It is “chic” and, I would add, a “cliche” to hear many people say today, “I am spiritual but not religious.” There is a kind of self-congratulatory tone that often goes with this self description as well, and certainly a lot of cultural approval in the secular West for such dissociative talk.

There is even some acceptance of this notion among more theologically conservative evangelicals who, on account of their “low ecclesiology” also favor a kind decentralized and highly personal notion of faith, and entertain a kind of cynicism to “organized religion.”

The Washington Post had a column on the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon this past Saturday by Michelle Boorstein entitled simply Religion. I would like to present a few excerpts and then discuss why I think we should not only retain the words “religion” and “religious,” but also be suitably proud of them.

First, a few excerpts from the article, along with a few very brief comment by me in plain red text. The full article is HERE.

We’re no longer “religious.” We’re “holy.” We’re “faithful.” We’re “spiritual.”….Diana Butler Bass, author of last year’s “Christianity After Religion,” who says the word “religion” is laden with negative, hurtful and political baggage. (Perhaps, but so is everything: Government, schools, medicine, science, etc. It would seem this is not unique to “religion” but is the human condition).

The 20 percent of Americans who now call themselves unaffiliated with any religious group see religion as much too focused on rules….(but rules and accepted practices are part of life. I wonder if these same Americans would be so pleased if their dentist or doctor threw rules, protocol or accepted medical practice to the winds? There is a place for “rules” that enshrine the collective wisdom of the ages!) 

On the other side are people such as super-popular shock pastor and writer Mark Driscoll, an evangelical conservative whose sermons have such titles as “Why I hate religion.” He preaches that the institutional church has wrongly let people feel good about themselves for their actions (such as going to worship services) instead of what they believe (which should be the Bible’s literal truth, in his view)….(Yes, here is the “dark side” of  evangelical Christianity and its “americaninst” designer-church mentality. At the end of the day, its extreme form is little different from any other modern deconstructionist, iconoclastic, existentialist, and nihilistic movement. The thinking is “away with anything I don’t like, away with anything that limits me in any way with “rules” that look to balance my little vision with the bigger picture. Away with anything I don’t like or think limits me from being…me”).

Polling shows that young Americans are considerably less apt to have religious affiliations than earlier generations were at the same age. (OK, but polls reflect what is, not what ought to be, or what is correct). They attend religious services less often, and fewer of them say religion is important in their lives. (OK, we have work to do! But that doesn’t make us wrong). But more than nine in 10 people believe in God, according to a recent Gallup poll, a statistic unchanged for decades….(but at some point we must ask if this means anything at all. It is good that they are not outright atheists, but sometimes indifference is a worse enemy than hatred). People are walking away from institutional expressions of church. They’re trying to renegotiate man’s relationship to God,” said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, a major research firm on religion….Now more and more people look to their conscience, however it’s formed, to decide for themselves.” (more on this attitude below). Although some reject the word “religion,” others simply ignore it.

OK, a tough read. Not surprising, but still disturbing.

I want to argue that the very word “religion” so widely rejected by moderns, is the very word that we need to recapture as an antidote to the self-referential, self-congratulatory modern notions that fuel the “I’m spiritual but not religious” ideology.

Frankly, the attitudes expressed in the article and in our culture are not noble or praiseworthy. The increasingly pervasive attitude is a kind of Nietzsche-like nihilism, and existentialism that says, in effect:

“I will create my own reality (existentialism) and design my own god (idolatry). I will do what I want to do and I will decide if it is right or wrong (the pride of original sin). The world revolves around me and what I think, I am the center! (Anthropocentrism and egocentricism). It is really all about me, and what I think, and what I want, and what I say.”

Now if this seems harsh, I ask you, dear reader to tell me what is inaccurate? What we are really dealing with here is a collection of tired old heresies and apostasies. This is not a tall, intellectual argument at work here. It is not a brave new world at all. It is a rehashed collection of notions already tried and found wanting. It is a set of notions that tie in easily with Americanism, and an excessive notion of liberty, detached from truth or any moorings at all. It cannot sustain, or result in anything but further dilution of a sense of community or common ground, and it leads only to the further fractioning of our communities and nation into ever more isolated cells.

This then sets up as a perfect recipe for the cultural anarchy, and power struggle we already have, and will only cause it to deepen. It is ushers in the the “tyranny of relativism.” For if there is nothing outside of us (or “me”) to which we can all look to and agree, the only way to resolve differences is power struggle. At the end of the day, the one with the most power, money, influence, and access wins. Without truth to which we bind ourselves, there is tyranny.

