When someone tells me that they are “spiritual but not religious,” they unknowingly make three things instantly clear:
- At some point (probably recently), the very foundations of their birth faith were shaken, most likely in an academic setting
- They picked up this label from someone else without investing any critical thought
- Thus far, they are either too lazy or too overwhelmed to put any real effort into the development of their spiritual life.
Allow me to explain:
- No one is raised “spiritual but not religious.” People are either raised in a belief system and pick up this title because they’ve fallen away, or they are raised without a belief system but find the idea of spirituality to be vaguely interesting and worthwhile.
- Somewhere along their journey, a peer/colleague/professor/college application proposed “spiritual but not religious” as a valid category of faith affiliation, and the individual picked it up. To the typical wandering faith-seeker, the title seems both intelligent and noncommittal, making it an attractive alternative to frighteningly clear-cut major religions.
- It’s clear that the individual in question has not put any sustained effort into the reestablishment of their spiritual life, because if they had, they would not have chosen such a ridiculous descriptor. “Spiritual but not religious” just doesn’t make sense.
And here’s why.
Of course the individual is spiritual–everyone has a spirit, thus everyone is spiritual. One’s personal conviction about whether or not they have a soul/spirit doesn’t change the fact that they actually do.
Before we go around claiming whether or not someone is “religious,” let’s take a moment to understand just what “religious” means.
“Religious” is an adjective (that is, a descriptive word) stemming from the word “religion.” Religion is simply a system we use to try to understand our spirituality. Religion is typically a group effort because it takes a lot of people, thinking, and trail & error to understand something as complex as the soul/spirit.
This is somewhat comparable to the term “medical.”
“Medical” is an adjective (that is, a descriptive word) stemming from the word “medicine.” Medicine–referring to the study, not the specific drugs–is simply a system we use to try to understand our physical bodies. Medicine is typically a group effort because it takes a lot of people, thinking, and trail & error to understand something as complex as the human body.
“Religious” means “relating to religion.”
“Medical” means “relating to medicine.”
There are many different religions–that is, specialized and differentiated approaches to spirituality that adhere to a specific system in order to function.
There are also many different forms of medicine–that is, specialized and differentiated approaches to the body that adhere to a specific system in order to function.
A person could absolutely reject medicine altogether–that’s his or her decision–but it would be pretty foolish and short-sighted to totally disregard everything human history has gathered about the human body. In fact, this basically never happens. When people split from established medicine, they usually develop their own system based on ideas/processes/whatever that they find important. In other words, they’re developing their own form of medicine.
Similarly, a person could absolutely reject religion altogether–that’s his or her decision–but it would be pretty foolish and short-sighted to totally disregard everything human history has gathered about the human soul/spirit. In fact, this basically never happens. When people split from established religion, they usually develop their own system of beliefs based on ideas/processes/whatever that they find important. In other words, they’re developing their own religion.
So, at the end of the day, saying that someone is “spiritual but not religious” makes about as much sense as saying that someone is “physical but not medical.”
In theory, we can splice spirituality and religious nicely apart, but in real life–especially for the authentic faith-seeker–the split is essentially impossible.
If someone hasn’t put enough thought into their self-applied label to realize such a glaring discrepancy, it’s doubtful they’ve put enough thought into their spirituality to really say they believe much of anything. For those who did put in real thought and still came to an extremely vague conclusion about the nature of spirituality, I offer two more accurate and internally consistent labels for you to consider instead: deist or pantheist.
(Quick response to the stop-comparing-science-and-religion refutation that will inevitably arise: Correct, science and religion are different. They are different by virtue of their subject matter and methods, but identical in their mutual quest for understanding. The subject matter of science is physical and often visible. The subject matter of religion is spiritual (even metaphysical) and often invisible. With different subject matter, it’s reasonable that the two require different methods. Science relies on experiments and theories (theories = educated beliefs; no true scientist would ever say something is totally “proven”), and religion relies on revelation and faith. Both are merely systems of beliefs about respective subject mater as can be obtained from respective methods.)