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What do you think this means?


I’ve heard this a number of times, I’ve read it more than that, and I know it is popular with many. Here it is:

“I’m spiritual but not religious.”

What do you think people mean by this claim?

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Robert Angison

posted July 7, 2009 at 1:56 pm

I want all the (supposed) security and identity of religion but don’t want to pay the personal price to commit to it.
It is the height of hypermodernism.

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posted July 7, 2009 at 2:02 pm

I am not tied to any doctrine nor institution. I will define those myself.

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posted July 7, 2009 at 2:03 pm

It means “I want the comfort of God without any responsibilities or demands placed on me”.

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posted July 7, 2009 at 2:03 pm

I think it comes from the negative viewpoint people have of “religion”. They are saying that they desire to be spiritually aware, but do not want to be dogmatic about how that spirituality is expressed or defined. I don’t see this phrase as a negative, but rather a positive. I want to be spiritual, engaged in a relationship with Jesus that transforms the world, but I don’t want to be religious, dogmatic, critical, negative or judgmental to the world around me.

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Bob Young

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:36 pm

1 & 3, I hope you did not intend to come across sounding as superior and condemning as you sounded.
The term “religious” invokes ideas of blind devotion, rigid attention to form, superiority, formal affiliation, and connects with the negative aspects of the history of Christendom (FYI, I would not equate Christendom with the church or the kingdom of God). Religion comes across as man-made.
The term “spiritual” invokes thoughts of humility, active search & discovery, informal relationship, and a focus on the essence rather than the trappings. Spiritual comes across as desiring to connect with the transcendent Creator.
“Religious” people may or may not be spiritual. “Spiritual” people may or may not be religious according to biblical definitions of religious (see James 1).
In general, I’m an ambassador of the kingdom of God who is spiritual neither irreligious nor strictly devoted to any of Christendom’s religions.

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Dave Leigh

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:50 pm

In my experience it’s an objection to organized religion and mostly western religions. It can mean anything from preferring to commune with God in the woods (or on a golf course) to syncretized philosophical and theological views like you might find on Oprah.
On singles’ dating sites, it basically means they don’t go to church but don’t mind you having religious values of your own.

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posted July 7, 2009 at 2:52 pm

I think it means, “I am drawn to God, and I somehow want God in my life, but the people in churches make me nervous.”

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posted July 7, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Sorry Bob (#5), but I agree with 1 & 3, most who utter this phrase or something similar want to be free of any demands, rules, etc. they perceive organized religion as unjustly yoking their members with.

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posted July 7, 2009 at 2:57 pm

1 & 3, I hope you did not intend to come across sounding as superior and condemning as you sounded.
Right back at you.

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posted July 7, 2009 at 3:09 pm

I know a few people who would say this…
can mean several different things.
Often people mean, in the (slightly altered) words of Dan Kimball, ‘I like Jesus, but not the church!’

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Chad Hall

posted July 7, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Nice article by Mark Chaves (Duke Univ and Nat’l Congregations Study) on this, which includes this little tidbit:
“Interestingly, there are more ‘spiritual but not religious’ people today because nonreligious people are more likely to say they are spiritual, not because people are less likely to say they are religious.”

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Jason Powell

posted July 7, 2009 at 3:18 pm

I think it means “it’s none of your business”. For some reason discussing matters of faith has become rather privatized….kind’ve like talking about personal sexual preferences or something…
it tells me that for a “spiritual” conversation to begin there has to be some kind of trust or intimacy developed first. It’s a boundary to protect against either real or perceived abuse in this area.
that’s my take on it.

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posted July 7, 2009 at 3:19 pm

I think all of the comments here are helpful. But I wonder whether the repeated reference to not wanting to be held accountable by anyone. Here I think that people speak of being “spiritual” rather than “religious” because one of the things that “religion” and “religious” suggests is a personal deity like that of Christianity which has authority to hold us accountable. I find that personal aspect to be quite powerful here.
Randy Gabrielse

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posted July 7, 2009 at 3:21 pm

I think what some people mean is that they are not laying claim to any one particular school of thought or faith, but rather that they believe in being good without the baggage that organized religion attaches to these and other ideals.

