Should we be spiritual AND religious?

By Joan Ballauthor, blogger Reading through some of the more than 3.6 million articles that show up on a Google … Continued

By Joan Ball
author, blogger

Reading through some of the more than 3.6 million articles that show up on a Google search of the term spiritual not religious one thing is clear — not much is clear about this growing but difficult to define category of believers. While the term has been used for decades in recovery and new age circles, a widely cited report from LifeWay Resources stating that 72% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 consider themselves to be “more spiritual than religious” has spurred interest in the perceived distinction between spirituality and religion and its implications.

Beyond the loose sense that spiritual is less rigidly defined and more inclusive than religious, it is tough to pin down a firm definition of spiritual not religious. Apply the term within the context of a specific faith tradition like Christianity and spiritual not religious can become downright confusing.

The more spiritual folks I encounter tend to push against systems and dogma and call for a more organic expression of their faith. They refer to themselves as followers of Christ rather than Christians in an effort to distinguish themselves from the “other Christians” who, they believe, have given Jesus a bad name. Being the hands and feet of Christ in the world by loving God and loving neighbors of all genders, races and sexual orientations trump the “culture wars” for more spiritual than religious Christians.

The religious folks view this departure from doctrine, creeds, traditions and a more literal view of Biblical teachings to be an attempt to have one’s spiritual cake and eat it too. The road to salvation is narrow, the religious say, and the pursuit of holiness through obedience to the teachings of Jesus, the Bible and church hierarchy is at best neglectful and at worst a cop out fueled by spiritual laziness or a lack of discipline.

As an adult convert to Christianity who was an atheist through my 20s, became spiritual not religious in addiction recovery in my 30s and had a Christian conversion at age 37, these distinctions challenge my sense of the life of Jesus and what it means to follow him. My unfolding understanding of Jesus is that he was both spiritual AND religious. He did not despise tradition – what we might call “organized religion” – as much as those who corrupted it with their selfish and hypocritical behavior. He advocated freedom, yet was completely submitted. He served the poor and downtrodden but retreated frequently to commune with the Father. He hung out with outcasts and criminals but was not afraid to name their sins and call them to repentance.

So what if both sides of the spiritual not religious argument are missing something? What if radical love and service do not have to be at odds with obedience and holiness? How would religious institutions be impacted if their members were more spiritual in addition to being devout followers? What if those who identify as spiritual not religious embraced tradition through their lens of radical love and service? And what if both pursued a more humble, less contentious understanding of the other in the spirit of dialog rather than debate?

I am not sure what this kind of spiritual AND religious faith might look like, but I am willing to live in the tension to find out.

Joan Ball is the author of “Flirting with Faith: My Spiritual Journey from Atheism to a Faith-Filled Life,” blogs at Beliefnet.com and teaches in the business school at St. John’s University in New York.

About

  • LeeH1

    Spirituality without religion is like love without commitment. It is easy to acquire- it is difficult to develop. Religion gives structure to spirituality- it gives a community of like minded people to discuss and exercise with in spiritual development. Religion, although dispised by people who want something less, gives discipline and guidance into developing your spiritual life into something wonderful and rewarding.Without religion, spiritualism can wander, become untrustworthy and can slip through your fingers. Guidance by prayer, mentoring from priests, rabbis and ministers, can lead to exercising and exploring your spiritual path and direction. Without it, you are alone, without a map, without a discipline, and without a community to help. Lonely people can be spiritual. Many hermits and those who leave human contact become spiritual. But most people, who live structured lives of work and family, cannot afford the time and study needed to become more spiritual, without the help and guidance of organized religion.It always amuses me that people spend more time deciding on thier bank than they do their religion. A good religion gives more return on investment than any bank did, or can.

  • wolfeja

    To me, religion is the human centered effort to reach for God. I think of organized religion as the scaffolding on which to base that effort. That scaffolding is not God, but it can be very helpful in our search. I attend a liturgical church. In my mind, none of the traditions and trappings of the church are necessary for a relationship with Christ. However, they do fostor a worshipful environment.

