I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.

As a priest, when I hear people recite this cliché, I know that what they’re trying to tell me is some version of these ideas:

I’m not a member of an organized body that teaches specific doctrines about God and humanity. But I’m not some crazy nihilist, either. I believe that there’s something out there that’s bigger than all of us, but I couldn’t say exactly what it is.

I know that these spiritual but not religious people mean well. I also realize that they’re trying to communicate to me that they’re okay with religion and religious people, in contrast to the antagonism among the disciples of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett or the proselytes of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. While I genuinely appreciate the affability and goodwill, I also can’t help but wonder if these well-intentioned people are much closer to being religious than they realize.


In fact, I would argue that, in claiming to be spiritual but not religious, they are putting the cart before the horse. Let me explain.

The idea that religion is a genus, of which Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism are species, is a very recent invention. Moreover, the notion that these so-called religions are belief systems that one chooses, similar to the way in which one shops for a new car, is a peculiar feature of our contemporary, hyper-commodified Western society. We now think of religion as something that can be extracted from particular institutions and practices in specific times and places; this fact is an intentional byproduct of the Western nation-state. As William Cavanaugh eloquently argues in his book, The Myth of Religious Violence, “The fact that Christianity is construed as a religion, whereas nationalism is not, helps to ensure that the Christian’s public and lethal loyalty belongs to the nation-state” (p. 60). If we can just keep religion out of politics, then everything will be peaceful and rational.

But the word religion has been around for a long time, and it used to mean something quite different before the invention of the modern nation-state.

In antiquity, philosophers generally agreed that there was a specific virtue that described one’s relationship to the creator of the universe. This posture of gratitude for one’s own existence was a virtue that needed to be cultivated alongside other virtues such as courage, wisdom, liberality, and truthfulness. The name of this virtue was religio (Latin) or latreía (Greek). These philosophers were not religious fundamentalists. They rejected the anthropomorphized gods of popular piety, who were basically humans with superpowers. But many were theists, and they recognized that the god who created the world (whoever he/she/it might be) was worthy of worship and honor.

This category is a strange one for us moderns. We typically think of people falling into two categories: (1) those who belong to organized religion, and (2) those who live their lives as de facto atheists (even if they happen to believe in God). But many of the ancients fell into a different category. They didn’t go to church or participate in the superstitious religious practices of their contemporaries. But they believed that given the fact that there is a God, human beings should do something about it. There must be a way to give back to this God, even if only symbolically.

We have examples of such people in the Bible. Job, for instance, is described as a man who was “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). What is remarkable about this description is that Job was not an Israelite. He did not belong to the Abrahamic covenant and was never instructed in the teachings of the Law. He was a total outsider. But somehow, even though he was never exposed to the Levitical sacrificial rites, he felt compelled to rise early in the morning and make burnt offerings for the sins of his family (1:5). The ancient philosophers, if they had been familiar with this text, would have said that Job was an exemplar of the virtue of religion.

This understanding of religion carried over into the Christian tradition, and the writers of the Early Church developed their understanding of religion to include the specific duties of Christians and the ceremonies of the Church. But they never lost sight of the fact that the basic impulse of religion is to express one’s gratitude to God the Creator. Even in the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas cited Cicero as an authority on the virtue of religion, who defined it as “offering service and ceremonial rites to a superior nature that humans call divine” (Summa theologiae II-II.81.1 sed contra). St. Thomas also made it quite clear that religion is a moral virtue, not a theological virtue. This is because human reason, apart from special revelation, can only believe in God. To believe God requires that we know God’s promises as revealed in Scripture and it requires the theological virtue we call faith.

Some might object that the virtue of religion is opposed to the Christian faith. If the language of religion is that of obligation and what we owe to God, doesn’t this amount to works righteousness? Isn’t Christianity about grace and mercy and God’s unconditional love? But we have to understand the nature of this debt that religion seeks to repay, which is not opposed to gratitude for God’s grace that is freely given.

The ancients also recognized the virtue of piety, which describes the debt each of us owes to our parents. Most of us, despite whatever flaws our parents might have had, recognize that we owe something to our parents for bringing us into the world and raising us. We intuitively sense that we should express our gratitude by showing them our love and respect. This is analogous to the impulse that drives the virtue of religion. We are not trying to earn favor with God out of servile fear; we are simply responding to a human intuition that we should express our gratitude to God for our very existence.

It should be clear by now that this religion is a far cry from religion as it is typically understood today. But the etymology is beside the point. What is important is that this older understanding of religion captures an important facet of natural theology. With all due respect to Karl Barth and fideists everywhere, the virtue of religion reminds us that there is an intuitive human recognition not only that God exists but also that we ought to do something in response to this awareness.

