In Defense of the Non-Religious

September 9, 2011

Google "spiritual but not religious" and a picture of a shirtless, greasy-haired hippie weirding out everyone on the beach will be among the first results.

“I’m spiritual but not religious…”

Few phrases in the English language chap my delicate, pasty hide faster than that one.  It conjures images in my mind of aging hippies playing with magick crystals and talking about faeries and just generally needing a punch in the face because they misspell nerdy words to make them seem more alluring.

Nevertheless, it has come to my attention that despite all evidence to the contrary, not all spiritual, non-religious people are like this.

Then I started really thinking about what it means to be “spiritual” but not “religious,” and it dawned on me that maybe these people have the right idea.

So, just for today, I’m going to suppress all my face punching urges, because I’ve learned a few things about what it means to be spiritual but not religious.

Why Do You Care?

If you’re anything like me, then you bristle at people who claim they can be spiritual without religion.

Why is that?

Is it because we know people are missing out on the joy of organized religion?

Or is it because non-religious, spiritual people seem to have found a shortcut that we didn’t think of?  Most “spiritual” people seem to be just as happy, content and joyful in life as any Christian, and lo and behold, they seem to have done it without all the baggage, politics, and human drama that is so often organized religion.  And that makes us mad because we take pride in how religious we are, and for all the bullcrap we put up with in church, we should be way happier than non-religious people.  Non-religious people should not be allowed to believe that God loves them as much as us!

Show of hands, if you could have all the benefits of organized religion…just without organized religion, who would take it?  Probably a lot of us would rather be “spiritual but not religious,” if we thought we could get away with it.

Who’s In and Who’s Out?

Religious people spend a lot of time figuring out who’s “one of us.”

We create creeds and draw lines in the sand over some little grain of sand in the Bible so we can know who’s really a Christian, and who’s a milk-toast, spineless sissy who doesn’t believe in hell.  Who’s in and who’s out?

And then there’s the non-religious guy who just raises his hand and says, “I’m out.”

Those non-religious types defy control.  They refuse to be categorized and divided and put in little boxes, if that’s what it’s going to take to be a part of religion.  Maybe they already know they don’t believe the right things or vote the right way to be a part of your church.

I know this is a shock to you, but people love to have control over others.  We like to tell others what to do and think.  Reason number two why we can’t stand non-religious people.

I’d Rather Be Religious but Not Spiritual

Now before go on, I do have to take one quick swipe at the “spiritual / not religious crowd.”

That’s a really dumb thing to call yourself.

Two reasons: first, if you call yourself “spiritual,” then you believe that people have spirits.  Therefore, because everyone has spirits, everyone is “spiritual,” whether or not they do “spiritual” things.  So, thanks, calling yourself “spiritual” has told us absolutely nothing about you, hippie.

Second, if you are “spiritual” enough to give yourself such a pretentious label, then I assume you do something to cultivate your spirituality, whether with crystals or tarot cards or illegal psychotropic substances.  You probably haven’t gathered the irony that any little ritual you do to “be spiritual” is your “religion,” therefore, you are in fact “religious.”

Boom, sucka.  I’ll show you who’s religious.  You are.

That being said: Christians, by lowering the boom on these “un-churched” fools, I’ve proven something else to you.

We don’t have a monopoly on spirituality.

The only thing we have a monopoly on is our ritual, our religion.  When we fail at our religion, people won’t buy our spirituality.

Jesus met a ton of spiritual but not religious people.  And he didn’t have so much of a problem with them as he did with the “religious but not spiritual” crowd.

Calling people “un-churched” is a pretty dumb thing to call people, yet strangely correct.  The word doesn’t imply that people outside our control are “unspiritual.”  They’re just “un-churched,” “un-indoctrinated,” “uncontrolled.”

What do you think, Christians?  Is it possible that the “spiritual” crowd has found a shortcut to spirituality?  How little “religion” can you have and still be “spiritual?”

34 responses to In Defense of the Non-Religious

  1. Hi Matt,

    Somebody or another once said, “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth”.

    But what did he know!

    Can it be true that God seeks unconnected riff-raff, people who have not been confirmed, who don’t show up in a pew on Sundays, who even vote a Democratic ticket?