  • haveaheart

    “How would religious institutions be impacted if their members were more spiritual in addition to being devout followers? What if those who identify as spiritual not religious embraced tradition through their lens of radical love and service?”These questions and others posed by Ms. Ball overlook a single, critical distinction between adherents of organized religions and what she terms the “spiritual not religious” crowd.The religious people have rules — defining both what to believe and how to behave — that members must accept and obey. Additionally, they are expected, to varying degrees, to share their beliefs with others in hopes of capturing converts.Conversely, the spiritual people aren’t concerned with anyone else’s religion; they find spiritual meaning in that which mainstream religions often overlook; and they aren’t interested in pressing their belief or non-belief system on anyone else.Consequently, there’s really no reason that these groups need to find a way to shake hands.The truly spiritual folks will keep to themselves and simply live their beliefs quietly instead of talking about them; they’ll be available to society as helpers if they’re needed, but they won’t be trying to change anyone’s opinions, beliefs, or behaviors.The religious folks will presumably continue trying to change everyone else and bring them in line with the tenets of the particular religion they follow. Or, to be fair, the ones who don’t proselytize will simply continue to live their lives according to their beliefs but will have no investment in what others believe.

  • CheneyinChains

    In my view, we must eliminate organized religion from our minds and our hearts – it sows the seeds of hatred and divisivness by its very nature: if I am a member of the Church of X, then Church of Y is not the true church. You can deny it, but that is what happens. Worse, the teachings of organized religion (at least the Abrahamic vindictive & violent sky-father variety) are chock full of demostrable untruths and inconsistancies. “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”– Albert Einstein, in a letter responding to philosopher Eric Gutkind, who had sent him a copy of his book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt; quoted from James Randerson, “Childish Superstition: Einstein’s Letter Makes View of Religion Relatively Clear: Scientist’s Reply to Sell for up to £8,000, and Stoke Debate over His Beliefs” The Guardian, (13 May 2008)We need the courage and intelligence to seek the truth through science and reason and to have compassion and love for each other and our fragile planet. The dark forces of superstition and dominionist religion work against this from instigating violence to the denial of global warming. For goodness sake we had better wake up before it is too late!

  • haveaheart

    LEEH1 makes this analogy: “Spirituality without religion is like love without commitment. It is easy to acquire- it is difficult to develop.”I would argue just the opposite: religion without spirituality is like a commitment without content; it’s easy to follow but difficult to get anything out of.Organized religions make it easy for people to think they’re being spiritual and “righteous.” Attend church, agree with the teachings, follow the rules, and everything will be fine. No hard work; just agreement, attendance, and obedience.People who say, as LEEH1 does, that “religion gives structure to spirituality” don’t have a clue about what spirituality actually is. True spirituality takes work, and it can’t be described in the childish, overly simplified terms that LEEH1 gives us. Her comment that busy people who don’t have the time to be monks need organized religion to become spiritual is just silly.Spirituality is something that is so often experienced at times and in places where one is not focused on faith or religion. Spiritual connection comes while driving to work, while washing the dishes, while walking in a pine forest or an urban alley, while cuddling a child or a cat, while sitting on the toilet, while eating an apple. But you have to be present in your life to be open to these experiences. And you need to be able to appreciate their significance when you experience them, even if you don’t understand right away what they might mean.If you’re intent on developing your spirituality, you’ll think about moments in which you’ve had a spiritual sense or connection of some kind, you’ll ponder them; you may pick at their threads or shake their boxes — but you’ll be curious. Some of these experiences will become guiding principles in your life, whether you’re aware of it or not.The point is that real spirituality is not a cop-out. Anyone who tells you otherwise is afraid. Afraid of the hard work and close internal examination that spirituality entails. Or afraid that this truth in some way renders their own belief system erroneous.Organized religion offers a “fast track,” a direct line, to the beliefs your church feels are the right ones. It’s much harder to work at finding the values and principles that are meaningful to you through a responsiveness to spiritual experience, but the authenticity of your spiritual feelings is the ultimate reward.

  • Carstonio

    Spirituality doesn’t have to involve any beliefs about the supernatural, or any allegiance to an organized religion. A secular spirituality can focus on mindfulness and introspection, where the individual uses the practices of contemplation and meditation instead of appealing to supernatural beings through prayer. Support from like-minded practitioners can be of value, but too often organized religion focuses on dogma.

  • bruce18

    Interesting viewpoint. I think our society is missing the element of Christ you described as: He hung out with outcasts and criminals but was not afraid to name their sins and call them to repentance. First, We don’t acknowledge any behavior as sinful, eg abortion and homosexualitySecond, We don’t want outcasts around, eg sex abuser registries and Third, We don’t forgive, but rather try to get even, eg lawsuits for damagesI think spiritual is allows us to avoid these hard truths.

  • vigor

    What about all the people that are Religious, but NOT Spiritual, i.e. those who go to church and can spout dogma, but their actions and behavior in their daily lives are heartless and phony?We have MILLIONS of them in this country.It tears away at the credibility of Religion.

