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The Problem With “Spiritual but Not Religious”

“I’m spiritual but not religious.” Have you heard that expression before? I recently had a conversation with someone about faith. After a delay to articulate his beliefs, someone nearby helped by saying, “spiritual but not religious.” “Yeah,” he said, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” This is a common phrase, but it abounds with many faults.

spiritual but not religious

Honesty is attractive. When talking with someone else about faith who doesn’t hold my views, I would much rather hear someone say, “Look, man. I don’t believe in God at all,” than for them to come up with a religious-sounding statement in order to appease my question.

But an honest statement is not always an accurate one. What does someone mean when they use this oft-familiar phrase? Usually, what they mean is that they have a personal one-on-one relationship with God, but they don’t want anything to do with organized religion. They hold to a form of spirituality, but their spirituality is subjective, based on their feelings and needs, and requires no external commitment to others. They decide the rules of what spirituality looks like and can break and bend them however they see fit. It is a commonly adapted phrase in a culture dominated by expressive individualism.

The Problem With “Spiritual but Not Religious”

From an evangelical Christian perspective, here are some quibbles I take with the phrase.

First, the word “spiritual” is not clearly defined.

The confusion starts with the first word. Specifically speaking, what do you mean when you say you are “spiritual?” Historically, the word means of or relating to your spirit or the Holy Spirit, or someone who cares about spiritual matters. It means, at least to some degree, someone who takes interest in God and the afterlife and religious things. What spiritual means for you can mean a totally different thing to others, making it confusing to understand just what you mean when you say, “I’m spiritual.”

Second, the word “religious” is not clearly defined.

The confusion continues with the second word. Specifically speaking, what do you mean when say you are “not religious?” Historically, the word “religious” means someone who does religious things, including: praying, reading a religious book, going to a place of worship, and so on. Nowadays, to say “I’m not religious” often means “I want nothing to do with a religious institution.” The desire is to do religious activity in isolation apart from a formal institution.

Third, I would argue that the word “spiritual” is always connected to the word “religious;” they cannot be separated.

If being spiritual means being concerned with your spirit, the Holy Spirit, or general sacred matters, then you cannot be a spiritual person if you are not doing religious activities. In order to be spiritual, you must be religious. To equate “not religious” only with a religious institution is to misunderstand what being religious means. All spiritual people are religious; all religious people are spiritual.

As you can see, confusion abounds when terms deviate from their original meaning or when terms are molded to fit one’s desires.

This expression is confusing. Though often used with good intentions, deep down the hurt and confusion and ignorance is deeper than is usually admitted. Instead of saying “I don’t know what I believe,” people who say, “I’m spiritual but not religious” are often just trying to find filler words to keep the conversation from being awkward, and what better than a phrase that has received widespread acceptance?

As we have seen, the logic falls flat, and it starts with misunderstanding what the terms in the phrase mean in the first place. If we cannot agree what terms mean, and anyone and everyone gets to decide what they want words to mean, we are not far from the book of Judges, where everyone did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25).

On the flip side, we must be patient with those who doubt (Jude 22-23). We should not sneer or mock those who say things like this, but must lovingly listen and point them to the right path.

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About David Qaoud

David Qaoud (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and founder of gospelrelevance.com. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition, For the Church, and Banner of Truth. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and son. Learn more>