lonely looking for an alternative.

      As for “Spiritual Creative,” it brings up images of artists or artisans. That, however, is much nicer than SBNR or SWAR! :-)

      Thanks, Carl McColman. Your blog is a comfort.

      • Carl McColman

        You’re welcome.

  • William Lynn

    Carl , thank you so much for this which speaks so well to me. My wife and I are members of a congregation at St Brides,Toxtheth , Liverpool which describes itself as ‘Inclusive,Creative and Progressive’. People of various religious backgrounds and of different sexual orientation have found a home here.Soon we will be joining with others of different faith communities for a procession in Liverpool seeking to demonstrate that we share the same journey and to challenge the prejudice that is experienced by some e.g. recently here by Muslim women.

    Why is there such resistance to new ways of being ‘church’ thinking of those us who are SWAR’s…?

    • Carl McColman

      Bill, that’s the big question. I understand that there is an essential conservative quality to religion in the sense that we seek to “conserve” the wisdom handed down by our forebears and ancestors. But I think that kind of “spiritual conservation” needs to be united with an open-hearted and truly innovative approach to finding ways to share the joyful news of Divine Love with a new generation in new ways. And yes, this includes positive interaction with both science and the wisdom of other faith traditions.

  • Giles Lascelle

    Thank you for this Carl.. As an exploring ex-evangelical/charismatic who occasionally wonders if they might attract pejorative labels such as ‘liberal’ or even ‘heretic’ the term Spiritual Creative seems a much better and more encouraging fit.

  • DavidFromDenver

    Well said! The best ideas are the ones that make you stop and “Wait, let me think about this”

  • http://www.michaeljtobias.com Michael J. Tobias

    I think you may be onto something. I believe the day is coming when there will be “Open” houses of worship/contemplation/study whereby rituals and rites are options. We need community, and while the rites and rituals are unnecessary, imo, they are part and parcel of the vast majority of those communities. The obvious answer to the dilemma is to do as you attempt here, adopt a new form for the communication and sharing of Substance which includes such forms that are not particularly sectarian or a wide variety of sectarian forms that are available as options.

  • http://gravatar.com/g2-67c609f71348522e9ae92270dee62ca1 Jon

    @Michael Yes, the “open” houses are here… I just finished the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. One striking memory was a house on the way, literally with an open door, whose owner had made half of it into a non-denominational chapel.

    @Carl Spiritual creatives is definitely an improvement. I’ve not liked SBNR myself, and since I participate in Zen meetings and the Oneness Blessing, probably isn’t that accurate anyway. I don’t think it’s the final answer, though. Is creativity an essential part of it? What defines creativity? What about a rather uncreative person who is simply happy, radiant, and spiritual? Maybe “Spiritual” is all we need to say when talking about spiritual people?

    • Carl McColman

      I think that a person who is happy radiant and spiritual can hardly be called uncreative!

  • brother don

    OK, so what pigeon hole do I fit in. I think the problem is labeling. You know why I consider myself agnostic (and why I like Buddha best of all the great spiritual teachers), but where do I fit in your (and, small letter, society’s in general) need to put a label on those of us who are negatively inclined towards religion, but are spiritual in general (at least I think Julie and I are spiritual in nature).

    • Carl McColman

      Yes you and Julie would both be “Spiritual creatives.” That’s the beauty of this term — It works whether or not you are religious.

  • http://www.prosemaker.com Carol

    The SBNR acronym always baffled me – because I consider everyone “spiritual” – that is, at core part of the Absolute – or at least, having a Self that transcends and includes the self.

    1) Requirement to adhere to dogma (being right), and 2) The difficult stuff that can happen when things get institutionalized – a challenge to navigate. And the seeming vulnerability that comes with spiritual group affiliation. For this introvert, the ritual is incredible. It’s the coffee klatches after … run! :)

    Given all that, the need for community is so deep. At least, for me. I love reading all these responses.

    And “religious” I think of as having to do with devotion – so much baggage with this word.

    OK, off the hairsplitting wagon, back to the ~~~ .

  • http://www.rabbirami.com Rabbi Rami

    Thanks for bringing my book, Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent into the conversation. I coined the term based on the idea of being politically independent where people adopt policies from different parties without identifying with any one part to the exclusion of the others. Like their politically independent cousins, spiritually independent people pull wisdom and practices from all religions without having to limit themselves to just one.

    • Carl McColman

      You are so welcome, Rabbi Rami, and as I’ve said previously in this thread, I think your book makes an important contribution to this conversation. It’s interesting how words are always limited. Just as some people have objected to the idea of “Spiritual Creatives” because it seems to imply a necessary connection between spirituality and creativity, so too I had difficulty with “Spiritual Independent” because of my concern that it implied a lack of need for community. But I see the elegance in your description of how you coined the term. Perhaps we will always be struggling to find “just the right” word, and perhaps the struggle itself is an important part of the journey.

  • Chris Estus

    Great article. I’m a SWAR in the 12-Step Recovery world. I’m very interested in joining this conversation.

  • http://www.susanstover.us Susan Stover

    Great article and conversation. I hope my reply is not too late in the fleeting nature of online conversation.

    I, too, have struggled for a name for a way of being, a way of life, that would not have baggage nor be bound by limiting definitions. I came up with “Clear Faith” and have written a book by the same name, with the subtitle, “Clearing Away Stumbling Blocks for a Faith That Makes Sense.” (Amazon for Kindle version; Lulu.com for pb/hb/reading device versions)

    The limitation in the term “Clear Faith” is that “faith” implies “beliefs,” which call to mind a set of beliefs that one must hold–not my intention. And although I personally mean “clear” as in “transparent” or “a way of seeing,” it can also mean “definite,” and that is misleading. So although I like the term if I can explain it, it is insufficient without an explanation.

    Nevertheless, I seem to be pursuing the same goal as you–an inner spirituality that one defines (or leaves undefined) independently or creatively. It doesn’t need to be limited to Christianity or Buddhism or any existing religions, yet it is compatible with any existing religion. It is shaped by each individual, in a way, yet shares some commonality in the realm of mysticism and spirituality so that finding community is possible and desirable.

    Please continue!