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John W

posted July 7, 2009 at 3:22 pm

A friend of mine called himself that. I will share how he acted and the sentiment of some of his explanation.
He respected many religions because he felt religious people were obviously spiritual. I think the only thing I heard him comment against were harmful religions — but even then he would look at the spiritual purpose of things even such as human sacrifice (not that he condoned it, but he was not shy about looking at the religious/spiritual drive behind it). He believed in a higher power, but didn’t think it was “God”, “gods”, or any kind of deities. He chose to stay away from organized religion because he felt it blinded their spirituality — it taught being judgmental of other religious beliefs because they became “wrong” by default. He wanted to find the purpose and meaning in everything by removing the prejudice of religion.
I actually learned a lot from his POV. We would debate Christianity vs. his POV and it always left me with a better way of thinking about my religiousness vs. my spirituality.
So, in the end, I think non-religious spirituality is about not wanting the dogma out of a desire to believe in something in your own way. I do not believe it is shallow or weak. In some ways, I have seen it be more open minded, accepting, and loving than those who claim a specific religion.

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posted July 7, 2009 at 3:23 pm

maybe religion = rules and spirituality = relationships

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posted July 7, 2009 at 3:24 pm

I’m with Bob.
Religion is based on relationship with an organization, whereas spirituality is based on relationship with God.
Religion involves public display, whereas spirituality is private.
Religion involves political action, whereas spirituality involves personal action.
Religion provides corporate cover for sin, whereas spirituality means being accountable to God for one’s actions.
Just my $0.02.

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Emily V

posted July 7, 2009 at 3:28 pm

The friends who have said this to me explain that they “don’t believe in organized religion” but think that everyone has spiritual energy, a spiritual path to travel, a part of something that is interconnected with the rest of the universe perhaps. Energy, karma, “being true to your essence,” these things are spiritual but not religious.
My experience and practice of Christianity is at the same time both marvelously inclusive (God can and does reveal truth in myriad places, and doesn’t need Christians’ permission to do so) and marvelously exclusive (only Jesus’ revelation of God can put together all these pieces and set us on a new way, toward being a new person). It’s the exclusive part that I don’t talk about much–it’s a taboo subject with my friends.

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Scott F

posted July 7, 2009 at 3:32 pm

I find it amusing how all the, presumably, religious folk in these comments are slinging judgments and theories around and yet no one has stopped to ponder the idea that the echo chamber of biblioblogdom may not be the best place to explore what outsiders believe. Would that a self-identifying “spiritual” person would chime in?

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Richard H

posted July 7, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Since it is a popularly used phrased, though without any determinate content, I’d have to respond to someone who claimed it as their position with something like, “Tell me more. What do you mean by that?” I can spend all day guessing what they mean – or imposing my own interpretation – or I can ask more questions.

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Travis Mamone

posted July 7, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Usually when my friends say that, it means “I’m into all that New Age hippie stuff.”

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posted July 7, 2009 at 4:26 pm

I’m hellbound and don’t know it?

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Kenny Johnson

posted July 7, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Most of those I have heard say it mean they they believe in some higher power, but not necessarily the God of the Bible. Usually they are interested in Eastern religions and New Age stuff. I guess it means they believe there is more than the physical reality, but don’t want to commit to any specific religion.

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posted July 7, 2009 at 4:52 pm

I agree with #1 and #3.
This usually comes out of the mouths of rebellious types. They do not like being told what to do.
Personally, I roll my eyes when people say it because it is Oprahology and that makes me sick.
Why are we so afraid to submit ourselves to the Bible and its plain teaching and tell others they need to?
Now go ahead and condemn me for acting superior and judgmental…

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posted July 7, 2009 at 5:44 pm

From my POV, “religion” is what we all *DO* – because it’s about how we live, the choices we make, the laws we choose to uphold or not, how we relate to one another (or not), how we listen to one another (or not), and the meaning we make and seek in our days. Some folks, on the other hand, have a “law” of choices and behavior which is conveniently combined with a “law” excluding the possibility of a metanarrative (thought-wrapping) which informs my actions. Thus, “spiritual” and not “religious” – even though they _act_ually do live according to some methodology/religion.
In that sense, Christianity *should be* the opposite of top-down laws and power; it’s an organic understanding of our creative gifts and abilities, how we apply them, how we touch and affect the community around us, the necessity of love. I’m sorry that what is reported about Christianity is so false and abhorrent to so many; it’s impossible to tell whether that’s a product of people calling themselves “Christian” and behaving in ways contrary to that claim, or people naturally pointing out those who claim a metanarrative but who lack humility and love. Many folks quickly ID hypocrites in order to feel better about themselves. If we don’t openly espouse any metanarrative than we feel no accountability to anything beyond the momentary choices and words.

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Kansas Bob

posted July 7, 2009 at 6:24 pm

I don’t go to church.

