Religio rather than spiritual?


The term ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR) is a popular way of making a distinction about one’s personal feelings and the social phenomenon of religion. It draws a distinction between the positive aspects of being spiritual and the negative associations we attribute to religion. By ‘we’ I mean those who have discarded any affection for religions which offend against our spiritual sensibilities. 

I have written elsewhere about religion done well or badly. There are good reasons to discard a religion which can seem to more a source of strife than a source of succour. But religion done badly doesn’t mean that religion per se is beyond redemption.

Here I want to make it plain that I do not intend to defend religion as it is presently practiced, but the idea itself. There are many things done badly – food, sex, poetry etc. But we would not insist that any of those should be utterly damned because of this, surely.

The emergence of the individual

The idea of religion is modern, and it has been evolving for centuries. When the word was framed it had a meaning related to personal connection with the gods. The exact meaning of the original idea – religio – is disputed.

Wikipedia tells us that: “The Latin term religiō, the origin of the modern lexeme religion (via Old French/Middle Latin), is of ultimately obscure etymology. It is recorded beginning in the 1st century BC, i.e. in Classical Latin at the end of the Roman Republic, notably by Cicero, in the sense of “scrupulous or strict observance of the traditional cultus“. In classic antiquity, it meant conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation, or duty towards anything and was used mostly in secular or mundane contexts. In religious contexts, it also meant the feelings of “awe and anxiety” caused by gods and spirits that would help Romans “live successfully”.

Cicero thought in terms of adherence to traditional family-based ‘cults’ (not what we call cults these days). Others thought in terms of obligation/duty in a mundane sense. For others it concerned consciousness of the presence of gods and spirits.

The word has connections of binding to, connection with, obligation toward, suggesting that the connection between the human and the divine was understood as non-optional. It was a duty that covered the whole of a person’s life. In essence religio isn’t distinct from our sense of spirituality.

What has fundamentally changed in the past couple of millennia is the evolution of the individual. How we understand what individuality is has, however, become toxic in recent decades. This has been the consequence of predatory commercial interests that are intent on creating the idea of separation. It has intensified under the stampede to exploit ‘youth culture’ in the past 4 decades.

Individually is not separation. The term ‘no man is an island…’ reflects this. It is better to understand individuality as an intensification or particularisation of awareness – especially self-awareness. That intensification can overwhelm awareness of connection – especially in times of intense change. 

Psychologically we are utterly ill-suited to actual separation. But we have evolved away from being deeply locked into family – in which we were no more than part of that larger whole. Now that particularisation dominates our sense of identity.

As a result, we are less disposed to participate in spiritual practices and communities that hark back to how things used to be. This is quite apart from the well-testified to failings of institutional religious culture, theology, and apologetics.

Individuality is still poorly understood, but it helps if we remember it is about intensification, not separation. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual remains, in my view, as a landmark exploration of the theme.

Spirituality and religion aren’t separate things

While the distinction reflects an understandable aspiration, we must not assume that spirituality is inherently virtuous. Spiritual practices and beliefs can be just as offensive to rational and moral standards. There are ‘spiritual’ cults, for example, which manifest the same kind of offenses attributed to traditional religion.

For this reason, we are better off distinguishing been spirituality/religion done well or done badly rather than trying to craft problematic definitions that make the moral distinctions we desire.

So, let us allow that ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ is well-intentioned but essentially meaningless, and potentially badly misleading. We must remember that being ‘spiritual’ isn’t an assurance of anything of any value. Were it otherwise we would not have the abusive cults that lure, trap, and abuse so many.

What matters then?

Even the idea of doing something well or badly isn’t especially useful until we have a clear understanding of what relative merit means in this context.

Dan McClellan, one of the co-hosts of the Data Over Dogma podcast, is a biblical scholar who I see regularly on YouTube. He makes the vital point that the Bible is a resource a Christian can employ to frame their faith in ways that serve their individual dispositions. In effect, you can be religious or spiritual in a Christian sense and exhibit vastly different values than other Christians. The Spiritual But Not Religious have access to a far greater set of resources than Christians and can be equally wildly divergent in their perspectives.

In short, no matter how we define ourselves we can draw on abundant resources and ‘authorities’ to substantiate what we believe – and what we think of ourselves.

A Christian (current or former) will maybe interpret my selection of Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17-28, John 15, and Matthew 22:34-40 to assess my take on Christian sources in many ways. But they can’t argue against my freedom to do so other than by insisting their interpretation trumps mine. The point I am making is that even as a non-Christian I can selectively dip into the faith source material to construct a set of ideas that speak to my spiritual ideals. 

In the same way a religious believer could select from the great array of spiritual sources ideas that might reinforce their beliefs. What none of us may be able to do is find confirmation of any claim of exclusivity or unique claim to divine revelation, sanction, or blessing. Such an idea is essentially what should be kept as a private conceit of singular community or tradition. We humans all like to imagine that what is ours is better than anybody else’s. Mostly it is gentle and harmless conceit, but it can become brutal and oppressive.

How do we define religion or spirituality?

