Three Reasons I’m Neither Spiritual Nor Religious

Three Reasons I’m Neither Spiritual Nor Religious November 9, 2019

This week I sat on a panel on LGBTQ+ spirituality organized by the multicultural office and the social work department at the University of Arkansas.

First question out of the gate: Do you consider yourself more spiritual or religious? 

As I sat and listened to responses, I realized this discussion, about spiritual vs. religious, is really part of the popular conversation. Panelists had very thoughtful things to say.

Meanwhile, I kept thinking to myself: I don’t consider myself spiritual or religious. I don’t really use those categories when I speak or write.

So then what am I if I’m neither spiritual nor religious? Clearly I’m not one of the “nones” or “dones.” I’m a Lutheran pastor who blogs at the Progressive Christian channel on Patheos, after all. How can I be neither spiritual nor religious?

Social Gospel

By the time it was my turn to speak, I decided to answer simply: I don’t think of myself as spiritual or religious. I think of myself as someone trying to practice Christianity in the social gospel tradition.

Let me try to unpack that. So first, I do believe that faith is centered in life lived together. This is perhaps my one struggle with those who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” I totally believe them that they are. But I do think when people say that they are thinking of spirituality as a largely individual activity. It’s something you are, not something done together.

So the social gospel emphasizes the social implications of the good news of Jesus. In the most “religious” way of talking about this, people would say we try to live like Jesus, practice social justice in the way of Jesus. This is why frequently social gospel Christianity gets involved in politics, or community organizing, or shareholder meetings. Because it is a faith that has direct social implications. Always.

And it is the gospel because gospel is whatever it was that Jesus (and the movement he started) was teaching and enacting in the coming kin-dom of God. Good news for the poor and oppressed. Liberation for those in bondage.

So you could say social gospel is both religious (in that it applies to institutions and structures) and spiritual (maintaining a spirited connection to the teachings of Jesus). But I wonder if perhaps it can be clarifying and freeing to consider dropping the terms “religious” and “spiritual” altogether in order to get beyond a false dichotomy between individualized spirituality and institutionalized religion.

Christian Humanist

Another way to talk about this kind of Christianity may be to call it Christian humanism. One of my favorite Lutheran theologians, N.F.S. Grundtvig, frequently emphasized in his writings that we are “human first, then Christian.”

Human first, then Christian.

I think this is perhaps one of the reasons many who are finding a more mature form of faith in their own lives feel a need to reject “religion.” It’s because the religious community they experienced turned on them, betrayed them, lost its way somehow, and did so in the name of faith.

And typically that harm came because the community allowed its religious commitments, its doctrine or norms, to take precedence over the shared humanity of those in the community.

Once you harm or alienate someone in the name of faith, you are putting Christianity ahead of humanity.

And then Grundtvig will remind you, “Human first, then Christian.”

A commitment to Christian humanism is also a much more open faith than the closed faith of more doctrinally “pure” communities. If the human comes first, then there is space for the Christian to engage the Muslim, the Buddhist, the agnostic, in ways that celebrate the shared humanity between them, and then discover how their faith tradition enhances and strengthens their shared humanity.

What Is the Future of Such Social Gospel/Christian Humanism?

I’ll confess, I’m not sure I have a good grasp of the moment we are in. By all accounts, religiosity in North America is declining quickly. 65% of adults identify as Christian, down 12 percentage points over the past decade (on a side note, but this would need to be a separate post, religiosity globally is increasing).

Recently my own seminary alma mater published a study indicating that based on current projections, average weekly attendance in our denomination will drop from 899,000 in 2017 to just 15,811 in 2041.

No, there aren’t typos in those two numbers.

People have all kinds of theories on why faith in the United States is in decline, and how to reverse it. Large conservative groups typically say it’s because the liberal churches are becoming too much like the culture. Liberal churches say it is because the conservatives are harming people and then alienating them.

In a bigger view, a lot of people are coming to the conclusion that we simply live in a society where it is increasingly difficult to believe in God, and instead people are shifting their faith commitments to other things.

We’re enchanted by capitalism, for example. It’s the new religion AND the new spirituality all woven together.

I do not have a clear-eyed simple explanation for why the decline is happening. The decline probably has multiple causes, not the least of which are decreasing birth rates, a move towards individualism, and more.

But I do know that for my money, getting beyond the hand-wringing over decline and simply living the social gospel is my way forward.

Don’t get me wrong. I very much love many of the ways religious community has functioned as a voluntary society in my life. I love corporate worship and potlucks and all of that.

But because the gospel has social implications, I tend to think discipleship is much less about getting everyone to sign back up for all the measures by which we measured religiosity in the 20th century, and instead start wondering, “Who is going to city council meeting Tuesday night to advocate for better bussing? Where are all the voices of people of faith in the public square?”

Even if Christianity becomes a small voice in United States culture, if that voice both speaks and enacts the kin-dom of God in tangible ways in the world, then there would not have actually been a decline at all, just a shift.

Maybe the best thing for Christianity in this moment is for it to become neither religious nor spiritual.

Then the community that does exist will have learned to do the hard work of the gospel in the world rather than asking everybody outside the church to do the hard work of coming back into it.


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  • And all the graduations between- Religious and Spiritual. I identify as a Lutheran Pastor and mystic. (Not sure how that fits in). I move forward to do social justice through listening to the voice of God- who abides with me. I teach others to abide as well for the sake of the Kin-dom.