And sadly it all marches under the banner of a kind of self congratulatory “tolerance.” Many people actually give themselves credit for saying, “It’s all about me, and what I think. Truth is what I say it is.” A steady diet of existentialism and nihilism has actually deluded people to the extent that they do not even perceive how vain and egocentric they sound. The majority just nod and say “Amen.” “Power to the People” etc. But its not really even “power to the people,” its really just “all about me.”

But the chic “respectfulness” that such ego-maniacal talk generates also sets the stage for why the words “religion” and “religious” are so important to recover and insist on.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin religio which means to bind oneself, to constrain,  or to be tied to another. As such, the virtue of religion calls us  to look outside of ourselves, both upward to God, and outward to the great accumulated wisdom of our revealed faith.

One of the foolhardy presumptions of modern thinking is that the accumulated wisdom of some 5,000 years of human history and tradition in the Scriptures have little or nothing to say to us today. This is not only foolhardy, but prideful.

The virtue of religion acknowledges the experience of our ancestors as an important source of wisdom for us. And it is not merely their excellencies to which we look, but also their sins and struggles. The virtue of religion also acknowledges that God was in the conversation with our ancient forbearers and revealed important things to them; truthful things which withstood the test of time, and transcended cultures, nations, and empires. Yes, all those nations, culture and empires came and went but the faith perdured.

The virtue of religion recognizes that this ancient wisdom, both of human experience and divine revelation, is something to which we owe a humble hearing, and having heard it, that we should bind ourselves to it; to be tied to it in humble acceptance, such that we learn its wisdom and why it makes sense. It need not remain a simple blind obedience, but of a growing, thoughtful, careful, and humble acceptance. Religion and being religious accepts that there is a wisdom and knowledge that is bigger simply than what I think. And being open to this truth, to this teaching, and having thoughtfully assessed this wisdom, I bind myself to it, I base my life on it.

So, religion is rooted in the humility that there is something and someone bigger than what I think. It is a humility that says I should not necessarily believe everything I think. Religion is “other-centric” and it is Theocentric. By the virtue of religion we bind ourselves to the ancient, venerable and tested truths of God, in our holy Catholic, Christian and biblical faith.

More than ever in this prideful and egocentric modern age we must uphold the dignity and humble insight of the word “religion” and the reality it represents. There is someone wiser, more noble, more holy than I. And that someone we call God. And hearing his voice, we rightly bind ourselves to Him. And He, in a holy embrace binds himself to us.

This is religion. This is the embrace of  the mutual binding of covenant love.

How different, more humble and noble is this, that the prideful attitude of so many in the modern world today who say, God is whatever I say he is, and he says what I say he says. In other words, I am God.

Religion looks to God as he has credibly revealed himself in the ancient and testified sources of the Old and New Testament. And listening at his feet we discover who He is as  He has revealed himself,  not merely as we wish him to be.

Finally, to those who say “Well I’m not really against religion, just organized religion”, this is a false category. There’s no such thing as unorganized religion. True religion is ultimately a communal summons by God for people to walk with Him, not just individuals living in separate stovepipes, but in communion with others. God establishes faith to be the organizing principle of a people, of a culture, even a nation.

We moderns maybe petulantly down on “institutions,” but there are very few entities that are not institutions, it is just which institution we’re down on that we like to dis.  For those who sniff at the “institution” of the Church, still join the “institutions” of political parties, or work for large firms, or government entities,  and get services from medical institutions such as hospitals and medical practicums. So the claim that “I’m spiritual, not religious” just means a person is down on “institutional religion is neither credible nor does it comport with reality. Religion, by its nature is institutional.

Thus, Religion, both the word and its  practice is noble, it must be insisted upon as a magnificent description of what faith really is. Is a clinging to God as he has revealed himself; it is a binding of oneself to the revealed truth of that loving God who embraces us and clings to us in the mutual binding of covenant love. It is a humble submission to one who is greater and wiser, who is indeed the Creator and Sustainer of all things;  it is a wise and reasonable accepting of the fact that there is someone greater than I, to whom I ought to be bound in a and loving and humble submission.

I am spiritual, but I am also religious,  and you can quote me on that.

In this video, Cardinal Dolan reminds, “You can’t have Jesus without his body, the Church.