    Over and over again as I read the Scripture I wonder if God is not looking for somebody else instead of me. It seems His criteria for a godly man is not a mold I fit. He appears to prefer guys who are nothing like me. His ways are not my ways.

    And one of us is wrong.

    Only once have I conducted a funeral. I got a call from a large family with widely different denominational backgrounds. They could not agree on what kind of preacher should bury Grandma.

    After bitter discussion, they finally decided that instead of asking any preacher or priest, they would call me.

    The caller said, “John, we know you go to church and all that, but you don’t seem very religious. Would you…”

    I think that was the nicest compliment I’ve ever received as a Christian.

    John Cowart

    • I think that is one of the nicest compliments, too!

    • Well put! I do a lot of volunteer work in our community and I try to keep it under my hat that I pastor a church also. Inevitably it comes up in relationships that develop and I get asked what I do for a living. When I tell them that I pastor a church they get surprised and say, “Really? You’re not like any pastor I’ve met before.” I guess I could take that in a bad way but it is actually one of the most refreshing things I ever hear.

  2. Oh Matt! You crack me up. I talk to people all the time who are “spiritual but not religious”. I actually don’t know where I fit on that spectrum, because I haven’t been very good at religion lately either. But I really want to see what other people have to say. I see John has been here already and I love his comment. Waiting for more!

  3. //I’m going to suppress all my face punching urges//

    You’re a better man than I am sir.

    Have a good weekend.

  4. Those who are of the spirit but be in the spirit…

    A wholatta spirituality going on in the bible…lol…

    You can’t spin it any other way…

    The bible never said…if you walk in the church, if you talk in the church, or if you woship in the church…

    It said…well…replace “church” with “Spirit” in the above statment…

  5. How can the “Spiritual but not religious” crowd discern the spirit? I can’t just assume any old spirit will do. Actually, “spiritual but not religious” concerns me because the thought of someone naively playing with the enemy (who isn’t playing) disturbs me to no end.

    • You are right, Helen. We consider that we have true spirituality and without our religion, we can’t access it. That said, people prove that some kind of spirituality is possible without religion. Call it paganism or whatever, people find it fulfilling.

  6. I used to hear that at AA meetings for 25 years. What most of them meant was I have found a connection to God, but I don’t care for the church because it did nothing for me (except maybe pile on some guilt). I used to hear people say I am recovering alcoholic and Catholic (or Baptist).

    Religion is a killer that leads those who truly seek after God farther from the truth because they think they posses it. Just because you ow an Bible doesn’t make you a Christian, or because you own a Quaran doesn’t make you a Muslim, and going to McDonald’s doesn’t make you a hamburger! That is what religion is like.

    But the Kingdom of God is different, it is at hand, it is as it is in Heaven, it is the Spirit (with power) dwelling in us perfectly! What does it look like on the outside? It looks like love, like healing, like feeding the poor, like prophesying, like casting out demons, like making disciples, and even laying down your life.

    “Spiritual” is a religion, and a poor excuse for not fully seeking the things of God. It is wrapped up in it’s own smugness, pride and ego.

    For they truly spiritual, then know Jesus, and hear his voice.

    Sorry, this is one of the subjects that is just more intellectualism BS and religious mubo-jumbo.

    Read my blog and I will tell you how I really feel.

    Thanks, Matt for the discussion!

  7. I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve let “religion” become a negative term. James defines pure religion as caring for the needy and keeping oneself unstained by the darkness of the world. Those seem like pretty positive things to me.

    The dictionary defines “religious” as this: “imbued with or exhibiting religion; pious; devout; godly” and religion as this: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially 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.” Again, positive things.

    But now there’s a negative connotation to those words, and that saddens me. I think that Christians are partly to blame, but so too are non-Christians. Certainly, hypocrites that we all are, we’ve driven people away with our legalism and sanctimonious attitudes. But at the same time, I think that “I’m spiritual but not religious” can sometimes be code for “I want the good feelings and lovey-doveyness associated with God without the responsibility of obeying Him.”