  • catherine3

    I wish someone would define spirituality in a way I could understand. I have never really been able to grasp what people mean by saying they are spiritual. It seems very ill-defined and nebulous, yet just about everybody uses the term like they know what they are talking about.

  • Chops2

    bruce18: Do u think god isnt sinful? Mass slaughter of innocents at Soddom, disease, plauge, slavery, child sex abuse by the church. C’mon man, get real.God created man is his own image, which means he created homosexuals, which must mean he is bi-curious. Just an observation…..

  • Vox__Populi

    We should be neither

  • bob2davis

    You, joan, are a piece of work who has the balls to write and express your idiocy. No real atheist converts to christianity. You obviously gave absolutely no rational thought to any of your “spiritual” choices. Stop writing before everyone realizes you are nothing but a fraud.

  • jadedunicorn

    seems like most of the comments refer to religion as the jewish-christian-islam “holy father-trinity” as the only religion acceptable and that to be spiritual you must have some sort of organization to lead you to the “correct” understanding that is not the case. a problem is not spititual versus religion but rather what one sees as their way as the only way. each of us must choose for ourselves and allow others that freedom

  • KT11

    Vigor wrote: “It tears away at the credibility of Religion.” — Credibility and religion! There, that’s an oxymoron.

  • wdrudman

    Everyone should be required to read Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling”. Has everything to do with the “leap of faith” (spirituality) and nothing to do with Religion (structured set of guidelines of how other people think you should live your life). Even without a personal relationship with the Almighty/God/trees/unicorns/whatever, one gets a practical understanding of what “faith” (and not “a Faith”) is and the understanding that it is intimately personal (redundant, I know), differs for everyone, and is ultimately uncommunicable. Communal rapture masks true faith.

  • rohit57

    In five words, “Spirtiuality is copyrighted by Christioanity.”Give me a break! There were nations which found spirituality before Jesus was even born.Christians, learn a little humility – remember that that is what Jesus advised.

  • truthhurts

    Very simply, there is ample spiritual teachings contained within all biblical writings if you search for them. Some writings have been lost and found through the ages. Research a Syrian Pagan who is now a Catholic Saint, I found out he was taught the “mysteries” of Christianity by Saint James.Has been an honor and privilege adding my two cents through WAPO discussions. I have written to customer help to remove my account now. Obviously, I need to spend more time with my family ;).

  • jontomus

    God created man in his own image.Not much of a god, this God.

  • elizdelphi

    Most people today are basically seeking happiness through the pursuit of pleasure; “spiritual not religious” makes sense to such people. Religion orients the person toward something higher than mere pleasure or feelings–personal love of God and others. Jesus Christ, God made Man, painfully yielding his will to that of his Father (God), dying for love and mercy toward his betrayers and killers, ultimately toward all of us sinners that we might be children of God, reconciled to God, is in the Christian understanding the ultimate, definitive reality of love.The Christian tradition most certainly says, however, that we’re made for happiness. The wise discover that virtue is key to happiness (Aristotle also said so), and that God Himself, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, IS that happiness, the ultimate desire of our whole being. “Your love is better than life,” sings the psalmist to God. Growth in virtue entails self discipline and often learning HOW to practice virtue, by listening to Scripture and the teaching of the Church about the truth about Love, it also requires the grace of God, which we ask for in prayer. Saint Paul says “we are collaborators of your joy.”The joy we’re made for is a joy we’re not even fully capable of in this life–the joy of heaven, the direct vision of God enjoyed by the Saints. To gain a sense of this, to gain the real and heavenward values of Christianity is an incalcuable grace. Likewise it is a grace to gain a sense of the agony of eternal tormented separation from God which is the nature of hell, the destiny of those who have in life knowingly and willingly rejected God and refused to follow his ways. God is Love. We have free will and therefore the awful power to choose the path of death, but God wills that we choose life and love, and have faith and trust in the salvation that comes to us through Jesus Christ. We receive Jesus Christ through the Church, which he founded. Christians belong to him, members of his Body, through Baptism and communion with the Church. The Church, as a body, is a visible and concrete unity.To be a spiritualnotreligious follower of Jesus all by one’s lonesome, is ultimately nonsense.

  • jontomus

    Alcohol and some other drugs induce the brain to produce beta-Endorphins. It has a strong influence on human behavior, this morphine-like drug.People who want to separate religion from spirituality are more aware of the fraud and nonsense involved in religion, but still want that kick.Spirituality is the same kind of addiction as any other. It’s really a form of self-abuse, if I could only use the real word here.