31 Responses

  1. Wendy Baiyewu says:

    I totally agree with everything that you commented on, and I did listen to an interview on NPR Radio on the said Subject with the author of the book based on the article….thanks for your time and talent in dealing with such a time sensitive topic…

  2. Jennifer says:

    I want my religion to keep me from being more “me.” The real me loves looking pretty, watching television, fast food, “romance” and other stupid self-indulgent stuff. I want to bind myself to God and to lead a life of discipline and restraint, and service to others and this requires the support of an organized community. Like a church…not a yoga or meditation class.

    Thank you for this lovely post, Monsignor. You have reminded me again how dependent I am on Heavenly Father and Christ. How lost and shallow I would be if I did not hold tight to them…

  3. John says:

    The problem with the word “religion” is that this word has been abused and is now often used completely segregated from its intended meaning. There are many new age ideologies (e.g. science-tology) that calls themselves a religion without the one true God. The same for the word “church”, where any group of people can come together and open a branch, preach whatever the mass wants to hear, and call themselves a church. They can probably even get tax-free status for all the donations they received. It is hard to fight these societal trends as secularism is increasingly being worshiped as the new religion and the new “god” that can bring world peace and harmony where everyone can live together without religion and God. At least Catholism is un-mistakable as the traditional age-old religion and church that is passed down through the generations from Christ and the apostles. We can’t fight the societal trends, but we can continue to be the beacon of light that will draw the faithful to the one true God who alone can save us.

    • OK. What do you think of the critique of “spiritual but not religious” folks?

    • Sarah in WA says:

      We should not acquiesce to a secular redefinition of the words “church” and “religion” as though these terms are simply a mundane “group of people can come together and open a branch, preach whatever the mass wants to hear.”

      I’d rather contend with a person who holds a different set of religious principles than contend with a “spiritual not religious” person. To convert an adherent of another religion requires me to demonstrate that my religion contains the fullest measure of truth, and theirs does not. To convert a “spiritual not religious” person requires me to take on a demi-god whose pronouncements are arbitrary and irrational, and who usually denies that there is any objective, knowable truth. This is a much more difficult task.

  4. PM says:

    An excellent piece. It may not, I fear, go down well with your ‘conservative’ compatriots, for the attitude you are criticising is the epitome of capitalist individualism.

  5. Fred says:

    You’ve written one for the ages. God continue to bless you.

  6. Steve M says:

    Thank you Msgr. Pope. As usual very thought provoking. I do not know if it is only a modern phenomenum but I doubt it. As a species we don’t like to think about what we believe or say. If one doesn’t want to question their own actions so they can “feel” good about themselves then it is easiest to blame religion for being to rigid. Although not Catholic, C.S Lewis in the “Screwtape Letters” has a near perfect examination of conscience for those times we see the problem outside ourselves. Somedays we make it very easy for the devil. Just reading the comments you can see that many of us don’t “read” your post.

    • Yes, thanks. Sometimes I find that the comment thread goes off in its own direction. Or then too, rather than read the whole article someone reads a certain line and then sets to writing.

  7. Jeremy says:

    Your point is well taken, but I want to defend the honor of my beloved existentialists. The attitude you call “a kind of Nietzsche-like nihilism, and existentialism” may be prevalent today, but it could only come from a bad reading of Nietzsche and a shallow interpretation of existentialism. To be fair, existentialism had a bad landing in America, and that is exactly the sort of shallow interpretation that predominates – where concepts like “freedom” and “authenticity” are taken to mean “I’ve got to be true to myself!” in the silliest way. The same applies to Nietzsche – it’s hardly accurate to associate him with nihilism when his biggest philosophical project was to fight against nihilism.

    Again, this isn’t a criticism of your main point; I only want to say that it’s inaccurate to call the attitude you describe “existentialism.” The existentialists were a lot smarter and deeper than that.

  8. PD says:

    You stated: “but rules and accepted practices are part of life”
    Yes, and I think most people understand rules are needed to live in a civilized society.
    However, as the article also noted: “It’s more than semantics. [Decades ago] we really, really believed if you didn’t go to Mass, you’d go to hell. There was a belief that the church had a structure that would get you to heaven if you followed the rules. . . . Now more and more people look to their conscience, however it’s formed, to decide for themselves.”
    I believe it is this type of “church made rule” that chase people away!

