The Post-Modern Cry: “I’m Spiritual, not Religious.”


“The greatest problems of our time are not technological, for these we handle fairly well. They are not even political or economic, because the difficulties in these areas, glaring as they may be, are mostly derivative. The greatest problems are moral and spiritual, and unless we can make some progress in these realms, we many not even survive.”  Elton Trueblood

I first heard the phrase “I’m Spiritual, not religious” years ago while watching a very young Brittany Spears being interviewed. As she casually leaned back in a large orange chair with both legs folded up underneath her, impishly twirling her hair around her index finger, and chomping on a piece of gum, she proudly declared “I’m Spiritual, not Religious.”

Since that day, I cannot count how many times and in how many places I have heard this statement proclaimed, usually accompanied with that same air of profound discovery and self-congratulation.

The phrase even has its acronym – “SBNR”. It is now offered as a self-description in polling. According to USA TODAY, 72 percent of Millennials describe themselves as “more spiritual than religious.

The very unfortunate result of this is there is now a false dichotomy implied between religion and spirituality . You can hear this dichotomy in pop maxims such as “Religion is man’s effort to please God” or “Religion is for those afraid of going to hell, spirituality is for those who have been there.”

 While these may make catchy bumper stickers, they errantly drive a wedge in the intimate relationship that historically exists between the two.

Words matter. It matters that we understand the words we use, so we can use them to move our culture forward. And I think it is time we reclaim both words to their classical meanings, and then see that this false-dichotomy that has formed between these two idea’s does not in reality exist. It is not an “Either/Or’ proposition at all, but rather a “Both/And”.

So, exactly what do we mean when we brandy around the words religion and spirituality?

Let’s take a close look at the classical definition of both religion and spirituality, rather than the hopped up ones that have infected our vocabulary.

Religion has always been about the ways and means that man uses to order his life around ultimate concern. Over the hundreds of thousands of years, those methods have evolved, and even to this day, the most casual study of the different world religions and denominations show much variation in those methods.

What also varies from religion to religion is what the “ultimate concern” may be. It could be Nirvana, or ultimate re-incarnation form, or eternal life in heaven, or for the more mystical bent,  experiencing an abiding union with Christ/ God both here now and in the hereafter.

Simply put, it is how we arrange our lives to cooperate and participate in what is the overarching meaning of our lives.

So, when I say to you that I am religious, I freely admit that I have organized my personal life around what is of ultimate (above all else, central) concern to me. When seen from this point of view, why wouldn’t one do so?

You can even see elements of this classical definition of religion operating in organizations that would never claim to have anything to do with religion.

Any organization that has a common, ultimate concern or objective, and organizes itself around a specific set of literature, set of rules, bylaws, traditions, liturgy or meeting format, and group expectations – can be said to contain the core elements of a religious body based on the classical definition.

And what’s so bad about that?

Now, to “Spirituality.”

Spirituality did not come to me as I sat cross-legged in a comfortable chair, chanting while looking down on the forlorn world. Living a spiritual life, with spiritual practices, and guided by spiritual principles, has both cost me and given me my life.

I am happy to say the exchange rate was a hugely beneficial one. I hazard to guess where I would be today had I not made and continue to make this daily exchange from a life of self-reliance and self-direction to one of God-reliance and God -directed.

A true spirituality necessitates the complete deflation and surrender of oneself. As William James, the great American Psychologist said: ” All spiritual experience begins with ego -deflation at depth.”

Spirituality is an acknowledgment that there is a level of existence, a “fourth dimension” if you will, that cannot be accessed by my natural abilities. It can only be accessed by grace- a grace that I place myself in a position to receive by my continuous willingness to surrender –

And, it is a response to a yearning that is both eternal and primal—a yearning that is ignited only through a spiritual sensitivity brought about by consecrated practice – practices like silence & solitude, prayer, and meditation, spiritual reading, simplicity, service, generosity towards others, communal living, and participation.

Spirituality is dynamic- it constantly moves us closer to the object of our yearning, our ultimate concern. A spiritual person cannot stay in the same place. To live a spiritual life is like climbing a down-escalator. My tendency is towards self. Without a set of spiritual practices, I will revert to that same person I was last year, the direct evidence I have not been living a spiritual life.

Spirituality is communal. It is not an individualistic, isolationist activity. The very trademark of spirituality is connectedness—connection to God, to our neighbors, and to our deeper self.

From Lillian Daniel’s book “When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough” (Jericho, 2013)

“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” she writes. “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

More importantly, Spirituality is concrete. A spirituality that is disconnected from  specific, concrete practices such as mentioned above is a pseudo-spirituality. If I cannot tell you  specifically what I have done in the last 72 hrs. to practice a spiritual way of living, then I am fooling myself about my spirituality. But probably not you.

When I hear the word “Spiritual” or “Spirituality, what I now hear is “Death”. The death of my self-will, my selfish desires and agenda. This is often a very painful and slow death—Not a comfortable way of thinking about myself. Spirituality is not an easy life above the fray. It is facing myself every day, in the middle of it.

