Religious, not spiritual?

Over at Urban Mystic, Tim recently wrote a post about the ambiguous and très trendy phrase “spiritual, but not religious” (SNR). It seems to me that, while it can be used by those who are earnestly seeking to engage with God and their spiritual nature but have not found a home within organised religion, it is also often employed to denote a vague spirituality which avoids any of the more serious theological challenges.

I find this interesting because it seems to be a curious mirror of an attitude which could be called “religious, but not spiritual”. I would use this to label to cover both those who follow an organised religion but adhere only to the ritual, and also materialists who deny the spiritual altogether. It seems in each case that the individual is content with a superficial reading of the world:

  • the materialist looks at the physical world and refuses to explore the spiritual dimension at all
  • the SNR may simply experience a vague spirituality without delving deep enough to discover the nature and person of God

While it’s great to seek the spiritual, I think that there is a danger of stopping our seeking at the first glimpse, instead of plunging ever deeper into the mysteries of God.

We are called to be filled with the Spirit, not just lightly dusted!



PS: I was amused also to discover today that there had been a recent article over at the satirical news site The Onion along an identical theme. The article describes an individual as follows:

” … while he believed in blindly adhering to the dogma and ceremonies of his faith, he tried not to get too bogged down by actual spirituality. “I’m not so much into having a relationship with God as I am into mechanically conducting various rituals,” [he] said. … [He] emphasized that although he did not personally agree with those who pondered the eternal, he had nothing against them.”

Pure coincidence, I promise!


8 thoughts on “Religious, not spiritual?

  1. the materialist looks at the physical world and refuses to explore the spiritual dimension at all

    Well then, that exempts Sam Harris from being a ‘materialist’! He calls specifically for more scientific study of the kinds of experiences we call ‘spiritual’. And this research is being done, albeit slowly, but with many fascinating results.

    What fascinates me is the assumption that spirituality and religious belief are somehow connected. I see no evidence for this. I see a general trend for religious beliefs to be imposed on legitimate spiritual experiences without justification.

    But I also know that most people who adhere to natural methodology are quite intrigued by the ‘spiritual dimension’ of our common experiences and wish to understand this process better. So I don’t know why you make the claim that these ‘materialistic’ folk refuse to explore this spiritual dimension when that claim is patently false… unless you expect that exploration to be done in a very particular way that does not involve natural methodology, in which case the charge should be reversed: that religious folk refuse to examine the naturalistic causes of the spiritual experience.

    • If you look in the preceding paragraph, I refer specifically to:

      “… materialists who deny the spiritual altogether …” (emphasis added as you apparently missed it the first time)

      That is, I am referring explictly to those who deny the spiritual outright according to a presupposition, rather than anyone who actually engages with the spiritual (regardless of their ultimate conclusions). It should be obvious from the preceding paragraph that I am grouping any person who deliberately ignores spirituality and focusses only on the physical world, irrespective of whether they frequent a religious building or not.

      Please take the time to actually read the post before going off on an unrelated rant.

      • I understood the context of that sentence to be related directly to denying the religious aspect of the spiritual because of the introductory sentence to the paragraph. If you didn’t mean it that way, then you should have written a new paragraph, but this kind of honest mistake is going to happen whenever we mix up meanings of specific words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’. I think what you actually mean is materialists who deny outright the religious aspect of spiritualism. But, of course, you may not.

        [paragraph deleted – off-topic]

      • Let’s look at the introductory sentence, then:

        “…an attitude which could be called “religious, but not spiritual”.”

        So when I used the word “religious”, you understood it to mean “anti-religious”?

        I’m still struggling to understand how your comment is based on anything that I actually wrote, rather than what appears to be a desire to raise issues unrelated to the post.

      • The topics of this post are religion and spirituality – more specifically, individuals who try to live with one and not the other.

        In the space of several paragraphs, the only reference that you seem to have made to these topics is where you claim that spirituality and religion are unconnected. Given that this is at odds with the overwhelming majority of writers and thinkers on these subjects, I had hoped for some evidence to support this viewpoint.

        Please try to stay on topic. You are welcome to write on whatever unrelated subjects you wish, but it would be more useful to give separate topics their own comment thread. While I’m sure that a lengthy exploration of my failings as a human being would be great fun, I’m not convinced that this particular thread is the most appropriate venue for it.

  2. Sentinel,

    Too often the adoption of Spiritual Not Religious (SNR) is a response to: serious theological issues, which may be related to spiritual/religious abuse; an inability to reconcile conflicting faiths especially when faced with good and moral people (given the miss-assumption that Christianity is about moral development); or the problem of Godde.

    Many who adopt the phrase – around 75% of people I’ve spoken to over the years – have departed from a Christianity perspective, delved a bit into alternative western spirituality/religion aka the New Age, and then settled on SNR. Though it may be considered a vague statement this relates more to the explicit side – a theological agnosticism of sorts. However, on the implicit side there’s much in common in this group allowing us to profile them.

    • I do think it’s a very useful descriptor, and I accept your observations that in most cases it may refer to post-religious individuals. My hope would be that they are able to continue to actively seek God, rather than settle into a comfortable but unchallenging spirituality.

      I think that supporting SNR individuals in their journey is a much-needed area of ministry, but it may have to operate outside the regular framework of the church.

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