Spiritual, But Not Religious – Distinction, or Rationalization?

Spiritual, but not Religiousby Dr. Dennis Q. McInerny, Ph.D.
(Originally in the June 2011 Fraternity Newsletter)

Our fast dimming and drifting culture would seem to have given rise to a new distinction — or at least it has come up with a new name for what is really an old and rather tired bit of rationalization — and it is one which, at least according to those who are most apt to appeal to it, is to be taken as having deep significance. It is the distinction between being religious and being spiritual. How is the distinction to be understood, from the point of view of those who propound it and presumably guide their lives by it?

I will put myself in the shoes of one of its advocates, and thus try to explain it to you in a manner he would be likely to adopt. “To begin with, you must not suppose that the distinction refers to two modes of being which, though different, are to be considered as quite equal. Not at all. Being spiritual is definitely superior to being religious. I don’t want to be unduly hard on religious people, but facts are facts and they must be faced up to squarely. Religious people represent a type which, because of their seemingly ungovernable superficiality, their lack of inner substance and creative self-reliance, need to associate themselves with like-thinking and like-acting people so as to preserve and protect whatever tenuous self-identity they have managed to retain. And, let’s be honest, religious people have a long, sad history of hypocrisy behind them, by which they are more than a little tainted. They go through the motions, they avow to believe this, that or the other thing—and some of those beliefs, it has to be admitted, are, taken in themselves, somewhat noble—but there is an embarrassing discrepancy between their beliefs and their actions. In a word, they lack integrity.

“Believe me, I know this firsthand. You see, I was brought up in a religious family, to be specific, I was baptized and brought up a Catholic. Not only that, all my education was in Catholic schools—grade school, high school, even college. However, I’ve left all that behind me. I am no longer religious, but I am, mind you, a spiritual person. You religious people, especially you Catholics, are probably shaking your heads at that, and feel sorry for me. Don’t. You may think that by ridding myself of religion I have retrogressed, but in that you think wrongly.  Rightly regarded, my life has to be seen as an example of real progress, for to be spiritual is to have advanced oneself to a higher plane of reality.

“What does it mean to be spiritual, as opposed to being religious? Well, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to explain, but I will give it a try. To be spiritual is first of all to be honest with yourself, to do what you think is the right thing to do, and not what other people tell you is the right thing to do. It is to be guided by one’s innermost self. To be spiritual is to be able to appreciate all the good things of life, to be able to enjoy things with an open heart and an open mind, in a spirit of non-judgmental tolerance. It means to be grateful. A spiritual person is energized and led by a lively sense of the transcendent; he has this keen feeling that there is Something out there which is very big and very mysterious and very wonderful. As a spiritual person I appreciate the higher things in life—music, poetry, the beauties of nature. And of course there is love, which is supreme. I love everybody, and I ardently wish that everybody would love everybody.”

The above description represents, I think, a reasonably accurate description of the mind-set of someone who would identify himself as spiritual, but not religious. What are we to make of it? First of all, we have to say that, if the terms which compose the distinction are to be correctly understood, it is entirely specious, for if one is genuinely religious one cannot but be genuinely spiritual. Obviously, the spokesman for the “being spiritual” position from whom we have just heard has a very poor grasp on what it means to be religious, and hence his understanding of spirituality is necessarily anemic and mushy.

So, we must clarify a very important term, by asking: What does it mean to be genuinely religious? But before addressing that important question I want to make a brief comment on the fact that our spokesman was raised a Catholic, that, indeed, as he pointed out, he is a product of Catholic schools, all the way through college. Now, as it happens, there are not a few young Catholics today who are in the same boat as our spokesman. They have been raised Catholics, but they have abandoned their faith, opting for an arid, quasi-pantheistic New Age No-Man’s- Land, a territory which seems to have become a favorite camping ground for many in our secularistic age. Because these people are adults, possessed of the use of reason, and because their decision was freely made, they are the ones who are ultimately responsible for it. But given what has been the general state of Catholic education over the past four decades and more, given what has happened to catechesis during that same period, I would argue that those young Catholics are not entirely to blame for the unfortunate state in which they find themselves. The responsibility for their plight must extend to those Catholic educators and catechists who seemed to have been doing everything but passing on the faith to those who were entrusted to their care.

What, then, is religion? Father John Hardon, typically, gives us a crisply precise definition. Religion is “the moral virtue by which a person is disposed to render to God the worship and service He deserves.” The virtue of religion is a particular manifestation of the larger virtue of justice. To be just is to render to another what is due to the other. What is due to God? Everything, for everything, including our very being, comes from Him. To be religious is not easy; in a way it can prove to be the hardest thing in the world, for by it we must overcome that tenacious and ever-pressing temptation to put ourselves above all else, even God Himself. To be religious is ever to strive to fulfill, day in and day out, the two greatest commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. It is what we were made for.

To claim to be spiritual but not religious has a high sounding ring to it—that’s the intended idea—but in reality it is simply an overly self-conscious effort to take the moral high ground by dint of clever rhetorical wordplay. Though empty of serious meaning, the claim nonetheless represents a ploy which is typical of our disingenuous age, for it represents a common way we have of attempting to assuage our consciences by vesting bad decisions in glittering garments.

June 1, 2011