  • jekylldoc

    Yup, the institution is in decline. I don’t know that the number willing to follow Christ has really declined all that much, though. Let’s face it, some (the religious) respond to the structure provided by religious authority. Others (the spiritual) resonate inwardly to the dissolution of ego boundaries that is mystical encounter with God. Both can be part of a Jesus movement that follows the path of bringing good news to social structures.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “First question out of the gate: Do you consider yourself more spiritual or religious? ”

    First response after hearing that question: Can you define clearly what you mean by spiritual?

    So far, I have never been given a clear definition for the word, and each definition I was given was different.

  • onlein

    I am close to your perspective or position–from a Catholic angle. Not sure that Jesus is the son of God and that there is an after life. Do we really need a super reward or a ridiculously harsh punishment as motivation for following his example?
    I attend mass on weekends and some weekdays. I seem about where recently deceased Notre Dame philosopher professor and author Gary Gutting was, more an agnostic Catholic than a Roman Catholic. But a practicing Catholic. And practice just might eventually make perfect, or at least closer to it.

  • John Purssey

    My perspective, fwiw, could be useful to some.
    Common to humanity is having meaning, purpose, and hope. Those are (at least some of) what comprises spirituality.
    A religion is an expression of a shared spirituality.

    So I consider myself to be both spiritual and religious.

    I allow that may own spirituality is a result of my history/hermeneutic of spiritual experience and that stories/narratives may resonate with others. Statements of belief are attempts to summarise this but are problematic for communication outside a religious community.

  • Jason Carpp

    I grew up in a secular household. My family never attended church, nor did we read the Bible. If I were invited to attend a musical, a wedding, a memorial service, etc., I would attend. But otherwise, I was perfectly happy not to attend church.

  • olbab

    I am “Christian” by association (and osmosis), in the choir at 6 churches over 75 years. Neither the community nor the ritual/mystery “got” to me, although I came to spend a lot of thought on theology. (Of course I was a miserable loner for the first half of that!) Lately I’m looking with considerable trepidation and delight at an ethical and responsible magical practice. But for the last -oh- 60 years I have had no attraction to the religion of heaven/hell/magical confession/instant redemption.

    The recently more heard voices for a life aimed toward emulating Jesus, and the probability of universal reconciliation, has really got my attention now.

    The box is getting bigger. I feel it just might include -with ease!- past lives, magic, Jesus, pagan gods and probably demons. And angels. And how about those things that (perhaps) generate UFOs, ghosts, poltergeists, orbs (and on and on)?

    But I’m not, by many definitions, spiritual. Although I had a really beautiful vision once…

  • swbarnes2

    This is why frequently social gospel Christianity gets involved in politics, or community organizing, or shareholder meetings. Because it is a faith that has direct social implications. Always.

    I think part of your problem here is that the earliest church (the most ‘authentic’?) didn’t do this. They weren’t part of politics. The direct social implications of their Christianity didn’t extend to insisting that Christians not keep slaves, let alone to campaigning that no one should own slaves. Not ‘always’, not at all in that era.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Maybe religion is just boring. And you have to pay for it, too. And pay tax subsidies for it.

  • Newton Finn

    Perhaps Schweitzer came up with the clearest answer to this, yes, terribly unclear question:

  • Johanan

    Most church shut the door to Jesus. He is still waiting outside your door. Ms Loadicea. ““Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends” You even still say His bread and cup is a early death curse! And some church organization even cancel all communion (like that famous platoon with bell and kettle).

  • Marc Wagner

    I think the main reason the mainstream churches are in decline is that, since the Enlightenment, it has become progressively more difficult for Christians to accept the “supernatural” God of antiquity which interferes in human affairs — taking the lives of the innocent while allowing the truly evil to walk among us. Yet, we only hear about the OT version of God from the pulpit.

  • Joris Heise

    I have a whole book in my head that cries to reach a computer word processor–it is called “the Wordless World, or the Kingdom of Heaven.” A trinitarian, i have reached the conviction at 83 years of age that Jesus (and Siddhartha and others) preached about a world that religion is a sign of–but is not more the reality than a roadsign is a road, a map is the concrete your tires go on. I mentioned the “trinity,” but know that God is more Creator than Father–and maybe the God is much, much more immanent than tradition suggests (but Jesus knew!), that Jesus realized he was Every Man (and Woman), and that the Spirit is their outlook, the human absorption gratitude for being, appreciation for the invisibles that give us life every second (from quarks to DNA to T-cells to the mystery of animation). I would talk about this and urge teachers never to teach it, as it is reality, as un-talk-about-able as the inside of neutron star or why Armenians were slaughtered.History exists only once; it is all about being awake, about growth (seed and yeast), about recognizing ourselves in all our fellows, (Matthew 25) How Scripture is inspired, not science, our ritual is personal, not opere operato, how morality is part of the tens of thousands of daily choices and not a list or code, much less a disobedience to some interpretation of God through Humans (Jesus is particularly strong on this).
    I am a Trinitarian in the same sense that time-space has three dimensions–but again wordlessly. They interweave in daily decisions–the response to creation in objecting to crime against humanity when “obedient” border patrol and/or ICE rip children from mother’s arms a la Holy Innocents. (An event that did not happen historically, but does happen historically).
    Religion is not creed, code and cult. it is recognition of the wordless world–the creed is not the words recited, but the appreciation of human hearts; the code is not a code of conduct, but a call to distinguish “thou” and “it”; and the cult comprises the rituals of pinochle, coffee breaks, and, yes, the breaking of a bread in memory of events that are meaningful.
    fortunately, as in Karen Armstrong’s Great Transformation, we are in that cocoon right now, and what this past caterpillar will become is unknow…but it will include people like this truthful writer.