Sistine Chapel ceiling, VaticanIf you search the Internet for the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” you’ll get thousands of hits. (Try it on Bing, Yahoo, and Google, if you want.) Here is but one example of many I might offer, from the Louisville Courier-Journal:

About a dozen people huddled at a Poplar Level Road coffeehouse on a recent evening, drawn by the discussion topic, “I’m Not Religious … I’m Spiritual.”

They spoke of their alienation from clergy, creeds, congregations and sermons of condemnation.

They spoke of connection to the divine through laughter and nature, of mystic connections with deceased love ones, of the awe of a newborn baby or the Milky Way on a clear winter night.

People widely assume this phrase has some meaning … but in reality, it’s a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing as “spiritual but not religious.”

This may appear an extreme statement, but it’s not. I base it on standard dictionary definitions of the word “religious.” Have a look at the following such definitions:

Source Definition

Dictionary.Com

a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Encarta Dictionary

people’s beliefs and opinions concerning the existence, nature, and worship of a deity or deities, and divine involvement in the universe and human life

American Heritage Dictionary

Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe

Merriam-Webster

a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices (with religious meaning “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity”)

Compact Oxford English Dictionary

the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods

All of these definitions of “religion” — along with others that I might offer — also cover the meaning of the term “spiritual.” Ultimately, everything “spiritual” is also — again, according to the above definitions — “religious.”

I understand there are folks who object to the trappings of “organized religion.” The Courier-Journal article I cited makes that clear. The truth, however, is that “religion” need not be “organized” in order to be “religion.” Three of these definitions explicitly state that “religion” can be either “personal” or “institutional” — meaning that “organization” is specifically not a criterion for “religion.” It is, therefore, quite possible to have a “non-organized religion” in addition to an “organized religion.”

It’s time for believers in non-institutional or non-standard religious notions — including all the varieties of “New Agers,” neopagans, adherents of Wicca, witchcraft, even Buddhism and other metaphysical philosophies, etc. — to stop misrepresenting themselves and admit what they are: Religious. Honest, it won’t hurt you to ‘fess up to the truth. You might not want to connect yourself to the negative connotations that are usually associated with the word “religion”; but the metaphorical shoe fits, so wear it. If other “religious” folk are making you look bad, then do something about it, instead of trying to divest yourself from them.

Note: I now have a static page which goes over this in a little more detail.

Photo credit: Richard Carter, via Flickr.

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  • Jonathan Bunting

    Well, it looks like you forgot to look up the work "spiritual" and compare it to "religious", because they are not one and the same. They can definitely co-exist, but one is not reliant upon the other.

    Merriam-Webster defines "spiritual" as follows: "of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit : incorporeal <spiritual needs>"

    All this refers to is the acknowledgement of and maintenance of an incorporeal world not limited to the human body. There is not even any necessary recognition of a higher power or of ritualistic observances or of observing a specific view of the creation of the universe, which all of your meanings of "religious" do require. Being "spiritual" is just the acknowledgment of the existence of spirits and/or souls.

    If you're going to try to get technical, actually finish your research instead of just doing half of it…

    • "Spiritual" and "religious" are, in fact, the same thing. That you do not wish them to be the same, doesn't matter. Everything "religious" also fits the definition of "spiritual," and vice versa. Honestly, I get that you don't want it to be this way. I get that you don't want to be called "religious" if you have "spiritual" beliefs. Really, I get it. You don't have to convince me. I understand it. Truly I do. Unfortunately, what you want here, doesn't matter. If there are negative connotations associated with the word "religion" that you wish to swerve out of the way of, that's fine … but it doesn't make that evasion semantically correct.

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