I think of the spiritual heroes and heroines over the many centuries, from Joseph, son of Jacob, to Daniel, Isaiah, Jesus, the martyrs, the saints, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Fr. Damian, Mother Theresa. I cannot casually claim to be “Spiritual, not religious” when I think of these.

When I think of all the examples of consecrated service and self-sacrifice for others going on now all over the world – that is where I go when I think of what spirituality means- and of what religion means.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”                                        James 1:27

I fall –but my hope is I will fall forward, as long as I continue to respond to the inner yearning for more, and grab hold of spiritual practices, and begin again.

With this renewed look at the words “Religious” and “Spiritual”, I hope to remain “SAR” – spiritual and religious.

Next up, a closer look at those classical spiritual practices and that one unpleasant but vital word “Discipline”.

Until then, keep falling forward…



6 Responses

  1. Max Heine

    July 21, 2016 10:01 am

    Fine piece, Bob. As you know, it echoes a somewhat counterintuitive point Merton would make about the contemplative life being largely interacting in community, not navel-gazing.

    • Bob Toohey

      August 1, 2016 3:56 pm

      Exactly: It seems only one who is living it can see the irony of true contemplation leading one to others as opposed to an isolationist spirituality, a spirituality Merton again would say is no spirituality at all.

  2. Don Jordan

    July 17, 2016 8:46 pm

    Great, thought-provoking article, Bob. I have often pondered the differences between (and the significance of) being “religious” and belonging to a specific “religion” or denomination. There are many of us Christians who have yet to find the denomination that feels “right” in our hearts based on our understanding of scripture and our politics. I hate saying that politics matters when choosing a church, but unfortunately, churches take stands that either line up with a person’s belief system or that don’t line up with a person’s belief system. Two people can read the same scriptures and come to two very different ideologies through their interpretation, It is in this aspect of biblical hermeneutics that has created so many distinct religions, sects, and all of the various denominations of Christianity. It is also aspect of biblical hermeneutics that has proven to be so vexing for me personally.

    To me, interpreting the whole of biblical scripture is a daunting task that is obviously fraught with controversy. Many parts of the Bible, when read by the laity (and even some of the most famous Biblical scholars in history) are contradictory with one another. Following many specific tenets of the Old Testament would be incompatible with the teachings of the New Testament, Not every religion even agrees which books and writings should even be included in the Bible. I have read well-reasoned and logical interpretations of a particular theme in the Bible with solid scriptural references from one Biblical scholar (and with which I have concurred) and then have read very different well-reasoned and logical interpretations of the same Biblical theme with solid scriptural references from another Biblical scholar that have made me rethink my agreement with the first scholar, Both interpretations have persuasive arguments and the scriptures to back up those arguments. Which interpretation to believe is my ultimate dilemma.

    Depending upon the emphasis those scholars place on key scriptures and which scriptures they interpret differently based on their understanding of the context of the passage, intelligent and extremely learned biblical scholars come to greatly varying dogmas or ideologies. I feel woefully inadequate to independently read the Bible, analyze, interpret the whole of it, and come to my own self-determined religious belief system. Therefore, I have read the interpretations of various biblical scholars to see which ones feel right in my own heart. I have prayed about this and struggled to reconcile my desire to attend church services with my inability to find a denomination that feels “right” to me. I have wondered if I am being too rigid in my thinking and should attend the church that feels closest to “right” for me, but there always seems to be significant philosophical disagreements that arise which make me uncomfortable at some point, so I stop going.

    Perhaps I struggle because I was raised Baptist, attended Methodist services with my grandmother as a young man, and then was married in the Catholic Church after many weeks of Catholic marriage prep and a Catholic “Engaged Encounter” weekend. Perhaps it is also because I feel most comfortable in bible study classes discussing biblical interpretation and the application of scripture in modern life instead of a formal church service in which I don’t find all of the rituals and music as meaningful to me as the study and active discussion of the Bible. Church service has always been less interactive than I believe will be useful to my spiritual development. I feel closer to God when I am studying and trying to understand the Bible alone or in a group discussion than when someone preaches to me.

    I do appreciate that your article has challenged me to think more about the struggles along my own religious and spiritual journey.

  3. Jimbo

    July 17, 2016 3:11 pm

    Thanks for this. I have used that phrase many times. In my own mind it separates my relationship with God from what various churches and people therein told me that relationship should be.

    To me religion is what I practice as part of a congregation — a church, a faith-based fellowship, etc. Spirituality is when I connect one on one with God. There is a relationship, a communication, that is between us.

    So much evil has been done “in the name of the Father”. Perhaps I should discard the words in favor of what happens when two or more are gathered in His name.

    • Bob Toohey

      July 17, 2016 3:42 pm

      Thanks Jim. I think you hit on what are the differing aspects of Religion and Spirituality, without setting one as better or worse than the other. Religion is communal in nature, but it should foster a deeper individual experience. Whereas spirituality is deeply personal, yet if authentic will foster a connection to others.


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