The Problem With “Spiritual But Not Religious”

The Problem With “Spiritual But Not Religious” May 10, 2024

Let’s talk about “spiritual but not religious.” Certainly you are free to call yourself that, but to me the classification comes with some red flags. For example, in the universe of social media memes there is a large sub-genre I’ve come to call “religion drools, spirituality rules” that claims the superiority of spirituality over religion. Spiritual people, according to memes, are smarter, more open minded, more inclusive, more compassionate, more virtuous, and possibly better looking than religious people. Well, okay, maybe not better looking. But definitely all those other things.

I say these memes are classic examples of logical fallacy. Over the years I have known many conventionally religious people as well as many people dedicated to a do-it-themselves spiritual searching, and I can’t say one group is more or less anything than the other group. Many deeply religous people are sincere, inclusive, open minded, and the rest of the good stuff. And the freelancers I’ve known seem no more or less susceptible to self-delusions, tribalism, and flimflam as anybody else.

Spiritual But Not Religions: Why Is This Happening?

Religion is a vast range of diverse things. Most of the time when I’ve drilled down into the objections that SBNR people hold against religion, those objections apply to a particular slice of contemporary Christianity, and possibly some parts of Judaism and Islam as well, but not really religion per se. In my experience SBNR folks tend to have limited experience with religion  beyond what they grew up with and what they’ve seen on the teevee. In fact, the world’s traditions that get classified as religion are so diverse that the religious studies branch of academia can’t settle on a definition of what religion is; see Defining Religion, And Why That’s So Hard. English language dictionaries will tell you religion is about belief in and worship of gods or other supernatural powers, but many Asian traditions — Buddhism is a prime example — don’t fit that definition.

The rise of “spiritual but not religious” seems to parallel the rise of the “nones” the sharp increase in the U.S. population of people with no religious affiliation. As recently as 1972 polls found that about 90 percent of U.S. citizens identified as Christian. Today, according to Pew Research, about 63 percent of Americans identify as Christian. Not all nones call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” but many do. It’s possible that what we’re seeing here is a growing alienation from Christian institutions, but determining that would require more data gathering and other research than I’ve seen. And there may be other social and cultural factors we’re not seeing. But let’s talk about red flags.

Spiritual But Not Religious: Take This Meme, Please

The endless variety of “religion drools, spirituality rules” memes include images showing a fish in a fishbowl (religion) versus a fish in an ocean (spirituality). Memes claim religion is based on fear and restriction but spirituality is based on love and freedom. Religion teaches people to be afraid of hell, but spirituality teaches people to create heaven on earth. Religion divides people; spirituality brings them together. Really? But this week one popped up on social media that was particularly egregious. It said, “A religious person will do what he is told … no matter what is right … whereas a spiritual person will do what is right … no matter what he is told.” This was followed by many “likes” and comments expressing agreement.

Hogwash. Who told the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to lead a march cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge? Who told the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany, to stand up to Hitler? And exactly how is one group claiming superiority over another “uniting” people? Further,  it’s likely every human atrocity throughout history began with the thought “my people are better than those other people.” Those patting themselves on the back for being one of the cool spiritual kids are falling into the same divisiveness and exclusivity that allegedly makes religion “bad.” So much for superiority.

Of course, it’s also true that some religious people are jerks, and religious institutions are as corruptible as any other institutions. Most of the world’s religions are many centuries, if not millennia, old. They have long and messy histories, full of both dark and light, wisdom and ignorance. The concept of “spiritual but not religious” hasn’t been around long enough to have a track record. It may prove to be a positive thing. But first we need to clarify what it is.

Defining Terms

Until relatively recently the words religion and spirituality have been near synonyms, often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. I’ve been trying to track down exactly when the two terms began to split apart. I’m not sure anyone knows, but many fingers point to the counterculture of the 1960s. That’s entirely possible, given the counterculture’s antipathy to anything “establishment.”

Academic works discussing “spiritual but not religious” nearly always cite a 1997 anthropoligical study titled “Religion and Spirituality: Unfuzzying the Fuzzy,” from Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36, 549-564. by Brian J. Zinnbauer, Kenneth I. Pargament, Brenda Cole, Mark S. Rye, Eric M. Butfer, Timothy G. Belavich, Kathleen Hipp, Allie B. Scott, and Jill L. Kadar. A link on this page will let you download a PDF. If this subject interests you, it’s worth reading.

“Historically, spirituality was not distinguished from religiousness until the rise of secularism in this century,” say the authors. “As spirituality has become differentiated from religiousness, however, it has taken with it some of the elements formally included within religiousness. Therefore, recent definitions of religiousness have become more narrow and less inclusive.”  In particular, spirituality is now associated with “personal experiences of the transcendent,” while religion is seen as a hindrance to such experiences. And my suspicions are that this speaks to something lacking in contemprary religious institutions.

Some Things Can’t Be Separated

As I wrote in my earlier post on defining religion, one of relgion’s Latin roots, religio, refers to conscientiousness, faithfulness, and sincerity. It was about action and conduct more than belief. Some scholars say the word religion has another Latin root, religare, which connotes binding, especially binding something that has been severed —  such as humans severed from the transcendent, for example. The word spirituality is from the Latin spiritus, meaning breath. Spirituality is about life. It’s also about spirit. It makes sense to associate spirituality with transcendent experience.

My concern is that religion and spirituality need each other. Religion without spirituality is a kind of weird intellectual exercise, with lots of rules. But spirituality without some kind of doctrinal context and the direction provided by tradition could easily turn into an empty quest for transcendent “fixes.” I say that as a long-time student of Zen Buddhism, which is all about direct experience, not belief. The path is full of dead ends and rabbit holes, and we could all use the guidance provided by those who have gone before.

But, we’ll see. This is a huge subject that will probably need revisiting.

Background image source: Wikimedia Commons, photo by Whistleswhite, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
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