Oh-oh! Look what Jesus has to say about spiritual but not religious!

"Spiritual But Not Religious" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward
“Spiritual But Not Religious” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

It’s been almost a year since I wrote my response to Lillian Daniel‘s book criticizing the “spiritual but not religious”, and it is still circulating.

I suppose it’s because there’s an growing concern for this growing demographic… from the church and its leaders.

And the fact that Lillian Daniel wrote a post 3 years ago that has resurfaced titled, Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me! I’m not sure what her present attitude is, but my main critique of her argument is that it is presumptuous, judgmental, condescending and patronizing. The way she expressed her concern actually widens the divide. I hope that’s changed.

The Shambala Sun describes SBNR people in this way:

Generally, they’re educated, liberal, and open-minded, with a deep sense of connection to the Earth and a belief that there’s more to life than what appears on the surface.”

This is interesting to me because it is all a matter of perspective. The church may use roughly the same words to describe a SBNR, but in a less complimentary way:

  • educated means they lean too much on their own understanding, not wise, but foolish;
  • liberal means, well, liberal, and are basically permissive;
  • open-minded means open to any suggestion, gullible, and not faithful to the bible;
  • deep sense of connection to the Earth is worldly, New-Age, environmentalist, and maverick;
  • a belief that there’s more to life than what appears on the surface means that if they don’t know this already from their Christian faith, then they are just guessing, superstitious, and flirting with error, heresy, evil and even demons.

One of my good friends, writer Deanna Ogle, has written an eloquent response to the SBNR criticism, I Am The Spiritual But Not Religious. It’s a beautiful expression what many SBNR people know about themselves. Here’s one line:

I have experienced true communion, fire-like transformation, unbending faith, white-hot hope, and resurrection of the soul all outside of sterile church walls.”

The Lasting Supper is made up mostly of SBNR type people. I invite you to join our growing community.

Read about Sophia, definitely a SBNR! Her story is probably your story.



34 Replies to “Oh-oh! Look what Jesus has to say about spiritual but not religious!”

  1. I like these phrases:

    “Reflective and Religion-Free” RaRF
    “Reflective and not Religious” RaNR
    “Reflective without Spirits” RwS

    I am sure you see my point. “Spiritual” is still seems stuffy, presumptuous and attempting to cash in on societal approval by saying “I still believe in God, unlike those dirty atheists, so you can trust me and my family. We are upstanding good people. I’m moral.”

    Really, do we really need to claim that, why not just live it? Go all the way — leave “spirituality” behind too.

  2. Unfortunately I still experience Ms. Daniels writing to be condescending, abrasive and out of touch, and she is a member of my UCC tribe. It seems she takes pleasure in nurturing that persona and is unaware of how her ecclesial elitism is one of the core problems driving people away from organized religion.

  3. Personally [and consider that word an indication that I do not wish everyone to take my approach], I prefer to reclaim the word religious. To me, religion is about the form that spirituality takes and the way it is expressed. In my experience, every spirituality has some form to it, no matter how vague and malleable. (And believe me, I think malleability is an essential part to healthy spirituality and religion.) And I just refuse to let the controlling types lay sole claim to the word “religious” without challenge. 😉

    The only time I refer to myself as “spiritual but not religious” is when I’m filling out an online form and it offers no options for religion that fit me better.

  4. I think I would agree with that Jarred. Maybe one day the word “religion” will lose its pejorative connotations, just like the word “god” might.

  5. That’s too bad Kimberly. I was wondering if she’s changed her approach. Well… I guess her approach emerges from her attitude. But it’s a popular one.

  6. It really is and that is too bad. I understand her underlying point and actually agree with some it, just not at all with how she presents it. I do believe that spirituality lived out in community in service with and for others is good. I am not keen on navel gazing spirituality that can and does often stem from and feed an already narcissistic society. But that sort of behavior goes on in WAY too many churches for the case to be made that church community is the only place to live out a love for God in service with and for others.