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posted July 7, 2009 at 6:29 pm
I will never understand, because I am hopelessly religious.
It sometimes means the person reads The Shack, but nothing by D.A. Carson.

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Matt Edwards

posted July 7, 2009 at 7:00 pm

A lot of times it means “I was raised in church but I don’t go any more.”

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posted July 7, 2009 at 7:47 pm

It can mean that someone is new agey and unaccountable, but I prefer to take it in a more positive light, like that they are interested in God, just not religion. I usually say that Jesus felt the same way and paid dearly for it. This weekend my sister-in-law’s boyfriend said he “had no religion” but wanted to understand about new expressions of church (like “emerging”) compared to the denomination he was raised as. I said it is good that he is not religious and asked if he is spiritual at all and he said he is and that lead to a good spiritual conversation about growing closer to God and to each other.

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Rick in Texas

posted July 7, 2009 at 7:57 pm

I’ve said for 39 years that it’s not religion, it’s relationship. When I hear people say that I say “me too” – which usually surprises them because they know I am in church work.
I heard Gary Walter say 10 years ago that it’s good to presume that 3 things are at work when someone begins to show interest:
-there is a drawing (by the Holy Spirit)
-there is a wounding (in the past)
-there is a yearning (to transcend and connect with God)
So that’s what i choose to think it means. Sometimes I discover that #1 and #3 are right. But if I assume they are right, I usually lose any opportunity that might’ve been there.

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Your Name

posted July 7, 2009 at 8:11 pm

In many cases there may be an inner hunger that seems to have little or nothing to do with what they’ve experienced in their churches or organized religion.
I think this can be God’s Spirit at work in them, as well as just part of their humanity, made in God’s image. There has to be more than just this materialistic, day to day existence. They sense it, experience something of it, yet long for something more.

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Ted M. Gossard

posted July 7, 2009 at 8:12 pm

I guess I failed to put my name on that. Ending with: “…yet looking for something more.”

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Dan Kyles

posted July 7, 2009 at 8:47 pm

I think anyone who says this obviously attaches meaning to both the words “religious” and “spiritual”.
I believe you can’t possibly generalize what a person means by this without talking with them; as Richard H fairly points out. It is pointless to passionately debate a subject or prematurely judge, with zero empathy.
If you define religion as a beautiful thing, like a blanket the wraps up your relationship with God, then you can understand bitterness of #1 #3 #9 #24 towards those with a more negative association with the word.
I grew up in New Zealand, and when I hear the word religious, I think of rules and Pharisaical conduct. More importantly, this is the definition I perceive in my ‘not-christian’ friends; I would answer ‘spiritual’ because it invites more questions from them. I’m not offended to be called religious; I attend a local church, serve, tithe, etc… But certainly you have to think of others’ associations to words if you want to communicate with any level of clarity… don’t you think?

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posted July 7, 2009 at 10:50 pm

Agreed that it can mean many things, but often is related to negative connotations of “religious”.
And the negative connotation of that word is not uncommon among Christians as well. I remember hearing a song on Christian radio in the late 70’s where the main line of the chorus was “I’m not religious; I just love the Lord.”

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Scott Morizot

posted July 8, 2009 at 6:29 am

My, my, my. The tone and content of a number of the responses above remind me why I often still feel uncomfortable standing on this side of the fence.
When I used something like that phrase, which probably wouldn’t have been until about my mid twenties or so, I meant that I had been exposed to and explored a number of the more structured (ancient and more modern) religions or gurus over the course of my childhood formation into early adulthood. In my case that would have more deeply been Christianity, Hinduism, Wicca, and Transcendental Meditation. More at a shallow level it would have included some forms of Buddhism, a couple of different flavors of neopaganism, Taoism, Shintoism, some of the Native American beliefs, and similar such things.
Some, like Christianity, I had had pretty negative experiences with and had rejected entirely. Others I had had mixed or even positive experiences with. But I did not feel comfortable operating within the structures of any formal religion or under the guidance of any specific guru. Part of that may have been issues of trust. And so I had a pretty spiritual life, daily experience, and practice, but not tied to any specific organized belief system or person. Decidedly not Christian.
A friend of mine who still uses that expression today and is a bit older than me, uses it in a different way entirely. He was raised Christian and was even a Roman Catholic seminarian for a bit in his youth. His belief system is essentially atheistic. Perhaps “secular humanism” is a label that fits. (Not sure exactly what it means.) But his belief would essentially be that there is no deity or supernatural force and no lasting part of a person that survives death. We are the product of chance through evolutionary forces and are more shaped by those forces than we believe or acknowledge. (And he does have a point there. I’ve noticed many Christians are slow to acknowledge the manner in which our genetic makeup and long-distant evolutionary pressures shape our behavior as human beings today.) However, within that framework, he adopts a number of practices to bring his mind/spirit in line with his body. I know he’s picked up some things along the way from Buddhism. So when he says he is “not religious”, he means atheistic, but still finds value in a spiritual approach to life and the world around him.
Two examples anyway rather than hypothesizing.

