Why do so many people say that they are “spiritual but not religious?” Usually it has something to do with some degree of disenchantment with organized religion. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know why I used to say it. For me it was a way of avoiding the grunt-work of searching for truth. It was a non-committal, relativistic place to sit on the fence and make no real decision. It was almost an agnostic perspective. Since I wasn’t sure what to decide, I would make no clear decision and just be “spiritual.”
I also believed it was a way for me to be non-judgmental of others. Choosing any particular path would mean rejecting other paths. I would have to admit that not all paths are equal. Calling myself “spiritual but not religious” allowed me to be “broad” instead of “narrow.” I would not have to confront the idea that, just maybe, someone was wrong. That didn’t seem “nice” to me. Who was I to say someone might be wrong about the path they were on? I didn’t want to risk the arrogance of claiming to be correct. “Religious” meant, “My path is the correct path” and “spiritual” meant, “All paths are correct.” I wanted to be inclusive and avoid judging others. I ran into problems, however. For example, it simply is not possible for both monotheism and polytheism to be true. But I had not yet allowed myself to confront such realities. I had not come to realize that judging a path is not the same as judging the person on the path.
One principle I failed to grasp was invincible ignorance. I was not considering that one could possibly be “wrong” about a religious path yet still gain eternal life. Not until I returned to Catholicism did this principle hit home to me. I had been steeped in a Fundamentalist Christian perspective that emphatically denied Heaven to people that had never even had an opportunity to hear about Jesus. “Too bad,” they would say. “No missionary reached them in time.” Such thinking helped fuel my desire to distance myself from “religion” and just be “spiritual.” In my own way, I was trying to give those poor, un-evangelized souls a fighting chance. “Surely, they too are spiritual, whatever their religion might be,” I thought. I didn’t realize that the Catholic religion I had been raised in and rejected was also giving them a chance. This same principle (among others) would also help me when it came time to decide which brand of Christianity to commit to. Again, I had to admit that not all Christians can be correct while teaching opposing doctrines.
It also took me a while to realize that, while most religions are about humanity’s search for God and/or eternal life, the Christian path is about God coming down to seek out humanity and offer eternal life. This is a stark contrast. It certainly does not place all religions on equal footing. There were other choices to consider as well. For example, if I decided on monotheism, would I become a slave to a harsh Master/Owner (Islam’s Allah) or a son to a loving Father (Christianity’s, Abba, “Daddy”)?
Being “spiritual but not religious” also turned me into the ultimate religious authority. I could pick and choose which things seemed best and fashion my own eclectic “religion” out of all the parts. I became the Pope, the priest, the minister and the congregation of my own little “church of Tom.” It didn’t matter if I got any of it wrong or misinterpreted the Bible because I was being spiritual and, as far as I could tell, it worked for me. So, Tom created God in his own image. It was upside down. I could pretend that it was all about love of humanity, tolerance and acceptance, but it was really about me and what I wanted (mostly comfort). Ironically, I was just being religious in my own, private way while saying I was “not religious.”
The more I realized that I didn’t have to climb up to find God, but that God had condescended to find me, the more I fell in love with Christianity. When I really delved into Catholic teachings I began to realize that abusive priests, atrocities of crusaders, inquisitions, etc. were about bad Catholics, not about Catholicism. The more I learned about the Catholic blending of faith and reason, the beauty of the Catholic religion and the lives of the Saints, the more I wanted to be spiritual AND religious. The more I understood about the history of Christianity and the different doctrines, the more I wanted to be a Catholic Christian.
Being “spiritual but not religious” was part of my journey, but not my destination. My journey continues as a spiritual, religious Catholic Christian. I’m still learning. I don’t know everything. No one does, except God. I do know that I am not God, and neither are you. We should all be glad about that! The church of Tom has disbanded. I have discovered that truth is not an idea but a person, Jesus Christ. I have submitted to the obedience of faith, the religion of the God that is a loving Father, and the original Church founded by Jesus Christ. I now call myself “spiritual and religious,” yet, I judge no one (that’s God’s job).
(A shout out to my buddy, Steve for partly inspiring this post)