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I am religious, but not spiritual

By the Rev. Dr. Kit Carlson

“I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”

This has become an incredibly popular statement in recent years. In a Beliefnet excerpt from his book, Spiritual, But Not Religious,” Robert C. Fuller estimates that about one in every five people describes themselves this way. The increasing individualism and consumerism in modern culture has also extended into the realm of the spiritual. People who describe themselves this way see spirituality as something private, not public, something personal, not communal, and something they can design and control and devise, rather than something handed to them by an institution of some sort.

Fuller quotes researchers who say such folks are “less likely to evaluate religiousness positively, less likely to engage in traditional forms of worship such as church attendance and prayer, less likely to engage in group experiences related to spiritual growth, more likely to be agnostic, more likely to characterize religiousness and spirituality as different and non-overlapping concepts, more likely to hold nontraditional beliefs, and more likely to have had mystical experiences.”

Practically, this statement—“I’m spiritual but not religious”—has a way of raising a wall between a regular, church-going sort of person and a friend or colleague who has no intention of becoming a regular, church-going sort of person. It says, “Back off. Don’t butt into my private relationship or lack of relationship with the Divine. I know all about you ‘religious’ folks. You want to tell me I’m going to hell or imply there’s something wrong with me. Well, I have my own way of connecting—or not—with God. So shut up.”

Well, that’s how I hear it any way. It may not be what is intended, when the person speaks it. But it cuts. It says to me that the person believes that “spiritual” is somehow more authentic, nobler than “religious”, with its checkered history of pogroms and persecutions, its tedious liturgies and self-righteous evangelistic approaches. It makes me—as a sort of regular, church-going person who actually is religious—feel like a representative of the Spanish Inquisition or a denizen of the shiniest buckle in the Bible Belt.

But I have decided to feel inferior to these “spiritual but not religious” people no more. I am going to claim my identity as “religious but not spiritual.”

What do I mean by that? I mean to celebrate the fact that one can become part of a faith community and enter into its life and practices and find meaning there, without ever having been smacked over the head by a supernatural experience. That one can choose to adhere to the tenets and expectations of a religious community and let that life of following those expectations create a space within one’s soul where the spiritual might occur. That—much like entering into a long marriage, rather than looking to hook ups for love and affection—one might find that the long, tedious, faithful activities of a committed relationship actually can make one a larger and more loving person than one would have been otherwise, left to one’s own devices.

I mean that discipline, duty, and devotion to a religious community can work as well for the spiritual life as it does for the physical life. No one says, “I’m athletic but I don’t work out.” No one says, “I’m tennis player but I have no partners.” To become athletic, a person has to move. It helps even more if one joins a team or a health club or gets a personal trainer. To become a tennis player, you have to play tennis with other people. You can only get so far whacking the ball against a concrete wall day after day.

Religion, admittedly, has brought the world its share of grief. But religion has also given the world hospitals and health clinics, universities and inner-city schools. Religion has fed the hungry and clothed the naked. Religion gave us Habitat for Humanity. It gave us Bach. It gave us Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Religion, faithfully practiced, might even help the “spiritual but not religious” folks to grow more spiritual, to be more connected to God, and to give them fellow travelers on the way who can help them in their spiritual quests.

I’m glad that I am religious. My religious life forces me to think about God even when I don’t feel like it. It inspires me to be a better person than I actually want to be. It connects me to people I never would seek out on my own and helps me to relate to them as my brothers and sisters in the eyes of God. It believes for me when I don’t feel like believing. It prays for me when I can’t pray. It opens the pathway to God for me, week in and week out, and invites me to take another step along the way.

So, yes, I have joined the “I’m religious, but not spiritual” group on Facebook. I honestly think that this may be an idea whose time has come—especially for those shy and staid sort of folks who go to church dutifully every Sunday, cook casseroles for families with new babies, work on the Habitat house, make a pledge, show up at church clean-up day, haul their protesting teenagers to youth group, who remember their church in their will, but who. . . urk. . . cough. . . struggle to offer up an extemporaneous prayer, or to articulate what exactly it is they are doing here, anyway.

There are more of us out there than you think. Religious, but maybe not quite so spiritual.

Rev. Dr. Kit Carlson is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Michigan.

This article originally published in the Daily Episcopalian. Re-printed with permission.

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