  8. What’s that thing about “true religion is taking care of widows and orphans”? I think, as you point out, “religion” should not be about rules that miss the heart of God, but rather that the religious activities we partake in should spur us on to love and good works so people see them and glorify God (I borrowed that from somewhere too).

    The thing that wigs me out about the “spiritual but not religious” types is that they go too far the other way. Rather than getting caught up in the details of “right living,” they tend to slip into the “too spiritually minded to be of any earthly good.”

    It seems like this should be a balance, which we are notoriously bad at. May we follow Christ as He modeled both self-sacrifice and pragmatic blessing as well as diligence in religious and spiritual observation.


  9. I just did a quick search for the word “religious” in the Bible, and in all cases the context is pretty condemning. God is plainly disgusted with religion that consists of a set of rules, that assuages the conscience without actually connecting with Him.

    I hope I’m spiritual but not religious. When I met Jesus, religion had nothing to do with it. Even now, 38 years later, I have little patience for ritual, rules, and church traditions that don’t bring me closer to God.

  10. The problem I’ve seen is that most people use that “non-religious/spiritual” angle to avoid going to church or being a part of a group of believers. The Scripture clearly tells us to not avoid gathering together as some have done…and most “non-religious/spiritual” people are doing just that. I have little time for the BS inside church today. The cliques, the lack of concern for others in their own pews while trumpeting how you help people half way around the world, etc. But that doesn’t mean we should stop gathering together. If I could find a way to meld gathering together with the ethos of the “spiritual” folks I probably would.

  11. I guess it depends on how you define religion. If it is the pharisee variety than I rather not have anything at all to do with it, like those talked about in the post. If however it is the kind of religion as described by James as being perfect, then yeah sign me up.

  12. Can I just say I agree with all your points and that this is twice in one week you’ve cracked me up?



  13. Regardless whether its religious or spiritual, the connection with God steeped in 1,2,3 style recipe steps to reach a predetermined outcome will only prove to provide a superficial emotional relief.

    /And then there’s the non-religious guy who just raises his hand and says, “I’m out.”/

    It just pisses us religious people off when someone bows out and we loose the chance to exclude them.NOT FAIR. BOO.

    Over the last year of prayer and trial I think I want to be “Spiritual but not religious.”
    Thanks Matt.

  14. Hi. My name is Donnie Thompson and I’m a recovering Pharisee.
    “Hi Donnie.”

    I just about shot a Cheerio out of my nose when I read…”Boom, sucka.” That is exactly the kind of turn the tables style that Jesus used…as a matter of fact I think Jesus actually said–Boom sucka, go pull that 2X4 out of your eye socket and to the Pharisees–Boom sucka, you work really hard at making your followers look more like the devil than you!

    We church people are so full of ourselves aren’t we? We have a scoreboard that tells us who is winning and who is losing. Your blog today did a great job of breaking down a little bit more of what our scoreboard looks like and how ridiculous it is.

  15. haha this is funny, i was just talking to jesus about this earlier this morning as i was mowing the lawns. i would like to think of myself as a ‘spiritual but not necessarily religious’ person, and i guess i would like others to think that of me too…

    what i am starting to wonder though is when did religious become a bad adjective? do i describe myself or my jesus as ‘non-religious’ because i am trying to make us sound more attractive or just not plain weirdo?
    is the fact that i think so much about ‘not being religious’ proof that maybe i am? cos im so concerned about it? which then leads me to slide in a word like shit into my prose just to make sure you know im not…

    or what about that only ‘religious’people care so much about defining what is and what isn’t, and all the while the real ‘non-religious’ people dont actually care or even notice the different categories we use?

    even as i write this i feel more strongly that we are, actually, THAT I AM missing the point if i keep making litle sub-boxes to put life and people into. the god i know is wild, passionate and impossible to contain, he can be found outside of religion, inside of religion (and im not even sure if im even refering to christianity exclusively), basically, he’ll be discovered where-ever someone is looking for him…and i guess even when people aren’t aswell.

    i am proud to call myself religious if it means taking care of the widows and orphans (like some people mentioned before).

    i am proud to call myself non-religious if it means that i am seen as an accessible person who actually genuinely cares about people and their lives more than converting them.

    i am proud to call myself a chirstian, if it means i TRUST jesus.

