By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion
One hears on a regular basis these days that people are “spiritual but not religious”—thus giving up on “organized” religion.
For many people, being spiritual has to do with inner feelings and conscience and a vague belief in God. There is no need of religion; in fact religion, with its creeds, codes of conduct, scriptures, sacraments, teaching authority, and clergy, gets in the way of a truly spiritual life.
The sociologist Robert N. Bellah and some colleagues wrote a book 30 years ago that is still hailed as something of a classic. Entitled Habits of the Heart, the book examines the growing lack of commitment and the problem of individualism in American society, and the effects this is having on religion in the U.S.
Bellah memorably identifies a woman called Sheila as a typical example of someone committed to spirituality without religion: “Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and who describes her faith as ‘Sheilaism.’ “I believe in God,” she says, but “I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”
Sheilaism typifies for Bellah a growing trend in in the U.S., and he entertains the scenario that eventually there may be over 220 (now 322) million spiritualties like Sheila’s in America—one per person! This would mean that formal religion would become as irrelevant in the U.S. as it is in secularized Europe.
There are a number of serious problems with spiritualties detached from religion. First, there are no solid moral codes, except inner conscience. God is one’s own “little voice” (Sheila’s words). There is nothing that calls authoritatively for moral conversion.
Second, the God of spirituality does not challenge, warn, demand, or judge. Self-judgment based on personal conscience has free rein, and the adherent has a very comfortable sense of what is right and wrong.
Third, spirituality is intensely private and non-communal. There is no need to connect with others or to pay much attention to the communal wisdom of the church and the Christian (or any) tradition. God is himself/herself/itself very private, too, and talks to the believer in a rather unfocused way.
Fourth, spirituality is generally pantheistic, that is that God is found in nature and its beauties; in fact, God is often identified with nature. Thus spiritual but not religious people say they can find God on top of a mountain or while skiing, rather than in worship in a church building.
Fifth, the inner God, because he/she/it never speaks, offers little no explanation or sense of orientation about the great mysteries of life, especially suffering and death. Death is mostly the annihilation of life—and something that one generally avoids thinking about.
Sixth, there is little sense of social justice. Acting justly and charitably is not intrinsic to irreligious spirituality; it is a matter of personal choice.
Seventh, religion is often replaced by psychotherapy—useful for some—but not adequate to bringing people to formal religious faith.
I am not suggesting (nor is Bellah) that spirituality is a bad thing. Hardly! Spirituality is at the core of religious belief and practice. One of the valuable developments in post-Vatican II Catholicism is the renewed emphasis on active participation (=internalization of the mystery) and in the discovery of the wide range of traditional Christianity spiritualties—which are always attached to religion. The fundamental problem is that spirituality detached from tradition, doctrine, moral teaching, and liturgical life becomes eventually vapid, empty, and ultimately disappointing.