Spiritual But Not Religious

The Church is Called to Embody a Better Faith

Originally Published in Seven Magazine October 2016, please contact for republication.

“You’re really a pastor?” he asked, as I tried to place his British accent. “I’m a pastor… really,” I warmly replied. It was another chance encounter in Montreal, an opportunity to learn someone’s story, and to share my own story as well. A mutual friend had invited us both to a rugby picnic and family day. He was an English professor, moved to Canada many moons ago. His wife was from Alberta and showed equal surprise, but respect, at my vocation. She was into theatre and I told her she should visit our church some Sunday. I explained that our worship was very artistic, and narrative. “I think you would really enjoy it,” I posited.

She was equally open about her beliefs, explaining that she was “spiritual, but not religious.” She suggested a great TED talk by Alain de Botton on the subject. “It’s really amazing; you need to check it out,” she assured me. We exchanged emails and all the customary courtesies. They seemed nice, I thought, and I wondered if they would really like our worship, or would it be too religious for their spiritual tastes?

It was not the first conversation I’ve had in Montreal with a person who is “spiritual, but not religious.” Anecdotally, it’s the most common confession I come across, and that’s no surprise according to the research. A 2012 Forum Research poll indicated that two-thirds of Canadians considered themselves ‘spiritual,’ and yet just half considered themselves ‘religious.’ The ‘religiously unaffiliated’ category, or the ‘nones,” as they are often called, has been a consistently growing category in North America, particularly among millennials. A 2011 Pew Research survey indicated 20% growth among the “religiously-unaffiliated” between 1971 to 2011, with nearly 30% of millennial claiming the designation.

Fortunate Shipwreck

None of this is a surprise here in Montreal where neighbourhoods are littered with empty and aging church buildings. It is a perennial reminder that the era of the church as institution is now gone (be it Catholic or Protestant). To be certain, Quebec is unique. Its ‘sinking ship’ was vividly documented in the 2014, Heureux Naufrage (Fortunate Shipwreck). But the whole of Canada has felt a large-scale shift in the social, intellectual, and moral believability of organized religion.

At the same time, interest in spirituality has not waned, but strengthened, like a plant taking advantage of the decline of its surrounding competitors. It’s hard to imagine anyone 75, or even 50 years ago, claiming to be spiritual and not that the same time religious. How did we get to this paradox of the spiritual but not religious? And, is the church’s shipwreck making way for an overdue reflection on our own religious spirituality?

The Accidental Spiritual Tourist

My gut says that the majority of folks who identify as spiritual but not religious have arrived there by happy accident. Dr. Linda Mercadante, author of Belief without Borders Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (Oxford University Press, 2014), explains that the group is not necessarily the result of those who have been hurt in the church, nor are they against belief or not open to theological reflection. On the contrary, her research uncovered a group who share many values with the religious, especially ethical values and a desire for authentic, meaningful relationships. In fact the SBNR value sacredness and they are not spellbound by old school naturalistic atheism. 

The spiritual but not religious are easier to identify by what they are not rather than what they are.  Generally, the SBNR are suspicious of organized religions and institutions, as well a singular or personal God. They are likely not fans of religious exclusivism, absolute truths or doctrines. They might cringe at a conversation about sin (including the idea of a sinful nature) or heaven and hell (especially hell). There is common ground however. Expect lots of agreement if you want to talk about brokenness and human suffering, virtues like gratitude and generosity, or the practice of simplicity and solitude. 

Mercadante attributes the SBNR trend primarily to a modern cultural shift toward self-fulfillment. The quest for meaning is alive and well among the SBNR, but it allows the “self” to become the center of authority, rather than an outside source. And this is truly worth keeping in mind. As much as there is common ground (especially that we are all seeking, and thinking about these things), mutual appreciation breaks down when it comes to our primary differences, notably at the point of theism, revelation, and where ultimate hope lies. 

How to get back a stolen joke 

It is said that there is really only one rule when it comes to stand-up comedy—don’t steal another person’s material. Interestingly, not all of the SBNR are accidental and some are rather candid about borrowing spirituality from religion. In fact, in the TED Talk that my new acquaintance suggested, writer and speaker Alain de Botton suggests a new version of atheism that unapologetically steels aspects of religion in order to succeed where secularism has failed. 

De Botton suggests that even if you don’t agree with religion, you have something to learn from it, namely because religions are so successful at making sense out of life. Secularism has not proven to be particularly effective at offering morality, guidance, and consolation. And this is where secularists can steal a play out of the ‘old time religion’ book People are indisputably in need of urgent help, says de Botton. But rather than get that help from Scripture, he says, it can found in culture. He even suggests that atheists become better sermonizers (telling people how to live) rather than just secular lecturers (simply giving information).

Tastes great, less fulfilling?

Perhaps an organized effort of atheists sermonizing humanist ideals in the cloak of spirituality should frighten us. What if spirituality without religion works after all?

We should be awakened, but it is telling that the trend of SBNR comes as much from a dissatisfaction of secular humanism as it does from a dissatisfaction of religion.

But can those searching for meaningfulness really find what they are looking for in a faux spirituality, lite-spirituality… you know, the one without all those religious calories?

Christian author and philosopher James KA Smith describes their thirst,

 “Even the secularist is pressed by a sense of something more – some ‘fullness’ that wells up within (or presses down upon) the managed immanent frame we’ve constructed in modernity.”[1]

I think this is what the spiritual but not religious are feeling—eternity in their hearts. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that not only has God placed eternity in our hearts, but that none of us can fathom all that God has done (or is doing). We are good at knowing our spiritual need, but help comes from beyond our immanent resources.

The RBNS, Religious but not spiritual 

My greater concern though is the Church’s witness. I’m concerned about followers of Jesus being religious but not so spiritual. And I think the church’s weakness in connecting belief with genuine practice has been exposed. Correct doctrine has long been a priority of the Evangelical church in North America (a legacy of Protestant Scholasticism). But now more than ever our aim must especially be conversion or spiritual transformation(our Puritan-Pietist legacy).  It’s funny how this spirituality used to simply be called… piety

Right religious beliefs without spiritual practice (piety) is simply empty orthodoxy and non-believers have a right to criticize our hypocrisy. The legitimacy of our beliefs is utterly tied to the authenticity of our practice, not only as individuals, but also as a corporate People of God.

This might be a hard pill to swallow for the church today, but for the SBNR, authority is not found in the text itself (the Bible), but rather authority is found when it is seen in the transformation of those reading Scriptures. 

[1]Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor

*Photo Credit, Tourné Vers le Cosmos, by Quebecois painter Jean Paul Lemieux, on display at the Le Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.

2 thoughts on “Spiritual But Not Religious

  1. I really enjoyed reading your article. It is so clearly written and it describes well a present reality of the church. You hit a nerve.


    1. Merci Carole, Glad that it resonated with you! Do not hesitate to share or promote anything I’ve written for republication and in French if you know a good traductrice ;-)


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