The phrase has been around for years, but for some reason, I've stumbled across a couple of posts discussing people who define themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" in recent days. I'll let the folks who wrote those posts speak for themselves, but thing that strikes me as I revisit the term is how the definitions of the terms "spiritual" and "religious" seem to be assumed, rather than clearly defined. I suspect that people may be talking at cross-purposes when they set these terms against each other.
That's not to say that "spiritual" and "religious" mean the same thing, but simply that when choosing one over the other, some people seem to be defining their terms in ways that the people they're talking to (or complaining about) may not truly understand the issues involved. So what follows is an attempt to get at such definitions as I can glean from these discussions, while recognizing that I'm coming at this whole thing with an obvious bias.
As I see it, "spiritual" may mean nothing more involved than "I believe in God." Perhaps it is intended to convey a sense of relationship with God, although what that relationship entails is fuzzy, at best. There might be some actual practices involved with what it is to be "spiritual" (although this starts to stray into "religious" territory, as I'll get to in a moment), but one thing seems clear: whatever these practices are, they do not involve going to church. This seems to be the single agreed-upon defining characteristic of what it is to be "spiritual, but not religious": such self-defined persons neither go to church, nor do they see any value in doing so.
"Religious," by contrast, seems to not only involve going to church (although it seems that it must require going to church the way "spiritual, but not religious" folks talk about it), but also a set of (apparently restrictive and unnecessary) practices that the "religious" person must follow. These practices, it seems the "spiritual, but not religious" person would say, are by no means required, and indeed are human inventions that only serve to inhibit "true" spirituality. A loving God, the "spiritual, but not religious" person seems to want to say, would never require such restrictive rules.
By the way, reading the Bible regularly seems to be on that perhaps-unnecessary "religious practices" list, although the "spiritual" person may well pick it up (in addition to any of a number of other texts, which might range from non-Christian religious texts to self-help books) from time to time (incidentally, I would actually agree that "religious" people would do well to expand their reading. Insisting that the Bible is of unique and/or preeminent value is not to suggest that other texts are wholly without value.).
My own prejudices are no doubt clear, but I want to take a step back and say that the "spiritual, but not religious" person (as I have defined him or her) is not entirely wrong in their attitudes. Without a doubt, "religious" people have placed heavier burdens and restrictions on would-be adherents than God actually requires. There is a reason for the backlash that "religious" people would do well to take seriously.
But I do think that "religious" is being treated unfairly in these discussions. Religious practices need not be intended to inhibit the believer, but should help the believer understand the nature of God better. And although I hesitate in this short blog entry to spend the time necessary to delineate "good" practices from "bad" ones (a discussion that must be done with caution in any event), I would certainly suggest that "going to church" is one practice that falls on the "good" list. That's not to say that the person who never goes to church is completely wrong, so much as to say (as I've said before) that such a person is missing something very important.
On the other hand, those who defend being "religious" (like me!) probably do a disservice to those who consider themselves "spiritual, but not religious" by failing to take the time to understand how they define "spiritual." While there may be tremendous variation between individual people, I have little doubt that each individual person has a definition, and some of these may actually be quite well-defined. If we don't take the time to understand what it is that such people do believe, any of our attempts to persuade them of the necessity of our practices (such as going to church) are doomed before we've even begun.