  7. The life work for which she has carefully and earnestly prepared herself is being taken away, and she just seems bitter about that more than anything else. The church I finally left was the one she’s selling (the UCC), and I’m here to say that they’ve been in a panic for decades now. The thing they can’t seem to figure out is what to do with themselves once they’ve admitted that the Christian story as told in the bible is neither true nor more helpful than lots of other stories. Church becomes a sort of club — a place that anybody can join, and yet somehow it doesn’t really want anybody to join. It wants people who look like, talk like, and think like the people who are already there. The next-to-last thing it wants is to be challenged on its merits; the very last thing it wants is to be ignored. That’s what I see Lillian Daniel trying to do here — be radically snarky in the hope that her tone of voice alone will make people listen. It makes church-goers feel better when they read her (I know because my friends from church keep cheering for her on their social media!) but for everybody outside the club it just seems rude.

  8. Yet there is a religious life that is promoted in the Bible, explicitly so. To say that Jesus and his followers are “spiritual but not religious” misses much of who they are and the context in which they lived and wrote.

  9. I have to agree with Tim. But the thing is Tim, that most of the believers and SBNR folks here do not value the Bible the same way you do — they are non-literalist progressive, remember.

    So Bible-only arguments rarely work on this site. In my experience.
    People may get into cherry-picking verse arguments, but you guys have a much bigger difference — you view the Bible completely differently.

  10. The period of Jesus and then the earliest church is fascinating because Jesus represents, in a way, the bridge that was burned between one religion and another. So I think Jesus was a fairly typical observant Jew until later in his ministry when it was obvious it was dangerous for him to try to belong there. Then his disciples and the Jewish Christians faced the inevitable universalization of its essential spirit so that religious expression became vastly diverse. I suppose, then, that they were religious, but in such a transient religious world as theirs was, I think it looks more like the SBNR of today, but without gathering places for example.

  11. True, Sabio, they are. But to claim Jesus as a patron of SBNR doesn’t square with the record no matter how you view Scripture’s authority.

    As the link I included showed, there is a religion attendant Christians should attend to; it just doesn’t look like what most people think of as being religion. In fact, I think today’s SBNR folks would consider the New Testament’s teachings on religion to be refreshing.

  12. Not at all. I assume that when you wrote that Jesus was more SBNR than religious you meant it. I just think the Bible says there is a religion Christians are to follow. Why do I think that? because of this passage: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27.)

    Now there’s a religion I think Christians and SBNRs can all get behind.

  13. Okay then Tim, I agree. But if you notice, that “religion” has nothing religious about it at all. In fact, it is completely humanistic. Charity and integrity. It’s like on the last day, the ones not known were the ones doing all the religious things: casting out demons in his name, prophesying, preaching, etc. The ones who were surprised that he knew them were the ones doing totally non-religious acts, like giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and visiting prisoners. I’m not against religion in the form of ritual. That can have meaning… all assigned… but true religion is compassion.

  14. Precisely, David. We’re on the same page. When people say they don’t want religion, they have a type of religion in mind. My take on it is that New Testament religion is quite different. Jesus said we are to love one another, and James says that is what true religion is: loving one another.

  15. Three thoughts: 1. Lately, I’ve been noticing a subtle difference between ‘spirituality vs religion’ and ‘faith vs. religion’. Some prefer ‘spirituality’ bc it only implies one’s own spiritual self or soul (sans any god at all). So hiking the mountains is ‘spiritual’ because it nurtures the soul. True enough. Though I personally prefer ‘faith’ bc my spiritual self has been fed by a Love greater than my own … and indeed, faith freed me from religion in a way that spirituality hadn’t. As one Orthodox priest says, ‘Religion is a neurological disease and faith is its cure.’

