“Spiritual But Not Religious” and the Path to God

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the Gnostic’s least favorite guy

The following article was originally published on the Roads from Emmaus weblog in March of 2011. It’s been revised for this publication.

I sometimes encounter folks who tell me that they are “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). I wish I asked more often what exactly that is supposed to mean, though I am usually held back from asking by a strong suspicion that such a statement is not meant to undergo any sort of scrutiny. But what does it mean, anyway?

This post is a reflection on why people choose to be SBNR, along with an examination of its inherent problems as a religious feeling (I am hesitant to call it a “movement,” since it’s not something people really do together) and some answers from an Orthodox Christian point of view. I think this is a major question that needs to be addressed these days, as the SBNR are those who are often likely to respond to the Gospel not so much with outright rejection but rather with “Sure, whatever” or a sense that they’ve heard it all before.

Underneath, “spiritual but not religious” most often seems to mean “I like certain religious things, but I have had a bad experience with religious people and don’t attend any sort of religious gatherings, at least, not ones I wouldn’t feel bad about abandoning next week.” (In other words, they are the victims of people who are religious but not spiritual.) But I think most SBNR sorts don’t mean to put that out as a viable rationale for their self-description. After all, that just sounds rather cowardly, lazy, etc. (And in many cases, it is.) But usually, once the SBNR person dwells on his SBNR state for a while, he eventually comes up with his own theology—probably his favorite parts of what he used to have, coupled with some reactions to what he didn’t like. SBNR becomes itself a kind of religion, complete with its own (usually assumed but not stated) dogma.

It should be noted that I am speaking here of a conscious, deliberate choice to pursue SBNR as a kind of spiritual life of its own, not merely the transitional state of a believer who finds himself “between religions” (so to speak). Also, there are of course SBNR people who have never been involved in religious communities, and while on the rise, they are still not the majority of such people. Despite what you may see on television or read in newspapers (if anyone does that any more), “organized” religion in America is still quite strong, though its membership is becoming more fluid.

At its most basic and in its most understandable form, SBNR is typically a reaction to bad people. Having been burned or seen others burned by connection with religious believers, the SBNR person withdraws and makes “spirituality” (what in any other context would still be called “religion”) subject only to his own private preferences. This makes sense in our culture, which (despite our constant tendency to out-source) still sees itself as a do-it-yourself culture. But what is not usually examined in this approach is that it is essentially Gnostic, a privileging of private revelation and opinion over corporate knowledge and tradition. It is also essentially Protestant, in that its basic movement is one away from community and tradition.

There are a lot of issues packed into this essential narrative of escape. Let’s look at three of them:

  1. Abuse: Religion is full of bad people. But so is pretty much every other pursuit in human experience. Bad apples do not, in human associations, spoil the bunch. Some bunches are spoiled from the get-go due to their inherent nature (e.g., the KKK), but just because the Inquisition killed people does not mean that Christianity is broken. (Indeed, one can easily argue from within the Christian tradition that the Inquisition was a betrayal of Christianity and even of the Roman Catholicism that was its context.) Religions should not be judged by their worst adherents, but by their best—those the religion itself holds up as saints. It should also be judged by its doctrine, not by those who fail to do what the doctrine says (e.g., Roman Catholic ephebophile/pedophile priests do not by their behavior render Roman Catholicism illegitimate). At the same time, real abuse is nothing to dismiss easily, but the abused person needs to come to the realization that the abuse of something does not delegitimize it (abusus non tollit usum).
  2. Authority: Once you escape from authority (other people who have legitimacy in telling you how you should live), where do you go? You have a choice between finding a better authority or making yourself the authority. The SBNR chooses the latter. He is the sole arbiter of what is true and good. If he realizes that he is not really an expert, then he will mitigate his theology with a strong dose of relativism: “This is what works for me, but I’m not saying you have to do it.” But if you’re going to embrace relativism, what’s the point in being “spiritual,” anyway? If spirituality is in any sense about becoming a better person, who defines what “better” means? At the bottom, there really is nothing particularly noble about striving to meet a set of standards if you get to make up the standards for yourself. Or, at least, the relativist who believes in self-sacrifice is inherently no nobler or in any way better than the relativist whose goal in life is to eat more twinkies. If you think he is, then you have to dump the relativism, because you just embraced a transcendent truth, one that is not subject to what any of us think about it.
  3. Community: Where there is no authority, there can be no community. Community always requires hierarchy, and hierarchy means that someone will have a coordinating role. But where there is no coordination, there is no community. A group of SBNR people can, of course, function as a kind of spiritual club, but the longer they stay together, they will find they have either formed a religion or irritated each other enough that the whole thing will eventually dissolve. Community is a critical element of human life, which is why SBNR cannot bind it together, being inherently anti-communal. It is also why so many SBNR people eventually end up either completely non-religious (e.g., as atheists, agnostics, or “SBNR” who nevertheless never do anything remotely “spiritual” or religious) or as members of religions. It is an unsustainable way of being. Any philosophy or mode of life which makes claims about higher order issues such as spirits and religion has to resonate with essential humanity. And since humanity is communal, SBNR does not last nor can it truly satisfy.

There is a lot more one could say here (e.g., about SBNR being just another form of consumerist, “have it your way” religion), but down underneath all of this is the question of whether God actually cares about His creation, which is why I believe that these issues touch upon the very heart of the Gospel.

If God does not care about His creation (deism), then logically there is absolutely no problem with being SBNR. But there’s also no more point in being SBNR than in being a golfer. The golfer probably isn’t making any claims to higher order knowledge and experience, though. (No offense, golfers!) But he’s just as much entitled to do so as the SBNR person, because in the deist model God hasn’t bothered to let us know that He even exists, much less that there are transcendent truths to which we are all responsible. Thus, once again, the proper response is, “Sure, whatever.”