The loss of this older sense of religion has impoverished our public discourse. When religious people are portrayed in popular media, the default examples are often holy roller TV preachers or fanatical members of Opus Dei. Even the more benign descriptions of religion tend to miss the mark. Stephen Asma’s recent op-ed in The New York Times defends religion against E.O. Wilson and Sam Harris, who have famously attacked religious beliefs for their irrationality. But, as he explains,

I do not intend to try to rescue religion as reasonable. It isn’t terribly reasonable. But I do want to argue that its irrationality does not render it unacceptable, valueless or cowardly. Its irrationality may even be the source of its power.

He considers the emotional power of religious rituals, which surround us with other people and help us feel a communal bond. Especially in times of crisis, rituals such as funerals serve an important therapeutic function. From an evolutionary standpoint, “feeling well is more important than thinking well for my survival.” While Asma does not subscribe to the teachings of any particular religion, he finds it useful for many people, even if it is irrational.

But even this amicable portrayal of religion has no place for natural theology, which means it has no place for the virtue of religion. When Asma uses the word religion, he has in mind specific beliefs — especially therapeutic beliefs such as My mother is in a better place now or This is a difficult time, but I know God has a plan for me. But how would he explain the ancient philosophers and all those throughout human history who arrived at the conclusion that God exists, yet did not have hold any of the beliefs that Asma would consider religious? How would he explain the philosophers whose belief in God was not a source of comfort or reassurance, but rather a source of confusion and impenetrable mystery? These philosophers’ conception of religion was thoroughly — in fact, exclusively — rational.

Asma thinks he is defending religion when he writes:

Atheists like Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson and Sam Harris are evaluating religion at the neocortical level — their criteria for assessing it is the rational scientific method. I agree with them that religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity, but we’re at the wrong bar.

We certainly are. But the mistake is even more fundamental than Asma suggests. The problem is not that we’re evaluating religion at the neocortical level, but rather that we’re evaluating rationality at the neocortical level. Asma is assuming a materialist understanding of reality, which is just as dogmatic as the religious beliefs he describes as irrational.

Asma seems unaware that many human beings throughout the centuries have been religious without any of the trappings he thinks are essential to the notion of religion. When St. Paul stood in the Areopagus in Athens, he declared

Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23)

As Paul went on to preach to them, “He is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’” (17:27b-29).

For Christians, being religious means that we embed ourselves within the life and practices of the Church and we adhere to its teachings. But, following the older sense of the word, being religious indicates something even more basic: it means recognizing God as creator and responding with gratitude. Many people (including those who call themselves spiritual but not religious) recognize the reality of the divine and feel a need to participate in it somehow, even if they are not quite ready to embrace all the teachings of Christianity.

This is an impulse toward religion. This is a good thing. It reveals the seeds of a moral virtue. They do not yet have the virtue of faith, but it isn’t our job (or theirs) to habituate this virtue. In fact, it cannot be habituated — it can only be received as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, it would be more accurate to call such people religious but not spiritual. And the best way to help them cultivate this virtue of religion is to invite them to church. Going to church provides the opportunity to witness in action the rites and ceremonies in which we give our due reverence to God.

The Church is a divine institution, but consists of human beings, so it is not without flaws. Yet it is the place where human beings gather to hear the Word of God preached and proclaimed, and the place where we are grafted into the body of Christ through his sacraments. This is where we find true religion, in all of its fulfillment.


About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri.

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2 Responses

  1. David Smith

    Excellent article. I appreciate the work in the sources. One thought: It’s quite common for connotation to change over time for a word. What would we lose by keeping the flipped meanings of spiritual and religious today, and just insisting that all people are spiritual in the sense you’ve just described as classically religious?

    • Stewart Clem

      You raise a good question, David. I’m honestly not too worried about the terminology. As you said, language evolves. The English word ‘prevent’, for example, used to mean ‘to go before; to prepare the way’, which is nearly the opposite of its meaning today. There’s nothing to be gained by recovering the older sense and insisting that’s what the word really means.

      My aim in this essay wasn’t to argue that ‘religious’ really means what the ancient philosophers meant when they used the word. The etymology was really just a springboard for exploring a different understanding of religion that has completely fallen by the wayside. It’s not just that the word ‘religion’ used to mean one thing, now another. It’s that the older sense has been entirely erased from our cultural imagination. We con’t have a contemporary English word that captures this older sense. Whether we need to expand our vocabulary or expand the meaning of the word ‘religion’, I don’t know. All I know is that we’ve lost something, and that loss becomes painfully obvious when I read pieces like the NYT article I cited.


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