    2. I’m aware that there can be positive takes on ‘religion’ (as in James, where it amounts to practices of compassion and empathy) IF one adds the right adjective. And so we would also critique religion using negative adjectives, such as ‘toxic’ or ‘moralistic’ religion. Many such adjectives exist, but I’m starting to think they hide the real problems in a sneaky way. For example, we often castigate ‘organized religion.’ But is the problem that it’s organized? David’s community is organized enough to gather, for example. Or even ‘hierarchical’ religion … I must say that the ‘hierarchy’ in my tradition has been the main instrument protecting me from spiritual abuse, rather than afflicting it. Hierarchy can be pretty wicked, as can anarchy. I would say the limited hierarchy of David’s gathering is what makes it a safe place. But the trickier question is what real toxins lurk behind our misplaced castigations of organization or hierarchy.

    3. Some of my colleagues refer to the problem as ‘Christless religion’ … and I think David’s cartoons really magnify the importance of this, often setting off Jesus or the Trinity against the religious establishment or church-as-status-quo. This is where I’m leary, not only of Christless religion, but also Christless spirituality … because the void will always be filled by something ‘maleficent’ … in religion, by oppressive leaders or laws, etc. But also, in spirituality … a Christless spirituality can simply become the throne of an oppressive ego (which will sound like self-hatred, self-pity or self-importance). And in such a case, it’s from the frying pan to the fire. And this too requires liberation. Or at least I did.

  16. Remarking on the comic from last year, I have to say that I might want to add a few other categories that might fit in with Sabio’s first comment – or categories that might fit in but my tired brain might not readily associate.
    Reflective and Atheist/Agnostic (RaA) or Atheist and Spiritual (AaS) or Atheist and Religious (AaR)

    The reason I add those and think Jesus wouldn’t mind would be that an atheist is equally capable of being close-minded as open-minded. What Jesus had called for in his preachings was to truly be open to whatever wisdom may come about (the good soil that took the seed) – after all, he asked for those who have ears to listen.

    Brad, I hope you don’t mind my asking, but by what do you mean Christless religion or spirituality? I ask only because I’m not familiar with that phrase and would like to better understand your points.

  17. Thanks, Sabio. I find it weird that many of the atheists I encountered until recently were of the thought that you can’t possibly have spiritual or religious practices (or superstitions) AND not believe in deities. If you’re part of the TLS group, you’d have already heard about it, but I very recently joined a group of tarot card readers whose own religious beliefs range from secular to progressive Christian. I even found various secular “prayers” that act more like the psychological devices prayers tend to be.

    It’s a sad thing that there’s so much thought on both sides that you can’t possibly be somewhere in the middle, else you’re wrong.

  18. I don’t think that religion = compassion and empathy. Compassion and empathy are already things all to themselves. I view religion at its core as a leveraging of fear (related to the supernatural) in order to get other people to do certain things. Of course these “certain things” could be good things but they could also be bad things. I think this fear leveraging (related to the supernatural) is what distinguishes religion from things that are not religion.

    In my mind, a SBNR person would contemplate the supernatural without fear. Beliefs of eternal judgments, heaven & hell are examples of crossing the religion threshold where fear can then be leveraged for all sorts of purposes including a whole list of phobias.

    It seems to me that Jesus and his early followers definitely leveraged this fear to try to change people’s behavior (and or beliefs).

  19. Jeff, I think, if we need to get strict about what religion is, we should limit its definition to these qualities –

    Offers moral teachings
    Offers rituals of various forms
    Offers structure within which practice can occur.

    Note that I do not say dogma or doctrine in the structure section, or even that worship is required.

    Religion isn’t the only thing to teach compassion and empathy. You can learn lessons like this in art (painting and photography and everything else) or from the anecdotes and fables we hear. I can’t really trust anyone who says that you have to be religious in order to have a moral code or a sense of compassion.

  20. @ cecilia,
    Yeah, I agree. Some of my theist friends think I am religious — but it all depends on definitions. I still don’t like the word “spiritual” for the reason I made in my first comment. Some people who say it, really do believe in some equivalent of The Great Spirit, but those who don’t usually mean ” I’m reflective and moral, so please think well of me.” And sure, if that helps them, great. My recent posts speak of superstitions and some of mine.