  • bigbrother1

    Religions are what happens to spiritual insights when people become attached to their forms rather than their meanings. First the meanings rot and then they petrify.No matter their background, spiritual people have something to offer to the world. No matter their tradition, religious people are a blight upon humanity.

  • Secular

    Investing in religion is an absolute waste of time energy & human resources, next is spirituality.

  • jamesdcarroll

    One way of looking at it…We all try to handle these matters one way or another…

  • fendertweed

    I see no inherent and necessary connection between spirituality and religion.If it’s there for you, good. But don’t take your particular viewpoint and try to oppress me or others with it. Marx was right about one thing: religion IS the opiate of the masses.I am very spiritual but I abhor all organized religion.That doesnt’ in any way mean that I don’t conduct my day-to-day life in accordance with familiar tenets of many religions, such as the Golden Rule, karma, etc.The blowhard American Taliban religious types who act like anyone who does not toe their line can’t be spiritual or righteous are hypocrites, failures of their own religious principles, and have no right to claim any moral high ground in any conversation.

  • lidiworks1

    You can be both spiritual and religious, but being spiritual I think is more important, because one can make a religion (the actual form and rules associated with “diety” or concept worship)out of anything; therefore, making morality relative and hypocracy overwhelming. For example, that’s why you can have so many denominations in the Christian religion. There are a lot of people out there who just don’t like the ritual associated with religious practice, although it has a place also. However, regardless of your belief, it is always better to walk the walk, than talk the talk. We should always strive for balance in our lives and one thing holds true for all religions across the board–respect/love yourself, the earth, and others.

  • Revcain777

    Great article. “I am spiritual not religious” folks tend to point out The Crusades, The Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials, and molesting Priests to justify their opinion of disliking organized religion. And yes, on these alone they SURE have a vital point. However, I-hate-organized-religion folks fail to make note of the hospitals and universities begun by….yes, organized religion. Also, ask the suffering in Haiti what they think of organized religion – probably quite thankful. Also, do the anti established religion folks refuse Christmas gifts which have emerged from an organized religious holiday? I doubt it.

  • YondCassius

    Spirituality tends to seriously corrupt one’s rationality; religion absolutely corrupts it.

  • sunnie2

    As a Christian I should make an effort to live by what the Bible says using Jesus as the example. I am not a judge of others, but the “Word” of the Bible is. That is what the spiritual/religious need to be concerned with. God says that He loves all but hates sin (which is what separates us from God). God’s “Word” says that not all who say Lord, Lord will enter into heaven, but those who do the will of the Father. It will be the “Word” of God that will judge each of us. By reading the Bible, the “Word” of God and asking for His wisdom we can understand what God is saying to us and what is right and wrong. If you don’t read the Bible daily and ask for His wisdom to understand, you and I will never be able to recognize truth.

  • Parsley1

    Joan writes:”As an adult convert to Christianity who was an atheist through my 20s, became spiritual not religious in addiction recovery in my 30s and had a Christian conversion at age 37, these distinctions challenge my sense of the life of Jesus and what it means to follow him.”It’s interesting that Joan’s path to organized religion first led her through a “spiritual not religious” experience in her recovery. I believe if she didn’t GET the spiritual concept during her experience in recovery it may not have led to a religious conversion.”What if those who identify as spiritual not religious embraced tradition through their lens of radical love & service?”This has to be the worst sentence in this essay. The author ridicules those who are spiritual not religious because they have not made a radical embrace of traditional religion like she did. This is hubris! The author’s own very cloudy lens judges negatively those who are “spiritual not religious” providing “radical” love & service. The author implies there is something wrong with spiritualists who provide love & service. I want to know her explanation of what “radical” love & service means. Is it hippy/dippy new age spirituality and, gosh, that’s bad. Does it mean that spiritualists who proselytize to others about the concept of love & service is a bad thing because the dogma of a traditional religion is left out. It’s amazing to me that her cloudy lens were even able to see Jesus (a higher power). I don’t think Jesus (a higher power) cares how we get to love & service (radical or not) just that we’re there. Those who cannot accept the premise that love & service has no ideology are just ignorant

