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In Theory: ‘Spiritual but not religious’

Burbank Leader

The “I’m spiritual but not religious” community is growing, according to a blog post by CNN writer John Blake. It is growing so much, the blogger writes, one pastor has compared it to a “movement.” In a 2009 survey by the research firm LifeWay Christian Resources, 72% of people 18 to 29 consider themselves “more spiritual than religious.” Some say the phrase hints at egotism: “If it’s just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor?” asks one Jesuit priest. What do you think? What exactly does being “spiritual but not religious” mean, and could there be hidden dangers in living such a life?

It’s hard to strictly define this religious movement, but calling it a “buffet” of pop psychology, philosophy and various world religions would be a good start. Put what you want on your plate, leave what you don’t. Essentially it’s just another man-made religion whose only creeds are believe whatever you want and avoid accountability to others.

The page on Facebook rehashes terms we’ve all heard before: “karma,” “evolving your consciousness,” “seekers,” “free thought,” “search for truth independently.” The words “I” and “you” are used quite often; the word “God” is used less frequently. The movement is apparently a reaction against being “controlled” or “labeled” by others, and against the hypocrisy they’ve seen in “organized” religions. It’s “not putting God in a box” or being put in one yourself. It’s a blending of what people think are various truths from different faiths.

A possible strength of such an approach is not accepting something as truth just because someone tells you it is. The dangers of such thinking? First, there is no objective truth, if you’re interested in such a thing. Don’t look too hard for substance — it’s simply not there.


Second, the opinion of man is elevated to deity — your decision is always right.

Third, we have the cautionary example against such a mentality from the Judges 21:25. The popular thinking of those days in Israel was: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Far from being an age of freedom and enlightenment, it was a time of civil war, of repeated apostasy and captivity, of turning to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob only when they were in trouble, and forgetting him soon after he graciously saved them. Unfortunately, that mentality characterizes our age. I applaud all who truly seek God, who said, in Jeremiah 29:13: “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.” But please remember that God’s son, Jesus Christ, said in no uncertain terms: “I am the way.”

Valley Baptist Church



At Unity Church of the Valley, we believe that “all paths lead to God the One Power and One Presence.”

Every Sunday morning, in our opening prayer we pray for the success, well being and the highest good for all houses of worship, knowing that every path will lead to a greater realization of the One Power and Presence, by whatever name it is called.

Charles Fillmore, co-founder of Unity, in his book “The Revealing Word: A Dictionary of Metaphysical Terms,” defines spirituality as: “The consciousness that relates man directly to his Father-God. It is quickened and grows through prayer and other forms of religious thought and worship. “It may appear that with the terms “spirituality” and “religious” we are splitting hairs. I believe that what people mean when they describe themselves as “spiritual” is that they are looking for a connection with their Higher Power or Divine Mind. They feel a part of the unity of all life, accepting the belief that the Life Force is God expressing through all forms of life: human, animal, plant, mineral, etc.

A “spiritual” approach to life is inclusive. It puts the responsibility upon the individual for their own spiritual growth and happiness. Spirituality holds to the belief that everyone is a spiritual being, that everyone is a child of God, that all humans are spiritual beings having an earthly experience.

The reference to a “religious” practice or community is one that is more structured, with the priest, nun, pastor or minister being the intermediary between the member of the church and God. In a traditional “religious” setting, confession, the sacrament (bread and wine, or bread and water) and the hymnal have a prominent role.

Can you be both “religious” and “spiritual”? Of course! In the Sunday morning service at Unity, we sing the Lord’s Prayer and follow with a brief time of meditation before the lesson.

However you choose to define your practice of personal growth and spiritual enlightenment, know that Divine Love and Wisdom are your constant companions upon the path that leads to the One and that all paths (whether described as spiritual or as religious) have good in them.



I generally avoid CNN when looking for objective truth, regarding spiritual matters in particular. But I must say that John Blake’s June 4 article was refreshing, candid and helpful. As I engage in spiritual conversations with the good people of Montrose, everyone, it seems, calls themselves — spiritual but not religious. I humbly confess I find this label increasingly irritating. That is why I am delighted this timely question has been posed.

As I understand it, the word “spiritual” has somehow come to be associated with a private realm of thought and experience, while the word “religious” has come to be connected with the public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal rituals and adherence to official denominational doctrines.

