Were you religious, but not spiritual?

Were you religious, but not spiritual? February 23, 2017

You should take a look at The Madness of King Donald, a recent New Yorker piece by Andrew Sullivan.


The first section is very rational discussion of the effect Trump’s constant lies are having on us. For example:

“I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? If you showed up at a neighbor’s, say, and your host showed you his newly painted living room, which was a deep blue, and then insisted repeatedly — manically — that it was a lovely shade of scarlet, what would your reaction be? If he then dragged out a member of his family and insisted she repeat this obvious untruth in front of you, how would you respond? If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.”

Then in the second part, which is actually a separate piece, Sullivan discusses Scorsese’s new film, Silence about Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan. Here Sullivan plunges into spirituality, after gently jabbing “secular liberals” who see faith as —

 “some kind of easy, simple abdication of reason — a liberation from reality.”

I think Sullivan is a great example of the chasm between those who have a spiritual bent (or gene, or nature, or whatever) and those who don’t.  When I was reading this, and reeling from the change in tone, I realized that Dan Dennett and I had not discussed  the concept of “spirituality” separate from religion when we were working on the non-believing clergy study.

Minolta DSC

From what I’ve seen in our clergy interviews and in casual conversations with lay people, some people have an innate sense of “spirituality” and some don’t, irrespective of what religion they practice, if any.  I’m guessing that not many of our study participants were innately spiritual, but instead were strongly influenced by organized religion and societal pressure. I’m also guessing that their lack of spirituality made it “easy” for them to eventually leave.

Some clergy who stay on despite their lack of belief (e.g., liberal Episcopalians), know very well that religion is myth-based, but I’m thinking that perhaps their strong sense of spirituality allows them to be comfortable as clergy.

I’m starting to think of spirituality – separate from religion – as a characteristic or predilection or talent like any other inborn trait – like musical talent or dislike of spicy foods. I have no proof of this and haven’t seen anything written about it  — though I will start looking.

Here are a few questions for readers to get a start on this investigation. Please think about this and if you have a lot to say, email me at so I can use your responses in a future blog post.

  1. When you were religious, did you also think of yourself as spiritual, or not? How did you talk about spirituality to the people in your congregation?
  2. Did you go through a “spiritual but not religious stage” on the way to being non-religious? If so, please describe it (e.g., how long did it last, how/why did it change?) If not, how did you go from religious to non-religious? (e.g., through reading, thinking, talking with others, something else, some combination of the above). Please describe that.
  3. If you know people who are spiritual but not religious, what are they like? (e.g., were they ever a member of an organized religion? If so, what made them leave?) Are their current beliefs tied to a specific religion (e.g., Christianity, Judaism) or are their beliefs more individual or amorphous? How to they express their spirituality? (e.g., do they pray, do they think things happen for a purpose, or do they feel a sense of being watched over or not being alone? Do they believe in an afterlife?)
  4. Are there other questions I should be asking about this? If so, what are they?

I look forward to your responses.


>>>Photo Credits: By Trey Ratcliff,, CC BY 2.0, Dnalor 01 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at,

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