    i am proud to call myself not a chrsitan, if it means i dont just believe or have faith in a certain idea/concept/worldview.

    i guess for me it comes down to this, what do you mean when you say religious, what do you mean when you say spiritual, and by looking at the way i live my life, tell me what i believe and what sub-catogory i fit into…over a cold beer and the occassional cuss word of course, cos that is what it means to be spiritual but not religious aye 😛

  16. It is evident that religion has been created by men for men.In most cases to hold back men.the origin of the Churches started in Roman and Constantine, before this their were no religious gatherings but spiritual ones as the scriptures Paul said:

    Romans 7:14

    14For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.

    So we know that true spirituality is the keeping of Gods commandments, religion should only become a part of our daily routine when we know what Gods commands are, not the traditions we have grown up with, such as Easter, Christmas etc


  17. I would probably be called spiritual and religious (maybe even unspiritual or unreligious??!-you never know) depending on who you ask. All I know is that I am a child of God and I love Jesus and I need a community to continue to grow closer to Him and to stay on the path that leads there. Is that being religious? Is that community called a “church?” I can’t imagine being able to do it any other way. But that’s just me.

  18. A friend’s estranged husband bills himself as an atheist (based on his own words, he’s really an agnostic, but rather militant about it). I informed him I was Protestant (denominational labels just don’t work outside of churches when trying to identify yourself, I find). “Oh,” he typed in our chat. “So you’re not religious then.”

    And I happily conceded the point.

    And then I delivered a crushing blow: my husband’s a youth pastor, and my family goes to church on a (frighteningly, to him) regular basis. I wholeheartedly believe in my faith. Organized religion has its drawbacks…particularly if you’re just using it as a way to classify yourself as “spiritually” superior.

    I think he had the same Cheerio reaction mentioned above. (I would have loved to see that, truly.)

    I expounded. I see my faith as a way of life, not so much as a religion. “Religions” can draw some pretty stupid boundaries. (“You don’t like our red carpet?! How dare you! Excommunicate!” Yes, I know of a church that split over the color of the sanctuary carpet.) I hold to this creed more than my denomination: If your heart belongs to Jesus, then you belong with me.

    Now, I love my church. My husband is on staff, so we kinda have to go there. But I love my church. I love the senior pastor, who’s a great guy and a good boss. I go because it’s “required” as being part of the pastoral staff, but more than that, I go because I love being part of a community of like-minded folks. I enjoy spending time with these people. They are my friends. They encourage me and lift me up. So, yeah, for that? I’ll be “religious.” Beyond that…what matters isn’t so much my denominational ties or which stain-glass-bedecked building I go to or where I throw my fiscal support. What matters is that these people belong to Jesus. Therefore, I belong with them.

    To have a denomination of any credo that will exactly line up with EVERYTHING I believe is to create my own church with a population of one, with room for no one else, for no one else’s views will 100% match mine.

    Which sort of defeats the purpose of the church…edification of believers, and a mission to bring others to the same communion with Christ.

  19. Or, as Paul told the folks on Mars’ Hill, I see that in all things you are too religious.

  20. I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog! On this particular subject I chuckled out loud when you said this, …if you are “spiritual” enough to give yourself such a pretentious label, then I assume you do something to cultivate your spirituality, whether with crystals or tarot cards or illegal psychotropic substances. You probably haven’t gathered the irony that any little ritual you do to “be spiritual” is your “religion,” therefore, you are in fact “religious.”
    So anyway, I just wanted to say thanks.

  21. I really like your twisted thinking Matt! :-)

    The truth is that all people either want to control or be controlled by something. Diets are the biggest indicator of that. Don’t tell me that I have to make a decision based on how hungry/not hungry I feel, just tell me what to eat!

    “Un-Churched” has always been used as a warning in my circles to avoid speaking Christanese (“We have had a lovely time of fellowship with you.” or “My husband loves me as Jesus Christ loves the church and it makes me so happy.”) so that people who don’t know Jesus and have never stepped foot inside a church can understand what we are saying.

  22. Matt

    Thanks for defending us “spiritual but not religious” types… 😉
    Who love Jesus and realized “The Abusive Religious System” of today
    does NOT represent Jesus, or the scriptures.

