Spiritual but Not Religious?

Dividing spirituality and religion is actually harder than it sounds.

by Ruth Rosen | October 16 2018

Jackie was raised in a secular Jewish home. She and her husband keep certain traditions, though not in a particularly Orthodox way. “My husband likes us to say the blessings on Shabbat, which is fine. We don’t always have a challah, so we might say ha motzi over a Triscuit,” she says.

Jackie has spent much of her life working for non-profits. She does not need religion to tell her to love her neighbor or do unto others as she would have them do unto her. She is more drawn to Buddhism than to the Jewish religion because it seems to reduce anxiety through some intriguing ideas and practices. She’s not opposed to Hinduism either; she’s been to India and occasionally reposts Eastern religious content on social media. Jackie doesn’t exactly believe in an afterlife, but since her father died, she alternately wonders or worries about it.

Jake was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. As a boy he thought a lot about God, but by the time he was 14, he was mostly frustrated by all the kosher and Sabbath laws. After college, he fell in love with Beth, who had been raised in a church where her parents were very active. But Beth’s home life did not reflect the things her parents supposedly believed.

Beth left the church when she left home. “I never really experienced God there,” she shrugs. Jake adds, “And I don’t see how all the religious minutia I was expected to follow brought me any closer to God, either.” The two of them agree that God exists. Now that they have kids, they are trying to figure out what, if anything, to teach them about God—but they are wary of both synagogue and church.

Jordan was raised in a Messianic Jewish home. She’s always had a strong Jewish identity and, from a young age, sincerely believed that Jesus is the Messiah. Her beliefs were deeply important to her, and for years, she freely shared them with others. But now, in her 20s, she is seriously uncomfortable about much of what she was taught. She doesn’t know how she can continue in those beliefs without feeling she is continually judging or out of sync with others. “And I’m not sure anymore if they really are my beliefs or just my parents.’”

Jordan no longer attends any kind of formal worship services. “It’s too restricting, plus I have a lot of questions. I guess you could say I’m searching,” she says, “but I don’t really want anyone to tell me how or where to look for God. I have to find the answers on my own.”

Each “person” you just read about is a composite of real people, and the quotes are real as well. What do they all have in common? They all consider themselves “Spiritual but not religious” (commonly referred to in various articles/books as SBNR).

What is “Spiritual but not religious”?

No one knows exactly where the phrase originated,1 but author Sven Erlandson named and described it as a movement in his book, Spiritual but Not Religious, written in 2000. More than a decade later, surveys show that SBNR continues to be quite a trend.

How did “spiritual” and “religious” come to be regarded as mutually exclusive (or at least mutually incompatible) in the minds of so many people? Especially since the words “spiritual” and “religious” are not naturally opposed to one another?

Defining terms


Look up the word “spiritual” online (or in one of those gargantuan books that you might be using as a doorstop) and you’ll find it means: “relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”

But you’ll also find that spiritual is “relating to religion or religious belief.”

In Merriam-Webster you’ll see that spiritual is “of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit“ and it is also “relating to sacred matters” and “concerned with religious values.”

Dig a little deeper and you get Latin spiritualis, from Latin, “of breathing, of wind, from spiritus.”

The source of true spirituality is the divine breath of God.

This last one is key, because it speaks to the source of the human spirit, at least according to both Jewish and Christian traditions. The source of true spirituality is the divine breath of God (see Genesis 2:7).


Search for the word “religious” and you’ll see words like “devout, pious, reverent, godly, God-fearing, faithful, devoted, committed. ‘a religious person.’”

You’ll also see that it means “forming part of someone’s thought about or worship of a divine being” as well as “treated or regarded with a devotion and scrupulousness appropriate to worship.”

And again, if you dig a little deeper you’ll find “religious” comes from the Latin religio, meaning “reverence, obligation.”

For the purposes of this article, let’s say that “spiritual” has to do with the unseen reality that affects or relates to the non-physical aspects of human beings. “Religious” has to do with specific beliefs about—and devotion to­—the divine source of that spiritual reality. Those definitions fit pretty well with the meaning of SBNR.

What the dictionary won’t tell you 

What the dictionary won’t tell you (but Wikipedia will) is the meaning of the phrase “Spiritual but not religious”:

“Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) also known as “Spiritual but not affiliated” (SBNA) is a popular phrase . . . used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that takes issue with organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe . . .  the concept of religion, but in contemporary usage spirituality has often been associated with the interior life of the individual, placing an emphasis upon the well-being of the “mind-body-spirit”, while religion refers to organizational or communal dimensions.2

According to Robert C. Fuller, many people (especially in Western cultures):