I have only enough space to be uncharacteristically blunt. The spiritual but not religious folks I know are at least three things:

First, if those in the spiritual but not religious crowd are anything, they are alone. They have to be. The minute they unite with other like-minded irreligious people, they’ve created a church or perhaps an “un-church” and, hence, a new religion. A lone ranger approach to God is doomed from the start. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, the very first word he taught them was plural, our. “Our Father who art in heaven.” Spirituality is something we do together. One of my favorite things about the Christian journey is that it forces me to walk with others. I am richer for it.

Second, how does a spiritual but not religious person measure his own spiritual progress? By what measure could this person ever be called successful or devout? The only measure is self. Most of us abhor self-righteous people. Self-righteousness has its own unmistakable scent. Jesus was blistering in his attack on the self-righteous of his day. God opposes the proud but exalts the humble.


Third, spiritual but not religious people are unaccountable. They bow the knee to no one except themselves or a god of their own making. Consider this: The goal of religion is spirituality, but the goal of spirituality is righteousness. Is your self-fulfilling private spiritual journey accomplishing anything noble, holy or sacrificial in your life or does it exist solely to make you feel better in a world created by the one to whom we must all give an account? Spiritual but not religious only makes sense to those with a self-made god.


Light on the Corner Church in Montrose

Religions are distinguished as paths upon which one may encounter the transcendent — that which is greater than we (by whatever name it may be called).

Each religious path is paved with its own unique history, songs, values, prayers, rites of passage and rituals believed to facilitate such encounters, which are considered to be “spiritual” in nature.

For many, the religious path and spiritual journey are one and the same. But for those who have been excluded from their religious path or otherwise hurt by religion, who object to the proven or potential corruptions within religion, the spiritual journey may involve studying/walking the road map of many religions, or of secular wisdom; it may involve forging one’s own path.

Since encountering the transcendent tends to inspire service to humanity and all of creation, those walking the path of religion are often well situated, if/when that actually happens, to join forces with those on the same path — in ways that foster accountability, are socially/environmentally necessary, deeply meaningful and personally transformational.

Those walking self-chosen paths and fortunate enough to meet the transcendent upon them can and usually choose to do likewise.

But it may take a little more work to identify how and with whom to best put their spiritual insights into action.

Unitarian Universalism’s solution is to be a religion offering and encouraging a diverse range of paths for the spiritual journey, as well as many, many vital opportunities for service to that which is larger than we.

It is not uncommon to hear that such shared service is precisely where the transcendent is discovered.


Unitarian Universalist Church of Verdugo Hills in La Crescenta

Jesus Christ came to establish a church, that is a community of people who hear his word, heed it and announce it to the world. Jesus said: “Go out to all the world, preaching my word and baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Paul said: “We are the Body of Christ. That means that we are baptized into Christ’s Body and have the support of the entire community while at the same time offering ourselves and our talents for the benefit of the community.”

In the Catholic faith we have just celebrated the feast of the Blessed Trinity. The Trinity, three persons in one God, is the ultimate model of unity in community.

We are called to a Trinitarian life, a spirituality that is intrinsically linked to others. All of us, many and diverse though we are, are one in Christ and celebrate our unity in Trinitarian community.

Christ also taught us that the way we treat one another is the way we treat him.

This shows us that he is present in community and is the foundation of community. “When I was hungry you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink " And he concluded that: “Where two or three are gathered in my name I am there in their midst.”

It seems that a relationship with Christ outside of community is impossible. We are linked to one another in him.

Our spirituality is founded on this link that comes about through baptism and continues throughout our Trinitarian life together.


St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Burbank

I believe there are many differences between being religious and spiritual.

While this particular article focuses on potential egotism and how spirituality alone may cut one off from the community of believers, which are biblically mandated, I do see a different side to this question.

Scripture does tell us not to abstain from meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). There is absolute truth in “doing life together” through organized religion. We were created for reciprocating relationships, and there is a health to having a support system within one’s church community to share burdens with and help one another in times of stress and suffering.

My view on the difference between religion and spirituality has been more with the matter of: Does one practice a personal relationship with God, or do they practice legalistic, religious and ritualistic ceremonial practices? Religious practice or ceremonial acts, in and of themselves, can simply be going through the motions. This is the “religion” I find unhealthy.