  • Parsley1

    Joan writes:”As an adult convert to Christianity who was an atheist through my 20s, became spiritual not religious in addiction recovery in my 30s and had a Christian conversion at age 37, these distinctions challenge my sense of the life of Jesus and what it means to follow him.”It’s interesting that Joan’s path to organized religion first led her through a “spiritual not religious” experience in her recovery. I believe if she didn’t GET the spiritual concept during her experience in recovery it may not have led to a religious conversion.”What if those who identify as spiritual not religious embraced tradition through their lens of radical love & service?”This has to be the worst sentence in this essay. The author ridicules those who are spiritual not religious because they have not made a radical embrace of traditional religion like she did. This is hubris! The author’s own very cloudy lens judges negatively those who are “spiritual not religious” providing “radical” love & service. The author implies there is something wrong with spiritualists who provide love & service. I want to know her explanation of what “radical” love & service means. Is it hippy/dippy new age spirituality and, gosh, that’s bad. Does it mean that spiritualists who proselytize to others about the concept of love & service is a bad thing because the dogma of a traditional religion is left out. It’s amazing to me that her cloudy lens were even able to see Jesus (a higher power). I don’t think Jesus (a higher power) cares how we get to love & service (radical or not) just that we’re there. Those who cannot accept the premise that love & service has no ideology are just ignorant

  • Parsley1

    It’s interesting that Joan’s path to organized religion first led her through a “spiritual not religious” experience in her recovery. I believe if she didn’t GET the spiritual concept during her experience in recovery it may not have led to a religious conversion.”What if those who identify as spiritual not religious embraced tradition through their lens of radical love & service?”This has to be the worst sentence in this essay. The author ridicules those who are spiritual not religious because they have not made a radical embrace of traditional religion like she did. This is hubris! The author’s own very cloudy lens judges negatively those who are “spiritual not religious” providing “radical” love & service. The author implies there is something wrong with spiritualists who provide love & service. I want to know her explanation of what “radical” love & service means. Is it hippy/dippy new age spirituality and, gosh, that’s bad. Does it mean that spiritualists who proselytize to others about the concept of love & service is a bad thing because the dogma of a traditional religion is left out. It’s amazing to me that her cloudy lens are even able to see Jesus (a higher power). I don’t think Jesus (a higher power) cares how we get to love & service (radical or not) just that we’re there. Those who cannot accept the premise that love & service has no ideology are just ignorant .

  • talbritton

    It’s all a bunch of gobblygook! You die and you’re dead. Enjoy life while you have it.

  • thebump

    “Spiritual but not religious” is mindless gurgling babytalk.We are “social primates,” as the godless like to remind us. We are made for community. It is preposterous to think that we should grapple with life’s most important questions alone in the back of a dark closet.

  • tojby_2000

    Spirituality: The impulse of some to harbor their existential fears in the arms of an imagined ineffable power.Religiosity: The ritualization of spirituality.

  • MarkDavidovich

    I find “spiritual, but not religious” to be more disturbing than challenging. Their disregard of, or even contempt for, doctrine seems intellectually empty. That is because doctrine is that aspect of religion that appeals to the intellect. Doctrines are (religious) propositions to which one may (or may not!) give assent.They are the things to which the mind commits (or not!). They are the articulations of one’s religion (or of heresy!).

  • PSolus

    “It is preposterous to think that we should grapple with life’s most important questions alone in the back of a dark closet.”How about a well-lit closet?

  • sara1994

    Great article and discussion. Personally, I am of the mindset that says if my spirituality is compromised by the rules of religion, there is something wrong with that picture. My favorite book on this subject is “Being Ourself” by Ty Clement. Never before have I read an author with such an insightful take on life and God. It’s beautiful. I think his link is

  • areyousaying

    “….doctrine is that aspect of religion that appeals to the intellect..”No, doctrine is that aspect of religion that appeals to the comfort of a closed mind.

  • areyousaying

    Also, do the anti established religion folks refuse Christmas gifts which have emerged from an organized religious holiday? I doubt it.Posted by: Revcain777Do christians refuse to participate in the pagan holidays they adapted to mollify their converts.

  • PSolus

    “Also, do the anti established religion folks refuse Christmas gifts which have emerged from an organized religious holiday? I doubt it.That is the argument that won me over.One cannot argue with such critical, and precise thinking.Congratulations.

  • PSolus

    “Claiming to be spiritual without religious represents the hopes of those who are too busy or lazy to investigate religions and find a practice that makes sense. We have thousands of years of history and voluminous writings on the nature of the transcendent. Sorting through that mass can be a daunting task but ignoring it is a poor solution.”A better soultion is to be neither spiritual nor religious.Works for me.

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