. . . feel a tension between their personal spirituality and membership in a conventional religious organization. Most of them value curiosity, intellectual freedom, and an experimental approach to religion. Many go so far as to view organized religion as the major enemy of authentic spirituality, claiming that spirituality is private reflection and private experience—not public ritual. To be “religious” conveys an institutional connotation, usually associated with Abrahamic traditions: to attend worship services, to say Mass, to light Hanukkah candles. To be “spiritual,” in contrast, connotes personal practice and personal empowerment having to do with the deepest motivations of life.3

Why do you suppose so many people are drawn to what is spiritual? Why should it be natural to hunger for an aspect of life that goes beyond what is merely physical? Why should it matter whether we are more than just the sum of our biological parts or whether we are merely living as a response to whatever animal instincts or chemical reactions we happen to experience?  Things like love and laughter and meaning and purpose and self-sacrificing commitment make life worth living. These experiences, these parts of our humanity cannot be studied under a microscope or discovered in an autopsy. They are part of the realm of spirituality.

But whereas most people long for things that are spiritual in nature, that longing can also pose uncertainty and even fear. How can we know what we need to know to have spiritual life and health?

There is a natural pull and push response to spirituality. We want to receive the joy and meaning that spirituality offers, but to believe in the existence of anything we can’t perceive or prove empirically opens a door that many might rather leave shut. Why? Opening that door obligates us to respond to what is on the other side.

Common types of spiritual but not religious

Wikipedia also draws from Linda Mercandante’s 2014 book, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious. Mercandante suggests there are five specific types of SBNR people. Though presented as separate types of people, some types overlap, as with people like Jackie, Jake, Beth, and Jordan.

  • Some SBNR are dissenters from religious institutions, either in protest of some negative experience, or else simply because they have drifted away and don’t see organized religion as necessary. Yet they are still hungry for spiritual meaning.
  • Others have a casual interest in spirituality as a possible means to solve a problem or benefit their quality of life in some way.
  • Explorers enjoy the novelty of different spiritual ideas and experiences but seem unlikely to ever commit to any one set of beliefs and practices in particular.
  • Seekers are actively looking for something they can commit to.
  • Immigrants have found themselves with very different spiritual beliefs than they grew up with, but they still identify on some level (at least culturally) with their upbringing. They struggle with the concept of having chosen a different religion and hesitate to label their new (or gravitation toward new) beliefs.

(Adapted from the Wikipedia article that references Mercandante’s book. 4)

Many people dissent or turn from religion because their experience seemed truly disconnected from spiritual life.

Each of these types has something in common: they reject forms and rituals that are devoid of meaning. Many people dissent or turn from religion because their religious experience seemed truly disconnected from spiritual life.

As contemporary as the trend toward spiritual but not religious may be, the underlying reasons people give for identifying as SBNR are not unique to our time, and the same can be said about the different types of SBNR. In fact, issues relevant to the SBNR movement are so ancient that the Jewish Bible addresses many of them—and so do Jesus and his followers in the “Newer” Testament.

When people become “religious but not spiritual”

The goal of religion in the Bible is for people to know, love, trust, enjoy, and obey God. But sometimes the forms and traditions that were supposed to point people to God can actually become the object of worship in place of God. Sometimes the people who most zealously enforce religious policies don’t seem to know and love God—much less know and love the people who are supposed to be drawn to God through the religion being offered.

Part of the test of what we believe about God is the way we behave towards other people. The behaviors and attitudes of people who claim a relationship with God should spring from a revelation of God’s will and His ways. But often that is not the case.  Religious people sometimes “throw the book” at others, striking blows that make anything religious appear odious in the eyes of those whom they’ve treated in ungodly ways.

People who care about enforcing religious rules and traditions without caring about the people who are supposed to be drawn to God through them might be described as religious but not spiritual.

Throughout the Jewish Bible, God instructed people to make certain objects and observe certain rituals so that we could have physical ways of understanding certain spiritual truths. But the Jewish Bible is packed with stories of people who got their priorities confused. You can read how people put their trust in sacred objects and rituals without really understanding their meaning, without really trusting in God. They checked off all the religious boxes without caring about God’s heart, and without repenting of their sin, particularly their sins of injustice toward those who were oppressed.

That’s why God, through the prophet Isaiah, told the people to stop their futile sacrifices, sacred meetings, and other religious rituals. He said:

“Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:15­-17)

God was calling out His own people for being religious but not spiritual! He especially hated it when religious leaders did things that caused the rest of the people to despise the very things that were supposed to be meaningful. God understood very well that religious hypocrisy was a big factor in turning people away from the relationship He wanted to have with them. You can read a graphic example of this in 1 Samuel chapter 2.

It’s not that God didn’t care about the sacrificial system He set up as a means of atonement. Through those sacrifices people could express their repentance and need for forgiveness, and they could express faith in the means God chose to extend His forgiveness. All of that was for the sake of a restored relationship. But God made it clear what He wants out of that relationship: “…And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

Jesus also makes it clear that God is concerned not just with dos and don’ts but with what’s in our hearts. His words in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7, paint a stunning picture of how Jesus wants his followers to relate to God, to one another, and even to their enemies.

