In Defense of the Non-Religious

September 12th, 2011

Google "spiritual but not religious" and a picture of a shirtless, greasy-haired hippie weirding out everyone on the beach will be among the first results.

“I’m spiritual but not religious…”

Few phrases in the English language chap my delicate, pasty hide faster than that one.  It conjures images in my mind of aging hippies playing with magick crystals and talking about faeries and just generally needing a punch in the face because they misspell nerdy words to make them seem more alluring.

Nevertheless, it has come to my attention that despite all evidence to the contrary, not all spiritual, non-religious people are like this.

Then I started really thinking about what it means to be “spiritual” but not “religious,” and it dawned on me that maybe these people have the right idea.

So, just for today, I’m going to suppress all my face punching urges, because I’ve learned a few things about what it means to be spiritual but not religious.

Why Do You Care?

If you’re anything like me, then you bristle at people who claim they can be spiritual without religion.

Why is that?

Is it because we know people are missing out on the joy of organized religion?

Or is it because non-religious, spiritual people seem to have found a shortcut that we didn’t think of?  Most “spiritual” people seem to be just as happy, content and joyful in life as any Christian, and lo and behold, they seem to have done it without all the baggage, politics, and human drama that is so often organized religion.  And that makes us mad because we take pride in how religious we are, and for all the bullcrap we put up with in church, we should be way happier than non-religious people.  Non-religious people should not be allowed to believe that God loves them as much as us!

Show of hands, if you could have all the benefits of organized religion…just without organized religion, who would take it?  Probably a lot of us would rather be “spiritual but not religious,” if we thought we could get away with it.

Who’s In and Who’s Out?

Religious people spend a lot of time figuring out who’s “one of us.”

We create creeds and draw lines in the sand over some little grain of sand in the Bible so we can know who’s really a Christian, and who’s a milk-toast, spineless sissy who doesn’t believe in hell.  Who’s in and who’s out?

And then there’s the non-religious guy who just raises his hand and says, “I’m out.”

Those non-religious types defy control.  They refuse to be categorized and divided and put in little boxes, if that’s what it’s going to take to be a part of religion.  Maybe they already know they don’t believe the right things or vote the right way to be a part of your church.

I know this is a shock to you, but people love to have control over others.  We like to tell others what to do and think.  Reason number two why we can’t stand non-religious people.

I’d Rather Be Religious but Not Spiritual

Now before go on, I do have to take one quick swipe at the “spiritual / not religious crowd.”

That’s a really dumb thing to call yourself.

Two reasons: first, if you call yourself “spiritual,” then you believe that people have spirits.  Therefore, because everyone has spirits, everyone is “spiritual,” whether or not they do “spiritual” things.  So, thanks, calling yourself “spiritual” has told us absolutely nothing about you, hippie.

Second, if you are “spiritual” enough to give yourself such a pretentious label, then I assume you do something to cultivate your spirituality, whether with crystals or tarot cards or illegal psychotropic substances.  You probably haven’t gathered the irony that any little ritual you do to “be spiritual” is your “religion,” therefore, you are in fact “religious.”

Boom, sucka.  I’ll show you who’s religious.  You are.

That being said: Christians, by lowering the boom on these “un-churched” fools, I’ve proven something else to you.

We don’t have a monopoly on spirituality.

The only thing we have a monopoly on is our ritual, our religion.  When we fail at our religion, people won’t buy our spirituality.

Jesus met a ton of spiritual but not religious people.  And he didn’t have so much of a problem with them as he did with the “religious but not spiritual” crowd.

Calling people “un-churched” is a pretty dumb thing to call people, yet strangely correct.  The word doesn’t imply that people outside our control are “unspiritual.”  They’re just “un-churched,” “un-indoctrinated,” “uncontrolled.”

What do you think, Christians?  Is it possible that the “spiritual” crowd has found a shortcut to spirituality?  How little “religion” can you have and still be “spiritual?”

Matt Appling is a pastor and school teacher in Kansas City, Missouri.  He blogs at

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