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posted July 8, 2009 at 9:01 am

Let?s remember that the ‘spiritual but not religious’ folks are our mission field. My guess is if in our conversations we communicate that they are ?unaccountable?, ?lacking commitment? and ?hellbound? we are probably less likely to bring them much closer to Christ. A lot of those descriptions above may apply to religious people aswell.

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posted July 8, 2009 at 9:47 am

Not familiar with James 1:27

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posted July 8, 2009 at 10:47 am

#26 Kansas Bob,
“I don’t go to church.”
Exactly. But when you say it that way it doesn’t have that same cachet, does it.

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posted July 8, 2009 at 11:54 am

Meaning they “know” God but don’t want any specific church affiliation.

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John W Frye

posted July 8, 2009 at 1:53 pm

I am wine without the wineskin.

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Robert Angison

posted July 8, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Christianity absolutely requires something of its followers. It requires some level of commitment, identification, and devotion.
Christians sometimes make me madder than a NASCAR fan who bought tickets to an Indy-Car race. But I still endure and love them.
Religion has gotten a bad rap. Lest we forget that James said, “Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (1:27)” Christianity requires commitment.
Nearly everyone I’ve met who has said this exact statement is hoping to hold onto their life and dictate how it is lived. The reality is we get more out of life when we give it back to that One who gave it to us to begin with.
You are the Church!
Robert Angison

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posted July 8, 2009 at 2:24 pm

then you can understand bitterness of #1 #3 #9 #24 towards those with a more negative association with the word.
It is remarkable what some people can infer from a single line response to a blog post. Because I have noticed a correlation between people who say things like “I’m spiritual but not religious” and spiritual dilettantism (obvious example: Madonna) I’m somehow “bitter”? Recognizing that some, probably most, people don’t like having obligations laid on them doesn’t make one “bitter”. Nor does it mean that one despise or hates these people or considers them sub-human.

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posted July 8, 2009 at 3:52 pm

I hear the “it’s not about religion; it’s about relationship” thing a lot. Which is funny, especially if the word “religion” comes from a root meaning “to bind or connect”…
We can’t forget how powerful individualism is in US culture. Folks I talk to seem to like “spirituality” (I guess it’s less threatening). But they also seem to want some sense of community; they just have trouble finding it in religion. Some would never imagine finding it there. All the more reason for a church to work at embodying our Story and its emphasis on community.

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posted July 8, 2009 at 7:32 pm

I have a theory that just about the only time a whole lot of church people use the word “religion” in a positive light is when denigrating “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Otherwise we talk about “Christianity isn’t a religion but a relationship” or “faith commitments” or the scholarly among us will compare and contrast various “faith traditions” but hardly anyone ever talks about “religion” — I use the “religion” word all the time and notice that it *really* sticks out like a sore thumb.
Given this, I find it utterly fascinating that we almost universally react so strongly against “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Hmmm …
But basically, I think the “spiritual but not religious” thing varies a lot among people but boils down to a sense of “something far more deeply interfused” without the rigidity of prescribed rituals, rules, and creeds.

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Richard H

posted July 8, 2009 at 10:52 pm

Reading Charles Taylor’s lectures on William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I see some relevant ideas. Taylor sees James’ position as the culmination of the development of the most REAL – or truly valuable essence of religion in the inward, as opposed to the outward or communal. I take this to be very close to the distinction between our current jargon, “spiritual” and “religious.” Taylor says:
(p. 12-13)
“In these regions [the North Atlantic], James’s stress on personal religion, even his insistence that this is what religion really is, as against collective practice, can seem entirely understandable, even axiomatic, to lots of people.”
“Indeed, this is so central to Western modernity that a variant of this take is shared by highly secular peopel. It may take the form of their devaluing religion, because they think it is inseparable from mindless or unreflective external conformity; in other words, because they think that a really inward commitment would have to free us from religion.”

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posted July 9, 2009 at 11:15 am

Institutional Religion & “Church” = Bad
A “have it my own way” personal faith that I never talk about with others unless they ask as well as occasionally giving a few bucks to a charity = Good

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