Viewpoint: “Spirituality” Without “Religion” Does Not Hold Up

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.


  1. Then perhaps the Church should teach foundations of spirituality to the little ones first. If they were taight all of Creation was holy, as is every human being is. Religiosity would have a firm foundation to stick to, instead of a rules and regulations belief system that we conveniently ignore, instead of being a thin veneer…which makes no sense to a child trying to learn right from wrong.

  2. Why one or the other? Why not both? Some people associate religion with piety, and what many people mean to say is that they identify more closely with spiritual not pious.

    Other feel alienated from religion because they view it as immoral, hypocritical, sexist, self-serving, too wealthy, not engaged enough in the world. Perhaps the sex abuse cover-up scandal has exacerbated this.

    The real key I think is to actually ask people one encounters to elaborate more on what they mean. Maybe we all think we know Sheila, but the reality is that spiritual-but-not-religious has many names, many reasons.

  3. One caution we should perhaps take from this is avoiding magical thinking about liturgy (and missals). That is, an assumption that X missal will form X’ people in X” way to produce X”’ fruit. (Of course, this faulty assumption can be found across the spectrum – but partisans of each Missal tend to see Sheilaism only in the enthusiasts of That Other Missal.)

    And that perhaps can liberate us from the instrumentalist prompt that “if only we did X, then X’-X”-X”’ will follow”.

    (And it would be helpful to have long-term evidence against which to test an assumption of this sort. But that would first require determining what evidence is and how to identify, gather, and evaluate it properly.)

  4. I actually find this assessment of the “spiritual but not religious” trend much more on the nose than I think some of us want to admit. I find many fallen away Christians taking up this mantle as attempt to inoculate themselves from being labeled an atheist, or anything else really. The trick often works, because I think many assume that SBNR still involves some sort of prayer life, when in reality most self-styled SBNR don’t have one to speak of, or maybe they’ll pass off their “nature time” or personal reflection as prayer because they know we’d like to believe it. I don’t think I’ve ever actually met someone who is truly spiritual but not religious (if we apply the conventional meaning of those words) because as Msgr. Mannion points out those are inherently complementary concepts; it’s incredibly hard to be one and not the other. IMHO the SBNR label as most of us assume it means fits the “nondenominational” megachurch crowd much more than the hip millennials sitting at your local Starbucks.

    1. I think you might be surprised at the prayer life of some people who do not regularly worship on Sundays. The key is to actually get to know these people. If a pastor or pastoral minister doesn’t know anybody SbnR, they are probably too insulated by their sheep. If religious believers don’t, their circle of contacts is probably much too narrow. In other words, don’t believe everything you see on tv.

      1. I’ll just say that as a millennial living in an urban area and working in a secular organization my interaction with SbnR friends and coworkers is… frequent… Not saying they’re all spiritual corpses, but most unfortunately probably couldn’t care much less at their stage in life. I might even hazard to say that most of them probably lacked spiritual grounding to begin with, and therefore didn’t understand all the religious structures that are designed to facilitate spiritual relationships.

      2. Doesn’t sound too different from Jesus’ encounters in the Gospel. My suspicion is that we have it just as hard today. Religious figures appear selfish, self-serving and they loudly thank God they’re not like the nones.

        The point of Christianity, at least according to the mission to which we’ve been entrusted, is to inspire faith. Not criticize the lack of it. It would seem a spiritual person is low-hanging fruit compared to a hard-core atheist who’s been chased out of organized religion.

  5. Yes, there are a lot of people who say they feel closer to God walking along the beach early in the morning than they do in church. (And I believe some of them would really want to try that early morning walk — if they could just get out of bed so early.) But I think we also face an equal-and-opposite problem in our churches: people who are religious but not spiritual.

    One of our bishops who left under a cloud once wrote a really, really good column for our diocesan newspaper on the subject of how to pray. It was memorable not only because it was good but because in 30 years of reading that newspaper, during the tenure of five bishops, it is the ONLY column I’ve seen on that topic.

    By the way, I have to take issue with the notion that spirituality is by nature non-communal. That can’t be right, or what are the Benedictines and Cistercians up to when they get together?

  6. Maybe it’s a consequence of living in New England, but most people around here who claim to be “SBNR” are the older set (50s-70s) who were maybe brought up in religion but became disillusioned and left, or have a vague recollection of religion from their youth but no longer care to practice it, or found a spiritual system which is not Judeo-Christian. Based on my kids experience (21 and 24) and their friends, most were brought up with little to no religion, which may or may not have stuck to any extent and are seemingly not interested in either religion or spirituality.

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