What does “spiritual but not religious” really mean, anyway?

I recently read an article on Medium that attempted to make the case that the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR for short) categorization was a bit of a lazy cop-out that was more appealing on dating profiles than putting one’s religion in, for fear that it would turn people off. He suggested that SBNR folks are often what I would call “religion-lite:” say for Christian-ish SBNRs, they might have general beliefs about Jesus, salvation, and heaven, but not go to church or considering themselves part of a church community.

I’m sure that is an adequate definition for many. But to me, that is not an encompassing definition of SBNRs, and it’s also a cheapened version of spirituality.

This Barna article dives more deeply into how the beliefs and practices of SBNRs differ from those in institutionalized religion, and you’re welcome to take a look if that’s your thing. But for the purposes of this post, I want to make an argument for one way to differentiate between “spiritual” and “religious.” I wonder if this conceptualization might speak to you, too.

I will preface this by saying I am, as you likely know, a therapist. I am deeply touched by psychotherapy that has an understanding and appreciation of spirituality. Not in a Christian counseling, giving-you-religion sort of way – not at all. But there are certain therapeutic modalities that go beyond mechanistic, behavior-based therapy approaches (I’m looking at you, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 🤨), but instead understand that there is a powerful life force that – when tapped into – will inherently move us toward the good. They often call it a core Self.

One reason this whole topic is on my mind is I just began a year-long intensive training in NARM therapy (which stands for NeuroAffective Relational Model). I am feeling super inspired and gung-ho about it, and as I posted on Facebook recently, I feel like I have found my therapy soul mate. 😍

NARM has a powerful respect for spirituality. In my understanding, it describes spirituality as the belief that beyond the trauma and environmental failures we experience, there is something essential that still remembers Love and is unable to be shattered by trauma. Other modalities like Internal Family Systems have parallel beliefs about an underlying core Self who serves as a wise guide and source of love.

Thus, the way that I will distinguish spirituality and religion is this: Spirituality is to believe that at one’s core, you can tap into a guiding force of Love and that there is a powerful life force (whatever you call it) that moves us in the direction of healing and wholeness.

Spirituality is to believe that at one’s core, you can tap into a guiding force of Love and that there is a powerful life force that moves us in the direction of wholeness.

Religion, as I’m defining it, is to use institutions, beliefs, and their associated communities in the quest for something transcendent and larger than oneself. It often serves as a mediator between an individual and a Higher Power.

Stated as such, it is a neutral term. There is harmful religion, and there is helpful religion. I believe that religion without spirituality (a belief in the goodness of one’s personhood) is, to me and many others, harmful.

As you might quickly realize, much of what we think of as Christianity today does not believe in the goodness of one’s personhood. I grew up in the evangelical tradition where some of the core concepts were original sin and the reality of hell, which became the justification for why we needed that religion. No matter how good we tried to be, we were still unalterably broken and unacceptable to God. Then, they told us, God’s hands were tied to allow us into heaven without the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.

There was no space for believing in the decency of oneself with guilty consciences like St. Augustine’s holding so much sway over doctrine (most people don’t realize how much this 4th century philosopher influenced what we know as Christianity today – including creating the doctrine of original sin).

I’ll save for another blog post a deep dive into the psychology of shame occurring when people genuinely believe they are fundamentally flawed. Many of us hold this belief anyway, but when it is reinforced by “official” church doctrine, it wreaks even more harm.

I was in my 20s and out of the evangelical church when I learned that not all Christians believe in humans’ innate corruption that must separate us from God. Matthew Fox talks about the term “original blessing” instead of “original sin,” and Richard Rohr speaks on this too and has helped me rethink many Christian doctrines.

Enter… Spirituality.

Authentic spirituality actually frees us from religion if we want it to, because we no longer need an outside source to make us feel like we are okay. We instead experience that – under all the baggage and traumas and poor choices we might have made – we have a core of goodness that we are able to trust and rely on.

