Carl McColman: Spirituality, With or Without Religion


"I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious."

It's become such a common way of self-describing spiritual identity that observers have attacked it ("Spiritual But Not Religious"? Please Stop Boring Me), have defended it (God in the Gray Areas), have tried to reduce it to an acronym ("SBNR") or even come up with cutesy abbreviations (Nones, since such persons when asked what their religious affiliation is will say "None"). This segment of our society is very diverse, covering people who may prefer to self-identify as atheists or agnostics, to new agers and solitary Neopagans, interspiritual seekers, and folks who just don't believe much of anything in particular, even if they are comfortable with the idea of spirituality as a meaningful name for experiences of a transcendent, transpersonal, or simply inspirational nature.

I don't qualify as a member of this club, for the simple reason that I am a practicing Christian. So I am a "SWAR" ("Spiritual While Also Religious"), if there is such a thing. And indeed, in my travels both within Christianity and also the interfaith community, I am inspired by the number of deeply spiritual while also committedly religious people who I have encountered.

Spiritual-while-also-religious folks, in my experience, tend to bust our society's stereotypes of religious people. SWARs are educated, compassionate, thoughtful, often open to the gifts of religious traditions outside their own, and - of particular interest to me - many are committed to contemplative forms of prayer or spiritual practice. SWARs include Shambhala Buddhists and Benedictine Oblates, Pagan Unitarians and Renewal Jews, Muslim Sufis and Advaita Vedantists. And if my experience is at all reliable, then SWARs enjoy learning about other faiths and find that the gifts of wisdom traditions outside their own deeply enhance their own, religiously-grounded spirituality.

I like being a SWAR. And in saying this, I don't mean to attack people who are SBNR, because I know that so many people disaffiliate with religion because the religion they had been a part of was fundamentalist or abusive or otherwise deeply constricting. So I affirm the basic goodness of all spiritual seekers, regardless of their present affiliation with religion (or religions). But this leads to the point of this blog-post: I think we need to deconstruct this idea that "religion" and "spirituality" are somehow at odds.

Okay, I'll grant that fundamentalist religion is often overtly anti-spiritual, and is especially hostile to interspirituality. Likewise, there is a type of liberal religion that dismisses spirituality as superstitious or irrational (as a child of mainstream Protestantism, I know this one well). But let's give religion its due: at its best, let me repeat, at its best, religion is the traditional container by which mystical and spiritual wisdom has been conveyed from generation to generation. Are we, the people who truly value spirituality, really content to abandon religion to the fundamentalists and the liberal-skeptics?

Meanwhile, we also need to consider another force that often gets overlooked. That's the socio-economic forces of American individualism, corporate-capitalism, and entertainment-ism, social and economic forces which religion has traditionally criticized for being narcissistic, uncaring to the poor, and un-concerned with authentic spiritual transformation. In other words, we live in a society that has vested social and economic interests in divorcing religion from spirituality, because by doing so it will marginalize both. Religion has lost so much power and prestige in our day, while spirituality is being turned into merely another consumer commodity, just a form of psycho-emotional entertainment that distracts people from the real work of inner transformation and outer justice.

Religion without spirituality devolves into either fundamentalism or skepticism. Everyone can see that, even those who remain committed to religion. But what our society would just as soon people not see is the consequences of spirituality without some form of community: it devolves into narcissism, into mysticism-as-a-hobby, into a powerless force unable to address the injustices and social evils that bedevil our culture at large.

Once again: my purpose in writing this is not to guilt-trip the SBNRs into finding and joining a church. Since so few churches really know how to deal with deep, authentic spiritual searching, it is probably just as well that the SBNRs have abandoned them. But I think we need to find a way to create community (not necessarily "religion") that unites the "Spiritual-But-Not-Religious" folks with the "Spiritual-While-Also-Religious" community.

In other words, we need to find a way to talk about spirituality that is inclusive of creative spiritual seekers, regardless of their religious commitment(s) or lack thereof. We need a more holistic spiritual identity; one that can respect the kind of spiritual diversity and burgeoning creativity occurring among spiritual seekers and practitioners of many various backgrounds, values, practices and belief structures.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro has a book coming out next week called Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent, where he offers the idea of being "Spiritually Independent" as an alternative to the clunkier labels SBNR or Nones. I think this is an excellent step forward, but "Spiritually Independent" still implies a certain distance from religion. So it's not truly inclusive of those of us who have anchored our intentional spiritual quest within a specific religious context.

So I'd like to propose another label. Following the idea of the "cultural creatives," first put forth by sociologist Paul Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson in their book by the same title, I propose we identify people in our society with a strong commitment to spiritual growth and development as the  Spiritual Creatives. Such a term would acknowledge that this is an innovative, forward-thinking movement in our society; it has room for those who are religious, semi-religious, multi-religious, or not religious at all; and it can work well with those who follow one particular path, or those who are interspiritual, or those who "mix and match" their spiritual beliefs and practices from a variety of sources. Best of all, it is an identity that might foster creative ways in which the spiritual religious and the spiritual non-religious might be able to meet, connect, and engage in dialogue. Such conversation, I believe, would be a blessing for us all.

What do you think? Does the idea of an inclusive label like "Spiritual Creatives" appeal to you? Why or why not? And if not, what would you suggest instead?

Taken with permission from Carl's blog at