    In my experience, “The Corrupt Religious System” represents “Traditions of men,”
    “Doctrines of men,” “The Commandments of Men” that Jesus warned us about.

    Mark 7:13
    KJV – Making the word of God of “none effect” through your tradition…
    ASV – Making “void” the word of God by your tradition…
    NIV – Thus you “nullify” the word of God by your tradition…

    Most today, who think believers are supposed to – “go to church,” have never
    checked the scriptures to see if anyone in the Bible ever went “to church.”
    Or even what the word “church” means. :-(

    Don’t know if you ever checked or not – BUT – In the Bible…

    NO one ever *joined* “A Church.”
    NO one ever *went to* “A Church.”
    NO one ever *pastored* “A Church.”
    NO one ever *Tithed* money to “A Church.”
    NO one ever brought their friends to “A Church.”
    NO one ever applied for membership in “A Church.”
    NO one ever gave silver, gold, or money, to “A Church.”
    NO buildings with steeples and crosses called “A Church.”
    NO – Pastors – in Pulpits – Preaching – to People – in Pews. 😉

    Seems “the Traditions of Men” are powerful to nullify God’s word and deceive many.

    When you believe the lie you start to die…

    What is popular is not always “Truth.”
    What is “Truth” is not always popular.

    Jer 50:6
    *My people* hath been *lost sheep:*
    *their shepherds* have caused them *to go astray,*

  23. Hi Matt,

    I realize that this blog is a bit dated, but I’ve only just read it.
    Our society has simply come to a point where many people don’t even feel safe going to church, or being religious. And considering the state of the Catholic church lately, can you blame anyone for being afraid? Evil and corruption run rampent though our modern culture as thickly as ever (Godly organizations included), yet now people are finally becoming smart enough not to be force fed whatever it is that the “educated” and priveledged are feeding us. And I’m not saying all organizations are drenched in evil, but the evidence really does make it hard to trust any of them. At the end of the day, what’s organized religion but another government anyway?
    Now I understand that many people need to be guided on their journey to spirituality, being closer to God, or whatever you want to call it, but how does an organized group of bureaucrats telling you what to do, how to think, how to worship and how to live your life make you(or anyone else) any closer to the Good Father?
    No matter what road you take, it’s just personal. Between you and Him, no one else. Not friends, family, or groups. There is a road map to being closer to Him, but everyone has to read it at their own pace. And if we get the directions wrong, like so many of us do, we can always trust our Father to show us the right way. When you are ready and willing to recieve His instructions, you shall.
    As for the fella on the beach, he really just looks like a peaceful individual who’s having a great conversation with The Lord Himself. He doesn’t seem to be deliberatly trying to weird anyone out. Perhaps he’ll be able to help one of the “weirded out” by causing them to confront their unfounded fears of people meditating( praying, communing…) before God’s creation on a sunny day.
    And if my impression of that guy is all wrong, well, at least I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
    So does tying your spiritual journey to another person, group, party, or other affiliation really make a difference at all?

  24. 1) Good post.
    2) your commenters like to write novels (which I suppose indicates you write some evocative stuff!).
    3) I like your approach to the matter. Usually when I hear “Spiritual but not religious”, it’s from a Christian, trying to separate themselves from a purely ritualistic faith that doesn’t truly engage with Jesus. But if I hear you correctly, you’ve heard this used in terms of someone wanting to create their own terms of faith, in which case I agree that my mind immediately jumps to hippies and crystals.
    4) Props for your face-punching restraint.

  25. Why would it be absolutely necessary for a person to be bound to a religion in order to be spiritual? In my opinion that is a very narrow perspective. If this deity of yours does exist, he would accept anyone making a concerted effort to reach him regardless of their affiliation/non-affiliation. However, I’m am still very impressed by this post. By Christian standards, this is thinking very well outside of the box and I welcome that opportunity from any Believer that is willing to step outside of their comfort zone and tackle subjects that are “real”. Very well-written.

  26. You did it again, Matt!

  27. To me – being religious is what being spiritual MEANS – I am neither, but not being the former, as I see it, rules out being the latter..