Authentic spirituality actually frees us from religion if we want it to, because we no longer need an outside source to make us feel like we are okay. We have a core of goodness that we are able to trust and rely on.

We are then free to choose religion again, but only if we want to. A lot of religion doesn’t make enough space for such a belief in goodness of Self though, so many people opt out. Or, religion requires too much extra stuff (beliefs, doctrine, practices that people can’t get on board with) and people decide they really don’t need that in their lives.

This is why evangelicalism, as I knew it, was strongly against “spiritual” ideas and practices like yoga, meditation, sometimes even what they call “secular” therapy. Of course it was threatening. All of these things can nurture an encounter with one’s Self – and we might find there are wells of compassion, insight, and authenticity far beyond the bounds of what religion was able to offer us.

Like I said above, this doesn’t describe all religion by any means. But in my view, religion without spirituality – being able to trust and love yourself because YOU, yourself, are worth loving – is dead.

This kind of “spiritual but not religious” is a much richer version than simple “religion-lite” that comes to mind for some people. I’m not saying “religion-lite”-ers aren’t real SBNRs, because just like with Christianity, you don’t personally get to decide who claims the title and who doesn’t.

But my newly minted definition of spirituality speaks to my heart, and it also gives me some clarity about what sort of religion I would consent to be part of: Does it honor this kind of spirituality? Or does it call it a heresy?

I’m not asking to add this to Webster or anything, but this is how I think about these two concepts. What are your thoughts? I would love to hear from you!

P.S. If this topic speaks to you, you might be interested in my upcoming book! Visit my web page about it and drop me a comment, or if you know me IRL, send me a message on Facebook. I will eventually be looking for people to be part of my launch team as well, and can add you to the list!

Cover photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash


15 thoughts on “What does “spiritual but not religious” really mean, anyway?

  1. This is so helpful, Christine! This is such a great way of exploring a complex topic. I’ve always hated being told that SBNR is intellectually lazy…. ugh… I (and many others) came to this position after years of intense questioning and study (many of us in seminaries). So, definitely not lazy. I suppose SBNR scares many people in more rigid religious settings. I have compassion for that. But religion has always had a mystical core that calls us out from our rigid certainties. Great work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Katye! Yes, I totally agree. Though I’m sure many get to SBNR out of intellectual laziness, there’s lots and lots who don’t. Like you said, including like those of us who have even gone to seminaries!
      I love that “mystical core” of religion idea. It gets so lost once things are reduced to prescribed beliefs and dogma. But those beliefs also make some people feel safe (I’m reflecting on how SBNR scares some people). Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear you found some resonance here! I know for me, writing (a lot!) was a big part of the recovery journey, along with reading from and talking with fellow journeyers. All the best to you in your recovery journey!


  2. How is “religion” different from “church?” Church is the community of believers, right? The Mystical Body of Christ, something “other” that includes the dead and all that have gone before (you can see my Catholic education here.) What we experience in our local congregations is a pale copy of what’s actually happening (with a little Plato thrown in.)


  3. I think of religion as the structure of ideas that the church (or, insert word for “gathering of believers” here, be it mosque, temple, etc) believes in and practices. Your Catholic touch on the word intrigues me, since being raised evangelical, we rarely – aka never – talked about saints and the dead that have gone before us. To me it brings much more meaning and symbolism to talk about the mystical elements of religion that the church can tap into.
    How would you define religion? I came up with my own definition, but I’m curious to hear others’!


  4. I think your definition of ‘religion’ is spot on. It’s nothing more than ideas and practices agreed upon (or not) by certain communities. As such, it’s no wonder people shy away from it. There’s surely something more to our life with God than such mechanical devices.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I certainly like that conception of it! “Conscience” might be misconstrued by some as a heavy-handed guilt machine, but to think of it as guiding toward right living – more like an inner source of wisdom that is capable of guiding us along the right path. Love it!


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