If spirituality means having a deep personal relationship with God that changes life and behavior — this is positive. But to take spirituality and turn it inward where it only includes you and God — and does not extend to helping or worshiping with our fellow man — discounts the very intent the Bible has placed before us. Spirituality and religion are not meant to be practiced alone, but within community, working life out in fellowship, accountability and support.

The spiritual piece is simply a worldview within those parameters.


La Vie Counseling Center in Pasadena

I get the spirit of the “spiritual but not religious” movement. I appreciate the generosity of staying open to all religions instead of choosing sides, and the humility of honoring some transcendent holiness in the world without forcing it into an institutional box.

But, honestly, as someone who is both spiritual and religious, what the “spiritual but not religious” motto sounds like to me is: “I’m American but not a citizen. I like patriotic songs and fly the flag, but I don’t vote or do community service or write to my congressional representative or otherwise take any active, committed role in furthering the good of my country and people.” True for a lot of us — me too, sadly — but not something to trumpet about, as if we’ve found some better way to be.

I’m sure there are some “spiritual but not religious” people who actually and actively pray, read theology, serve the poor, undertake appropriate penitence and reconciliation for their sins and serve the purposes of God in the world in disciplined and visible ways. But I suspect that’s not true for very many.

Burning incense sometimes and wearing an Om T-shirt does not make you spiritual. And frankly, calling yourself spiritual is an insult to those of us who live in the trenches of daily and ongoing engagement with the holy, praying even when we don’t feel like it, submitting ourselves to an ancient tradition that dissolves the borders of the self and taking deliberate steps to deepen our compassion and strengthen our habits of mercy. It’s like telling an Olympic hopeful, “Oh yeah, I’m an athlete, too, I just don’t exercise.”

Religion’s not perfect. It’s the arena in which the reality of human imperfection is wrestled with, so that’s true by definition. But don’t use religion’s imperfections as an excuse for self-involved hardness of heart.

Either find a way to really live the spiritual life on your own — in all its dimensions and with all its hard demands — or find a religious community you can stand, and let them be a tide to carry you into the deeper waters of life in God.

St. George’s Episcopal Church in La Cañada

On the upside for our 72% of young adults, I’ll say that a claim to spirituality of some sort is an acknowledgment that there is meaning and being beyond oneself. This is a great step into awareness that what we do affects other people, the future and the planet. It is, for some, a tentative nod to the existence of untapped reservoirs of wisdom and spiritual counsel that have accumulated over centuries of prayer, meditation, questioning, teaching and practice.

On the downside, I will say that avoiding or forswearing religious community limits your access to the meaningful existence for which you long. (When I say “religious community,” I mean religious community in any of its forms — from a 10-person campus prayer group to coffee shop worship to monastery to mega church to something we haven’t discovered yet.) For it is in religious community that some very important things happen. First, conversations about sacred things and deep meaning happen on a regular basis. These occur because we have committed to engage our sacred texts, and to seek transformation of the soul through prayer and worship.

Second, wise people are present to share with us their experiences of the holy in the midst of suffering and pain. Without their assurances of holy presence and healing, we might think ourselves alone and hopeless.

Third, the community regularly practices the work of reaching out so that our awareness of our effect on others becomes integral to our character.

And fourth, we act for change, and we advocate for mercy and justice — doing together what we cannot do alone.

Is every religious community healthy and worth your investment? Absolutely not. You should not stay in a place where deep questions of faith and life are never engaged, or where the members do not attempt to live a life coherent with their stated religious beliefs. Avoid those places, by all means, but look for one of the many healthy religious communities in Los Angeles. The one that will nourish you is out there — the one that will help you say with a thoughtful dignity: “I am spiritual AND religious.”

Crescenta Valley

United Methodist Church

This reminds me of the previous, “I believe in God just not organized religion” community. They are the same. People not fitting into the atheist/agnostic lump and haven’t yet formed conclusive theology often say such things. They may not think there is God truth, or they collect what appeals to their own values and toss it into some contradictory, hodgepodge, personal religion. And it is religion, whether or not they like the term. Theirs is only disorganized.