    @ Jeff P,
    I agree — compassion and empathy are normal, non-spiritual things. Religious folks just try to coop them. So I could imagine a Jesus saying “Look, stop trying to be religious, just drop the pretense and the holiness-BS and be compassionate and empathetic like the good pagans around you. Good religion is being non-religious!”
    But he didn’t — or the gospel fictionalizers didn’t let him say that.

  21. Yes definitions are hard. I admit to a certain amount of hypocrisy where I sometimes favor a more loose definition for some things (like atheism) and a more narrow definition for other things (like religion). But within the context of people saying they are SBNR, I don’t really see such people reacting against a loosely defined definition of religion as merely moral teachings administered with certain rituals and structures. That would imply that to SBNR people, that they choose that label because they want their moral teachings administered independent of any rituals and structures. I think the SBNR label means more than that. But ultimately, I speak only for myself. I just dislike the fear-leveraging aspect I see so much in what I call religion.

  22. Both words are vague, and each carry a hundred different definitions depending on whom you ask. “Spiritual but not religious” has a slight flavor of Orwell’s doublethink, or cognitive dissonance.

  23. Ransom, I’m not sure I entirely agree with your saying that it’s doublethink. It is entirely possible to have “religious” practices that help deal with psychological needs and yet not subscribe to any religion.

  24. Ahhh, labels. I escape from one to paste on another. Why can’t we just be. Of course people representing a religious institution will be skeptical of something that threatens their institution. This shouldn’t be surprising. Of course they want to define others in convenient terms (we did all see Breakfast Club, right?) The only label I am interested in is ‘human’ and the only group I want to identify with is the ‘human race.’ Everything else is needless division.

  25. It seems to me that Daniel’s main point in her article is encapsulated by her comment– “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you.” I think she’s calling out a modern day superficial experience of spirituality, that is disconnected from other facets of one’s life and found only in clouds, sunsets, etc.. Whether you disagree with her or not is an interesting issue and could be an enlightening discussion. But Mr. Hayward you use her article as a jumping off point for your own projections on how “religious” people see you SBNR types– liberal, educated, open minded, etc. which doesn’t even come from her but from the Shambala Sun! I think you’re reading things in her article that aren’t there, and using her article to expose your own feelings about “religious” types.

  26. I don’t think so Justin. My article is kind and fair towards her. But she’s misdirecting her feelings. She, like the church as a whole, is frustrated with the realities facing the church. She’s condescending towards SBNR people. I’m not the only one who thinks so. She assumes that SBNR people don’t appreciate or engage in the same things church-goers do, like relationships.

  27. Even people in Churches (in community) hide their opinions and deep thought from each other. And in Churches, with the pressure of orthodoxy and status, hearing real disagreement or real doubt is less likely. And as David says, we are all in working relationships — among friends, family, colleagues and in our hobbies and more. No one really forms relationships by themselves.

    So I will go with David’s comment

  28. Thanks for the reply David. I think the main point I was getting at was that your piece seems to be a critique more of Daniel’s tone than its substance. You were upset (and rightly so) that her writing was condescending and dismissive toward SBNR’s, and you used her forum to call her out on that. However, the main thrust of her article is that spirituality without the backbone of a religious structure is by its nature superficial. I think its an interesting argument, and may have some merit, and I was looking at your writing to see what your response to her point was. Instead you gave a response to her attitude and tone. You even said “my main critique of her argument is that it is presumptuous, judgmental, condescending and patronizing”. That’s not a critique of her argument, that’s you being pissed off at her attitude. Give me a real critique.

    You also said “She assumes that SBNR people don’t appreciate or engage in the same things church-goers do, like relationships”. But I don’t think that’s accurate– I think her argument would be that SBNR’s lack the structure of a religion that provides a context, container and shared language for their spiritual experiences.

    Thanks for the conversation! It’s enlightening for me. 🙂

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