Monday, March 11, 2019

If there is something not right about the phrase “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual”, there is also something just as wrong about the phrase “I’m not spiritual, but I’m religious”.

There is a lot of talk about the increase in numbers among us of the ‘nones’ these days, especially in blog and vlog posts by Catholic commentators in the Western countries.  The ‘nones’ are the group of people who, when it comes to filling out personal particular forms asking for their religion or faith, check the boxes ‘none’. They make up a very large number in the West, and I believe that this is not just something that is restricted to the West alone.  What is more disturbing is that it has been noticed that the people that make up these ‘nones’ include people who have been baptized at birth, or perhaps even later on in life, and have at some point in time jettisoned or abandoned their faith.  We who are in Asia must not think that this is something that is not happening on our own shores. 

One of the very common things that ‘nones’ and those who do not profess to practice any formal religions say is that they are “spiritual, but not religious”.  On the surface, this oft-touted phrase can appear to be rather ‘cool’ and maybe even sophisticated, giving the impression that being religious isn’t as chic, enlightened or savvy as those of us who give ourselves over to formal religion and practice it with great dedication and regularity.  What is it that makes being ‘spiritual’ something that is appealing to anyone?  Conversely then, is being ‘religious’ something that is deemed shallow, naïve, and maybe even callow?  As Aristotle so correctly described the human person as a rational animal, I am wont to believe that no one really does anything without good reasons behind their decision, so the ‘nones’ too must have very good reason to say that they are spiritual, but not religious.  

One thing that sets religious people clearly apart from the non-religious, (and I am referring to those who assiduously practice their religion with great dedication and regularity, applying it to every sphere of their lives as possible) is that there is very often a discipline that is involved.  Whether one calls it discipline, effort, regularity, or commitment, it is clear that those who are religious are not those who blow hot one day, and cold on another.  It calls to mind what many consider the motto of the US Postal system which goes something like “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”.  Encapsulated in that statement is a deep and serious commitment and dedication to the task at hand.  Where serious application of one’s religion to one’s life is concerned, this motto seems just as applicable.

Does the human person naturally apply oneself to a committed cause with such dedication?  In my encounter with many different people in my years both working in the secular world, and the many more years being a pastor of souls as a priest, I must say that this is a rare grace.  Many, if not most people, do not do very well when it comes to commitment and living lives with great dedication.  There is instead, a preference for simply ‘going with the flow’, or waxing and waning according to one’s moods and feelings.  The human heart is somehow hardwired to take the path of least resistance, and this preferential option mitigates against choosing something that requires moe effort than less.  I’m not sure if this could be the cause of the existence of the ‘hook up’ culture, where men and women prefer to live together without any commitment to marriage, because it is far more convenient for the self to be preserved, and furthermore, there is always the possibility of calling it quits when selfless loving becomes too challenging.  Merely being ‘spiritual’ doesn’t have any dimension of commitment and staying the course.

I am also wont to believe that this underlying current is what makes being spiritual far more attractive and convenient than being religious with any degree of seriousness.  This is because when one is merely spiritual, one doesn’t need to adjust one’s life, where there is a need to align one’s life with an aim that is greater than oneself and one’s principles.  A life that is just ‘spiritual’ has no codified commandments to live by, no specific rules to follow, and doesn’t have any particular need to give oneself over to discipline.  Being merely spiritual is really pretty much an ‘anything goes’ way of living one’s life with little need to face the challenges of a conversion that mellows one’s heart.

Of course, there are the other arguments that many will bring up to say that religion has been the primal cause of so many wars and violence in the world, but can one seriously attribute that to the existence of religion per se?  When one’s view of and approach to religion is fundamentalistic with leanings to violence and hatred, it is always a distortion of true religion.  While I would concede that it may appear to be the case where religions seems to have been the root of violence and wars, it is always far more accurate to attribute it to the false and erroneous way that religion had been understood and practiced that has caused it to become the scapegoat of world violence.  

Having said this, there is also a flip side of the “I am spiritual, but not religious” dictum that has a dark side to it as well.  This is when anyone simply says that they are religious, but are not spiritual.  This would describe someone who is a devotee to the practices of their religion, but hardly imbibing and living out what one’s religion teaches at its core.  This is when one brings one’s shell to Church on Sundays, but has little or no heart in lifting one’s mind and heart to loving God and neighbor, and when one ‘says’ prayers rather than entering intoprayer.  In this way, one can be assiduous in following ritual as an external form, but could really be a pagan in the depths of one’s being.  One could really then call oneself a Christian, but only because one physically goes to Church, or has one’s name appearing on a baptism certificate.

In truth, being spiritual alone is not enough, in the same way that being religious alone is not enough.  The truly holistic person is one who tries his best to do both to the best of his ability.  The fact that Jesus in the gospels is often seen berating the Pharisees for merely following rules as an external exhibition of religiosity reminds us that our practice of our faith needs to go deep.  As we Catholics enter into the season of Lent, let us make greater efforts in making sure that our Lenten practices help us to grow spiritually as well.


  1. Hi Father Luke, this is a well-thought-out reflection.

    I have one question though: perhaps "spiritual, not religious" refers not so much to religious rituals or practices per se, and more to the control of religious authority.

    So for instance, while wars fought in the name of religions are not due to religious beliefs per se, or even in moral laws, they are due to religious leaders who preach the enforcement of their dogmas in legal and political systems, the key word being "enforcement". For instance, it was a Pope who triggered the First Crusade. Or when clerics in Uganda and Indonesia support the death penalty for sodomy. Are these not considered as "leanings towards violence" as well?

    Probably we also need a distinction between conservatism and fundamentalism.

  2. Yes, in current times, it does seem chic to be "spiritual, not religious". As in "I believe in the Supernatural/God, but I don't subscribe to any religion (or I'm Catholic but not religous ie.don't go thru the obligatories). IMO, this is due to a few reasons:
    1. the current negative news (mass-shootings, scandals,etc). So people wish to disassociate with this.
    2. being a regular Sunday-mass attendee for some reason might appear like one of those ritualistic type things not so different from Tribal praying, and therefore dumb. Also, majority of people around you are free-thinkers or not religious also and therefore one wants to "fit in". Some people are afraid to say things like "What time is the outing again? Cus I've got mass to attend. You guys carry on without me on this one." Now you're the "weird" one.
    3. Being just spiritual shows you "picked a side", which may be an indicator of decisiveness & being principled, thereby upping one's social ranking slightly.
    4. Having a free pass. By saying your're spiritual one thinks one has all he/she needs to enjoy the afterlife. Having one foot in is good enough.(God is merciful, & I didn't kill anyone) Why go through all the necessities with being religious?
    5. The media(movies/sitcoms, etc) more often than not portray being religious at best, in a less than positive light, at worse, downright negative. The Simpson's neighbour is a religious family portrayed as being uptight, overly commiting, and basically bible-carrying nerds.

    Just my 2-cents on the nones.

    As a side note, would like to thank you Father, for bringing to the forefront(not just in this post but one of your underlying core messages), that God needs to be put first; mass is compulsory, "Sunday best" is the way it should be. Everything else comes later. Easier said than done for the layman in this current era, but a necessity to strive towards.