I can certainly agree that deism can be a logical conclusion to come to—the world is so complex and interesting that there has to be a Creator. But if there has been no direct revelation from God, then anything beyond deism—chi, spiritual energies, wisdom, goodness, virtue, nobility, and even love—is really just anyone’s opinion. It still falls down the frightening Nietzschean hole, however—with no revealed truth, it’s finally all about power. If there are no revealed truths, then why should I not just take whatever I want, because I can?

At its heart, I believe that the SBNR person simply does not want to worship. At least, he doesn’t want to worship anything other than himself. (This sounds really bad, and it is. But we all do it, SBNR or not, in various ways.) Worship is fundamentally about giving oneself over in complete union to the Other, which involves sacrifice and risk. It is love, but it is a much higher order love than the “love” which is spoken of in the idolatrous language of popular eros. Worship requires submission, freely offered, and that is something the SBNR person is, by definition, simply not going to do. Once there’s a divine Thou to go with my I, then that means there’s religion, for religion is the reconnecting of what was separated (re+ligio). When there’s connection going on, then that means there must also be some sort of arrangement between those being connected, and that is, once again, religion.

Fundamentally, the SBNR person is cheating himself out of the real transcendence he is probably longing for. After all, transcendence means ecstasy (ek+stasis), standing outside yourself, and that means that your own ideas about what’s true don’t matter in the face of what really is the truth. There cannot be “your truth” and “my truth” in transcendence. There is only the Truth. After all, if we are transcending to a somewhere, then it’s certainly not a somewhere that we make up for ourselves. Nor is it a place that can be navigated by our opinions. One does not step into outer space without a spacesuit.

The Gospel is simple, though: God speaks to us. That means He’s real, and that He has an objective existence apart from our opinions of Him. Seeing our disconnection from Him, He sent us His Son, Who became one of us. He entered into the whole human experience, even death itself. And when death met the God-man, it began to work backwards. And if we want to have that same conquest over death, we have to follow the God-man and be united to Him.

That’s the path to God. There aren’t any other paths to Him, because He didn’t build any others. And no civil engineer, no matter how spiritual, can build one in place of that one. Why would you want another one, anyway? Conquering death is where it’s at, folks. Let’s do it.


  1. I like this piece. I do find it a bit abstract.

    I think this is one of the central points of the essay:

    “At its most basic and in its most understandable form, SBNR is typically a reaction to bad people.”

    I think the essay would benefit if you grounded your thesis with your actual pastoral experiences. Just a suggestion.

    1. Thanks, though people tend do to react badly if their pastor talks about their spiritual life publicly. In any event, one doesn’t find too many SBNR folks in churches (which is where actual pastoral experience occurs). 🙂

  2. Great article.
    It does seem to me that the SBNR person tends to say it spontaneously or states it like a badge of honour showing how one is just more “mature” than the religious person. Or as i’ve seen, in their opinion, the religious person is a mindless follower of what someone else is telling him. To a degree, i can’t help but agree since pretty much every religion except for Christianity easily enough reveals itself to be man made fairy tales. So i would guess that the SBNR just follows that example telling himself “If all religions are fake, then why should i follow what they teach when i can believe what i want in my own way”. So in light of this, it makes perfect sense but it also reveals that the person doesn’t really believe and is just deluding himself.

    So it does sound to me that this is like a type of agnosticism. I’m saying this because their very fluid to non-existant beliefs do show an understanding that there is a spiritual dimension to life but that they don’t know what to do with it or where to turn so they play pretend as best they can.

    How does one reach them though? God knows many have been burned like you’ve stated in your article. And the reality of so many Protestant denominations make the landscape extremely confusing as they all shout over eachother to see who can get the most real estate (converts which are only a number) and ofcourse throw in a good dose of Oprah and Chopra to the mix and we get the most confusing culture to throw anyone in. No wonder so many just give up and do it themselves.

  3. Very well said, Father. I especially appreciate how you articulate the underlying realities of the refusal to worship – an element that I have noticed seems to be the common thread running through the entire SBNR spectrum of belief/disbelief. Those SBNR’s that I have known (and there are many) who have any kind of spiritual/religious “practice” are all engaged in forms of meditation that are, essentially, ego-centric and geared towards their own peacefulness/improvement/emotional balance; this is true even when done in some form of group exercise.

    I would like to use your article as part of the discussion in a group I lead, when we resume in September. I think it would be very helpful for the people involved to understand the real dangers of SBNR.

    Schema-monk Theodore of Galion

  4. Could it be that pastors encounter folk who are RBNS – Religious but not Spiritual – in their churches? Religious being in the pejorative sence and spiritual in the Biblical/Scriptural sense? Just going through the motions for whatever reason (and there could be many reasons), but their faith isn’t alive for them. I’ve had various Christians over the years describe this RBNS phenonmenon to me (although they didn’t call it that). For example, my husband was raised in the high Episcopal/Anglican Church, was an altar boy, assisted the priest at morning mass, & was in the Singing Angels choir. Yet, his faith meant little to him outside the church walls. He went on with his life without LIVING his faith. As he tells it, he wasn’t alive to God. Thus, he went through the motions when he was at church, but none of what happened there translated into living a godly life.

  5. The complaints about finding evildoers within religions seems to me to be an excuse. A belief system cannot be disproven simply by pointing out some flagrant wrongdoers who believe in that system (or claim that they do).

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