The Australian social psychologist, Hugh Mackay, observes in The Way We Are (2024) that we have a variety of ‘gods’. Hugh isn’t theorising. His professional life has been listening to people talking about what they think, feel, and believe. Those ‘gods’ may be ill-defined and idiosyncratic, but they encompass the spectrum of our passions – sacred and secular.

The distinction between sacred and secular is personal and contextual. Neither exist as an independent category. This is something those heavily invested in their beliefs will recoil at. Its good to think that what you believe has objective independent validity.

There is abundant evidence that human psychology is inherently spiritual or religious. But that doesn’t mean that we have to believe what others believe. It means that there is an inherent inclination to create an existential sense of connection with reality. How we then express that is an entirely different matter. You can be an adherent to a faith tradition, a follower of any number of ‘spiritual’ ideas and philosophies, an atheist, or a materialist. This psychological impulse isn’t dependent on what we believe. But it is shaped and populated by our experiences – on a personal level, and on a cultural level.

My early research into animism convinced me that our ancestors looked upon their reality as a conscious thing. The key concern of the animistic awareness was the relationship with realty must exist for it to survive or thrive. Our culture’s materialistic discourse, along with Christian theology, has done a lot to disrupt that sense of essential relationship. It really wasn’t until the advent of materialism that the idea of reality being made up of just ‘dead’ matter and energy took hold. For many our sense of reality is now a disrupted and fragmented confusion of many powerful relationships [personal, communal, cultural, and material] that compete for attention and primacy.

Our intellectual and religious institutions have created an extreme demand that any such relationship must be mediated by science or theology and must be validated by either. We have learned to distrust our own senses. The cultural discourse that dominates us suggests that dogmatic science and theology share a concern for control – and compete for ultimate power.

This desire for control contrasts against the evolving impetus of individuals wanting their own sense of relationship. Individuals have a more nuanced desire for relationship [with whatever their sense of the whole is] than any general community can create. The impulse to exert social control at an existential level is now beyond its use by date. There was a time when this was fair enough, but no more.

So, we have come to see religion as about social control and spirituality as about individual expression. One is burdened by historic baggage and the other an anticipation of relational freedom – impaired by little understanding of what that really means.

What about the idea of God?

There’s some fascinating academic work being done on the roots of the Christian idea of God, showing the evolution from a polytheistic origin to a supreme being which is part polytheistic inflation and in part mystical idealism. There is no real point in taking the Christian God literally, because it embodies a collection of conceived states.

The subject of God or gods is contentious, depending on what ideas you have been exposed to. Even going back an early stage of Christianity and Islam, and among some Jewish mystics there was a sense that God was beyond imagination and conception. This was the ‘One’, the ‘All’ – the absolute ground of all being. For a monotheist this was all that was needed. Except that this God was imagined and conceived in very concrete terms – idols crafted from the mind and imagination.

Polytheistic traditions had the same absolute ground of all being but allowed that there were gods and goddesses. They were ‘of the One, not as the One’ as I was firmly told by a teacher. The distinction is critical.

There may be good reasons for a community to shift from a polytheistic to a monotheistic theology. That might include social control at a time when that was the best option for a community’s survival. Bring everyone together under a shared way of seeing things. But, regardless of any such imperative there is no absolutely compelling reason to insist on such a perspective.

No religious perspective can exist with a single divine agency. Christianity has its archangels, angels, the trinity, its saints, Jesus and his mother. That’s a substantial community of beings in service of the One God. We must remember that gods and goddesses are just our names for agents. They are not fixed definitions.

In short, any conception of the divine is supported by an ecosystem of agents who will be named and described by individual traditions to fit their interpretations and histories.

But are there really such divine agents? So much depends upon what we believe and experience. Not all claimed agents are as they as said to be. Many are no more than the ardent mistaken or delusional fantasies of believers.


We have an innate desire to feel existentially connected to our reality. If our sense of our reality is mediated by faith traditions, then that sense of connection will attempt to work through our traditions [this applies to secular culture as well]. 

Some may be driven by an inner desire to build a connection in a manner that tradition, history, and culture do not accommodate or even tolerate. That desire must, and will, find satisfaction through individual expression.

However, we must remember that this impulse works through sacred and secular modes of expression. We cannot maintain a balance if we assume that our singular focus must be on the sacred. This is of great importance these days because there is so much valid new knowledge about our condition and nature that is being developed in the secular sphere. The separation into sacred and secular is a context-dependent distinction we make to express our values about relationships we have in our sense of reality. It is not objective.

The thing about seeing ourselves as individuals is that our sense of relationship with the divine must evolve away from the tribal/communal sense toward a more universal sense, and this takes a lot of adjustment. It is unsettling because we are progressively taking responsibility for that relationship – and we can’t continue to shelter behind beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes that leave us dependent upon authority and tradition.

For some the individualistic path will be travelled in good company. For a few it might be more solitary – not because it is a case of separation or isolation but because the challenges may be too intense or particular to fit well in a group. But there’s always the companionship of divine agents – as teachers or guides – though we may not always be aware of their presence.

Ultimately, we choose the language we use. You may prefer not use religious to describe yourself because of how others may interpret that, or because you retain adverse memories and feelings associated with the word. Saying I am “Spiritual But Not Religious” is still meaningful, still useful.