Some say “my god would be like thus and such,” meaning they create a god picture (for example, an idol) and conform it to their image, one that never condemns their pet sins. So they affirm spirituality, not religion, because personal opinion doesn’t comport with any belief system that bases its expression in propositional truth (for example, the Bible).

Listen, everyone is “spiritual.” We all possess a spirit, the personal perceiver, so the issue really centers on its care. Perhaps the self-proclaimed “spiritual” folks mean only that they exhibit interest while others neglect this duty. Okay, but I was one of these, haunting the various New Age bookstores and entertaining peculiar notions. I discovered that what this was turned out to be starvation for truth.

We meditate and do yoga looking for fulfillment, but then something hits us: a Christmas play or Easter service, and finally we are introduced to Jesus.

When that happens, spirituality takes on new meaning. No longer satisfied with pontifications from dudes wearing saffron robes, we start listening to God as he has specifically revealed himself. With such true spirituality, there will always be others of like mind willing to form an organized, productive community.

My religion is concerned with people knowing God and living what he has revealed about himself in Jesus Christ.

It’s the one religion where God reaches down to us rather than us trying to reach up to him, and it’s true.


Montrose Community Church

What does it mean to be “spiritual but not religious”?

In reflecting on this, I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul. He observed that, in the last days, individuals will be “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). Why? There are many reasons for this, but so often individuals forget to go back to the basics, such as read the Bible, pray, follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit and turn their hearts to Jesus Christ.

For Christians, Jesus was clear on what he asked of us. In the Bible, he counseled us as follows, in John 14:4: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” John 3:5 says: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. John 6:35 says, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” The Bible provides us with the guideposts, but are we willing to follow them?

A Book of Mormon prophet gave sage counsel over 1,600 years ago when he said, “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4).

God will direct us if we are willing to ask and follow him. As Jesus said in Matthew 11:29:, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.


La Cañada II Ward of the La Crescenta Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I understand religion and spirituality as being largely synonymous, since both refer to humanity’s efforts to understand and follow the will of its Creator. Spirituality is a means by which one becomes closer to the divine source of the soul — and becomes a better person in the process.

Religion is a specific (often predetermined) path one takes to reach that goal; it usually lays out a system of faith and worship as part of an organized structure. In my view, religious institutions should be configured in a manner that helps people reach their spiritual goals and achieve their full potential.

A central component of religion is being part of an organized, supportive community that engenders both benevolence and accountability.

Establishing spiritual goals together with others creates a sense of responsibility through a system of accountability that is essential to proper spiritual growth. A religious organization also provides an opportunity to receive help from other people and assist those who may need support. And finally, a religious congregation offers opportunities for fellowship with others who share similar values.

The way I understand it, the “spiritual but not religious” movement seems to interpret spirituality as more of a “do it alone” project. I recognize that some very ethical people may not feel totally comfortable with organized religion — perhaps they disagree with certain rules and restrictions established in traditional teachings, or maybe they have been disappointed by the shortcomings of some authority figures.

However, while I applaud any interest in spirituality, I feel that this movement lacks some of the positive elements that are essential for true spiritual accomplishment. My hope is that their spiritual quest will lead them toward the true fulfillment that can only be found when one interacts with others and is part of a greater community that shares a common purpose.


Chabad of Glendale and the Foothills

It is probably better to be spiritual than non-spiritual, because to be spiritual probably means at least letting in the possibility that there is more to life than what can be seen and heard and felt and tasted and touched and smelled.

But come on: When somebody says he/she is spiritual but not religious, I believe that he/she doesn’t really have the guts to say, “I believe this!” My position as a pastor is showing, I admit, and I hope I am both spiritual and religious. But the person who is spiritual and not religious gets to sort of float over life without ever affirming anything.

True, there have been and are some real whack jobs who claim to be religious, and perhaps it’s them who have given the term “religious” a bad connotation.

Still, what kind of man or woman are you? Do you have the fortitude to affirm your belief and be religious or be firmly non-religious, or are you just going to remain in that ethereal haze of being “spiritual”?

You certainly aren’t going to offend anyone being “spiritual.” But I like what the reformer Martin Luther said one time: “If you sin, sin boldly!”

I feel that way about being religious. To say “I am religious” is a bold statement. To insist on being spiritual and not religious is to insist on being a wimp!