Religious or Spiritual?

Are you religious or spiritual? It’s a common distinction people make these days. I hope you answered. “both”.

We have a habit of viewing the world through an either/or lens.

  • For us/against us,                               
  • winner/looser,
  • working mom/soccer mom,
  • science/religion,
  • conservative/liberal,
  • blue state/red state.

I’m sure you can think of more. In some ways it makes life simple, everyone and everything is easy to categorize. You are this or you are that.  Making and assigning categories is one of the ways we make sense of the world.

But if we are not careful, we can oversimplify life and we can unwittingly embrace false dichotomies. Plenty of moms work and take kids to soccer games. Not everyone in “blue state” Michigan is a Democrat.

The religious/spiritual distinction is an example of oversimplification and a false dichotomy.The religious/spiritual question is a loaded question. When was the last time you heard someone say, ” I’m religious, not spiritual”?

 “Religious” tends to stand for everything wrong with organized religion and implies there is nothing good about organized religion. Religion, at worst is the source of all war and corruption, and at best is empty, meaningless conformity. “Spirituality” on the other hand, stands for the true experience of the divine, pure, unmediated, and uncorrupted by “religion”.

Now we all know better than this. Don’t we? “Organized religion” has done a lot of good in the world; caring for people, feeding the hungry, providing medical care and so on. Lots of folks have found great value, support and comfort being part of a community of faith. And just maybe, God was wholeheartedly and sincerely worshiped.

And we can find some “spiritual” folks who have a pretty self  serving and unhealthy spirituality.

Of course there are exceptions to everything I just wrote. Religion and spirituality are complex things and shouldn’t be simplistically reduced into stereotypes. Their complexity makes the statement, “I’m spiritual but not religious” almost meaningless.

It’s a false distinction. We need both religion and spirituality. We get ourselves into trouble when we emphasize one at the expense of the other. David Crumm of Read the Spirit puts it nicely when he says,  ” At ReadTheSpirit, we talk about religion as a revelation to be accepted -– while spirituality is the other strand in the double helix of faith -– a quest to be pursued. And most great faiths involve both strands: Islam has the hajj as well as the Quran, for example.”

It’s a great metaphor, the double helix of faith- revelation to be accepted and a quest to be pursued.

If we’re only or mostly about revelation, faith becomes an intellectual exercise- the task of believing six impossible things before breakfast.

If we’re only about spirituality, faith can collapse into whatever makes me feel spiritual or happy or peaceful.

We need both. Revelation (and the church) to help us keep our focus and the quest to move more deeply into the divine life.

I suppose none of us balances these two things perfectly. Some of us by temperament or culture lean more one way or the other. The key is awareness, noticing when we have over emphasized one at the expense of the other. In my denomination, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), it’s easy for us, given our history and culture to emphasize revelation over spirituality. But in recent years there has been increasing recognition that we need to intentionally pursue the spiritual quest.

” ‘Prayer without study is like a soul without a body’ the rabbis say.”*

Its all about balance isn’t it? And in a culture that encourages and celebrates excess, balance can be hard to achieve.

A monk was asked what they did in the monastery and he answered. “Well, we fall and we get up and we fall and we get up and we fall and we get up.”*

Let’s stop falsely dividing religion and spirituality. Let’s pay attention to the balance in our lives. And when we fall, let’s help each other up.

I’d like to know, what do you think?


The “believing six impossible things before breakfast” statement comes originally from the book Alice in Wonderland. Its use with reference to religious belief comes from John Polkinghorne.

* both quotations are from, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages by Joan Chittister, O.S.B., pages 117, 99-100.

2 thoughts on “Religious or Spiritual?

  1. I hadn’t really noticed, but our society has in fact moved toward perceiving everything in terms of black and white. The trend has been to remove all shades of grey.

    I often say the problem with religion is that it’s easier than following Jesus. Some have called religion the oppiate of the masses (I think Marx may have started that, don’t quote me). Following Jesus sometimes creates problems, more than at first glance it appears to solve. The oppium analogy does not apply to some one truly immitating what it means to Christlike.

  2. Nancy – Thanks for a great post. Very thoughtful. i think one of the issues of church/culture today is that we – and other institutions built by the boomer generation – are now more than ever trying to convince the world that life is black and white when the vast majority of younger types do not live or believe it. The ambiguity and chaos is not something to be conquered, but embraced and seen as an opportunity to more fully live out the peace that Christ offers. Again, great stuff! Thanks! – Bruce

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