People need to be careful about splitting spirituality and religion. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

The false divide of spiritual and religious

  • May 20, 2022

If you’re reading The Catholic Register, you’ve probably never said: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” However, you’ve certainly heard someone else state this now almost cliché phrase. Let’s count the ways this phrase is false… and dangerous. (What I generally say to people who tell me they are “spiritual but not religious” is: “You may want to be careful with that.”)

Why do people need to be careful about splitting spirituality and religion? Because Satan is also “spiritual but not religious.” He’s so spiritual you can’t see him, and there ain’t no way he’s gonna worship God either! (“The demons believe and tremble” James 2:19.) Satan knows the Bible, the Creed and the Catechism inside out, but He doesn’t love God, so he will never humble himself to bow down and worship.

All human beings are both body and soul, i.e., physical and spiritual at the same time. So when we try to compliment someone by saying “he’s very spiritual,” that accolade is actually a bit obvious and redundant: of course he’s spiritual, he’s a human being. What people likely mean is: “he’s very devoted,” or “he prays a lot,” etc.

One way to think about it is: spirituality is of the soul, and religion is of the body. We don’t know what you believe until you show us by your actions…or lack thereof (because the soul, the spiritual, is hidden).

The word “religion” is from “religare,” meaning “to bind.” Bind to what? To God! Who doesn’t want to be bound to God? Sign me up!  To say “I’m spiritual but not religious,” means: “my soul and my body are not doing the same thing,” “my body does not express what my soul holds dear.” However, this is an impossibility. Whatever I do with my body, I do with my soul. Whatever I do with my soul, I do with my body. Why? Because I am one person. I can try to do mental or emotional gymnastics to separate what my body and soul are about, but in reality, they are always united, and I am always responsible for both.

The next time someone says, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” ask them what they mean by that. Ask them about their spiritual practices. If they have any spiritual practices, they are now in the territory of religion. Even if they say they only pray or meditate, that is still done through the agency of the body. If they simply say: “I try to be a good person,” or “I believe x, y and z,” these positions still require that something be done (or refrained from) in order to truly be “spiritual” according to their own belief system. Otherwise, they are guilty of what “religious” people are often accused of: hypocrisy.

Can someone be “religious but not spiritual”? Aside from the fact that all human beings are spiritual as part of their nature — as we said earlier — absolutely. In other words, someone might punch their religious time card but never open their life to God, never put charity into action, etc. (“This people pays me lip service, but their hearts are far from me” Isaiah 29:13.) While “spiritual but not religious” is worn as a badge of honour, few boast about being “religious but not spiritual,” unless as an admission they are only going through the motions and need to deepen their faith.

Can “spiritual but not religious,” be an excuse not to “go to church” or observe the tenets of a Christian life (or other religion)? Certainly. But why even claim to be “spiritual” then? I think people have a sense that if I erase my body (by declaring myself not religious) and erase my soul also (by declaring myself neither spiritual nor religious) — what would be left of me?

The fact is, everyone worships. Everyone worships someone or something. It could even be self. (Shocker!) Whatever we love the most, whatever we think about the most, whatever we give the most time and attention to, whatever we desire the most, whatever delights us the most… that’s what we worship. We either worship the living and true God… or idols.

If you find the previous paragraph terrifying while taking stock of your life, make a list of your priorities. Keep re-prioritizing daily and hourly till God moves to the top of the list. We have our whole lives to put God first in everything, but don’t delay — no one is promised tomorrow!

(Sr. Burns, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA. Twitter: @srhelenaburns.)

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