He also takes note of those who fit the description of religious but not spiritual, and is especially hard on leaders:

If you have a problem with religious hypocrites, you are not alone—so does God!

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:23-25).

So if you have a problem with religious hypocrites, you are not alone—so does God! He’s warned us about religious hypocrisy through the prophets and through (we believe) the Messiah, Jesus.

But hypocrisy cuts both ways, and no one is completely immune—not even those who are spiritual but not religious.

Is there a hidden hypocrisy in the spiritual but not religious movement?

Most people, regardless of their beliefs, struggle with hypocrisy from time to time—it’s the rare person who always lives up to his or her own ideals or convictions. No one wants to be a hypocrite, but the problem is, hypocritical people can’t see their own hypocrisy, which makes it almost impossible to change. Probably the least hypocritical people are the ones who are willing to ask themselves hard questions and be open to change when they don’t like the answers. Questions like:

Do I really want to know God, or am I mostly interested in an experience of spiritual well-being?

Do I really care about God, or am I more interested in presenting myself as a deep person that others can see as spiritual?

Would I still want to know God if it meant discovering that He wants to be part of my everyday choices?

Can I accept that I can only know and relate to God on His terms?

These are all derived from one central question: Am I ready to know that God is God, and I am not?

As human beings, we have a natural desire to decide for ourselves what is true and not true, what is good and what is evil. We want to set our own boundaries and navigate our own course. In short, we desire autonomy. And that desire for autonomy often causes delusions of autonomy. Actually, none of us is free to determine the realities of life according to our preferences. But the delusion that we are somehow entitled to do so makes it natural for us to resist and/or resent whatever or whomever appears to threaten our idea of freedom. We chafe at others telling us what to do. We want to be our own authority.

As long as we cling to the idea of our own authority, we will never be able to connect with God—because if God is real, He is the ultimate authority and He will not be any less of who He is in order to have a relationship with us, no matter how much He loves us. If God is real, then His love for people is better informed than ours, and His understanding of how the human race can best thrive is superior to ours.

Deep within us is a real and true hunger for spiritual meaning—a desire to connect with something, someone greater than we are. And yet we fight the reality and the truth of our own hunger because we have filled up on another desire, to be our own ultimate authority. We congratulate ourselves and others for the courage to live as we see fit, to be who we want to be, to throw off anyone who says that our choices might not be the best.

That is why so many of us, although drawn to the idea of having some kind of relationship with God, do not want the kind in which we discover that God is entitled to expect things of us that we don’t especially want to deliver. We might like the idea of knowing what is true. But if it becomes too personal or doesn’t fit with our preferences, we may flirt with the possibility of truth, but not really engage with it wholeheartedly because we want to keep our options open.

Knowing God is so much more than a set of beliefs and obligations.

Spiritual seekers

True seekers don’t have the luxury of keeping their options open. They are focused on the object of their search. They will put aside personal interest and agenda to find what is real and what is worth committing to. They have a laser focus and a willingness to pay the price for their search because they sense that what they are looking for is urgently important. They desire God, not merely an interesting or exciting experience, but as the source of something they don’t want to live without. What are the implications of that for a spiritual but not religious person?

If God has breathed spiritual life into us, we owe everything to Him. If we owe our very lives to God, how can we not be obligated to Him in specific ways? But knowing God is so much more than a set of beliefs and obligations. It is also learning about love, grace, forgiveness, and what it means to be a whole person.

God is looking for people who want to understand their obligations to Him and, amazingly, He has obligated Himself to those who will trust Him. And through that amazingly mutual obligation, spirituality and religion can fit together to form a way of life that is full of meaning, purpose, and connectedness with God and other people. Isn’t that worth seeking?

Are you seeking? Even if you have seen yourself as just casually interested in spiritual things, or even if you are an explorer who is more interested in an array of experiences than in finding a truth to commit to, it’s possible for you to become a true seeker. It is not only possible, but it happens all the time. A casual interest can turn into a deep interest. A hunger for experience can lead to a hunger for truth.

True seekers never stop seeking. That doesn’t mean that they never commit to a particular belief or embrace particular obligations. It means that they never stop looking to deepen their relationship with God and integrate their connection with Him into the ways that they think about and treat other people.

The Jewish Bible makes it clear that God isn’t playing spiritual hide and seek. He lets us know that there is nothing more important than a fact-based understanding of who God is, as well as a heart connection with Him. God promises to reward those who truly seek Him, no matter where they’ve been or what they’ve thought in the past.

“But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29).


1. Though it is buried in an obscure book of anthropological papers written in 1960, Publications in Anthropology, issues 57-65, p. 9.

2. Spiritual but not religious

3. Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 5.

4. Wiki’s source was Linda A. Mercandante, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 35-67.