    • Have you not read the Third Commandment? Nor John 6:53? And besides, when did you last hear a sermon on Missing Mass as a mortal sin? The Church still teaches this, but it has been poorly preached, frankly most don’t even know this. Thus, is not your analysis poor? You don’t really think that is what is going on here do you? At the end of the day it really isn’t about rules, it really is about “me”

      • newenglandsun says:

        I’m planning on converting to Byzantine Catholicism and currently, the closest Byzantine Catholic Church is about 35 minutes away from where I live. Not only that, but my future plans are to get my graduate studies at FSU which would end up putting the nearest Byzantine Catholic Church about 4 hours away. But from what I found out, it is not going to mass deliberately that is a mortal sin.
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kr6X9hn4-Y

  9. Shawnbm says:

    It reminds of a song penned by a young English Catholic–

    “All through the day, I, Me, Mine, I, Me, Mine, I, Me, Mine
    All through the night, I, Me, Mine, I, Me, Mine, I, Me, Mine.”

    His name was George Harrison

    P.S. raised catholic he was, but I have no personal knowledge of where he was at the time the cancer took him

  10. Shawnbm says:

    I neglected to add that Timothy Cardinal Dolan’s homily was fabulous. I especially like the allusion to Saint John Lateran having scaffolding over it and needing to be “reformed”, much as the Church is in need of continual reform. That is an excellent image for some theological reflection on the Body of Christ and what that means to all who call themselves Christian.

  11. Donna L. says:

    Excellent!

    I like what C.S. Lewis had to say about “religion”. He compared it to a road map. I like this analogy, as it correctly suggests that religion (like a map) is a means for us to find our way to God. Granted, there are a lot of faulty “road maps” out there, but what is so commonly seen as all the religious “trappings” of the Catholic Church are really just “roads” that lead to God.

    Our school system here in the U.S. encourages young adults to “make their own meaning” out of the literature they read, and to open their minds to accept other beliefs. It’s all about “making connections”. It is largely discouraged to accept teachings that have been handed down because this is actually considered ‘mindless’. Hence, our population continues to be filled with people who would rather find their own way rather than look at someone else’s road map!!

    • Sarah in WA says:

      I completely agree with your characterization of the US school system. This is precisely why I chose to study engineering instead of literature in college, even though I love literature more than I love science. I couldn’t countenance the arbitrariness of “make your own meaning.” Engineers are not allowed to “make their own meaning” out of physical laws, or buildings and bridges would simply fall down!

      • Yeah me too, that is why I left Psychology in College for Computer Science. Of course then I went on to theology! But at least true Catholic Theology has pretty clear parameters.

        • Rick says:

          The psychology in the Prima Secunda also has clear moral underpinnings. Too bad that not many psychologists today know about.

  12. Morrie says:

    When I hear ” I’m not religious but I’m spiritual” I respond ” I’m not honest but you’re beautiful”.

  13. RichardGTC . says:

    I almost never use the word religion or religious because whenever I could use one of those words I can instead use the word Catholic, which I do use.

    I think Protestant universalism, if that is the right term, is akin to spirituality. Getting someone who accepts that doctrine to explain its precise meaning or anything else that he precisely believes can be quite difficult, though he won’t hesitate to say all the ways that he thinks the Catholic Church is wrong.

    “Religion, by its nature is institutional.”–well said. I think there is an implicit idea in modern, non-institutional spirituality that what we have in common less important than that by which we differ, whereas with institutional religion the opposite is both implicit and made explicit: that which we have in common is more important than that by which we differ.

    • Rick says:

      Newman would agree the religion is not so much institutional as “apostolic”, hence the importance of apostolic succession. In religion we submit to a living authority.

  14. Rick says:

    John Henry Newman in the defense of the papacy, gave the following definition of religion:
    “In the Apostles’ days the peculiarity of faith was submission to a living authority… If you will not look out for a living authority, and will bargain for private judgment, then say at once that you have not Apostolic faith.”
    Discourses to Mixed Congregations: #10: Faith and Private Judgment. P. 207

  15. Deacon John M. Bresnahan says:

    Considering ourselves Masters of the Universe (thus making it logical to idol-worship ourselves as God and create our own religion with its own rules around it) goes back to something called Original Sin .

  16. Patricia says:

    Perhaps people who do not want to be identified as religious, are too interested in what others are thinking, They want to be current, hip, and not labeled with what they percieve to be a negitive restrictive narrow term.

    If we want to re-claim the term religious as a positive dynamic term, it is up to us Catholics to be dynamic positive witnesses to the faith, fearless, compassionate, and Christlike , demonstrating our conviction ,with our words and lives, and stop worrying about being popular or one of the cool kids.

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