Why I Am Religious and Not Just Spiritual

When I was in college I was involved in an Evangelical campus ministry. I attended a weekly Bible study (most of the time) and went to occasional social functions designed to help Christian students connect and enjoy an alternative to wild sorority and fraternity parties. Once in a while, I even dragged myself out of bed on Sunday morning and went to church.

When the subject of my faith or Christianity would come up with friends, I was always quick to point out that I was “spiritual but not religious.”

I didn’t want people to think I was religious for two reasons. One, I didn’t want to seem weird. I was still trying very hard to keep my faith from interfering with my social life. The other reason that I insisted I was not religious, was that I sincerely believed, as did almost everyone else I knew, that religion was the opposite of true faith. I thought that religion was outdated, mindless, and that it suffocated true spirituality.

Then I became Catholic.

I have been Catholic now for 16 years. I am religious, and I am convinced that my religion helps me to know, love, and serve God better than I ever could apart from the practice of my faith. That is, after all, the point of true religion.

Throughout history the major monotheistic faiths, the faiths that worship the God of Abraham – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – have sought union with God through the practice of religion, not merely through an individual spirituality based on one’s own preferences, tastes, and personal convictions. The idea that one can know and worship the God of Abraham apart for religious practice seems to be a fairly modern idea.

I cannot speak to the trends in other faith traditions, but many modern Christian denominations pride themselves on freedom from the confines of religion, as if they have discovered some new path to God that the founders of Christianity and nearly two millennia of followers failed to discover.

Yet for Catholics, and I imagine for observant Jews and Muslims as well, our religion isn’t merely a set of rules to be followed or boxes to be checked. Our religion is the house in which our faith is born and the place where it is nurtured.

Here are some of the reasons that that I am religious and not just spiritual.

Religion is physical. Like all ancient faiths, Catholic worship includes specific, tangible physical element. Catholics kneel. We bow. We make the sign of the cross. We hold rosary beads, and we light candles. God made us body and soul. It makes sense that we would use our bodies when we pray and worship Him. Nearly every other activity we do as humans includes some sort of accompanying posture or gesture. We tell our children to sit up at the table. We rise when a judge walks into his court room or a bride steps through the doors of the church. We shake hands, hug, and wave. We hold our hands over our hearts when we hear the Nation Anthem. Soldiers salute. Actors bow. Couples kiss goodnight. All of these things are meant to communicate something – respect, greeting, affection, gratitude. Why would we think that what we do with our bodies should have no effect on how we pray and worship? Bowing, kneeling, the sign of the cross, and other physical expressions of our faith are the accompanying gestures to what we are thinking and feeling. They keep us in the right frame of mind, and they are a signal to ourselves and to others that what we are doing is sacred.

Religion is habitual. As an Evangelical Protestant, I would have equated the word habit with “vain repetition.” It is true that when we say or do anything repeatedly, we run the risk of diluting its meaning and value. A nightly “I love you” between spouses becomes empty words when void of true sentiment or action. So, of course, we must guard against mindless recitation of prayers or thoughtless reception of the sacraments. But habits, when they develop in us a desired effect or quality, are a good thing. We teach our children the habit of saying, “please and thank you” long before they know what the words mean because we want to develop in them a sense of gratitude and respect.

Developing a good habit disciplines us to what we ought to so that when we don’t want to or when we are distracted, forgetful, or distressed, we are still able to do, fairly easily, what was once a struggle. When we do something habitually, it becomes ingrained into the fabric of our being. I want to teach my children to practice their faith, to worship, to pray, and do good habitually and religiously. Their feelings might come and go, but the habit of being a faithful Catholic will sustain them through times of doubt or spiritual dryness.

Religion is unifying. One of the things I love most about being Catholic is the universalness of our faith. The oneness. There is something beautiful and powerful about the unity of religion. I love knowing that the prayers my family prays, the customs we observe, the feast days we celebrate, and the truths we believe are shared by countless other Catholics all over the world. When we profess our faith in the words of the creed at mass, we are making the same profession that billions, of others have made for centuries. When I confess my sins and ask The Blessed Mary Ever Virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God, I do so knowing that I am aided by the prayers of billions – both on earth and in Heaven.

Being a part of a religion is about so much more than just fellowship, so much more than a great youth group or an inviting ladies’ Bible study. Being religious is about being united with other believers all over the world – those living and those who have gone before us. When you belong to a religion, you belong to a family – a family that spans generations and transcends cultures.

Religion is comforting. Like my favorite sweatshirt, a cozy blanket, or my grandmother’s kitchen, my religion is comforting. Even with all the help the Church gives us to practice our faith – the sacraments, worship, traditions, stories of the saints, and so much more – sometimes the world is just too much. I run out of words. I feel too tired or too discouraged to pray. At times like these I can fall back, not just on my personal faith, even faith can be tough in times like these. I fall back on my religion – familiar prayers, beautiful hymns, the smell of incense, the beauty of the mass, the words of the creed. My religion provides vehicle for times when my faith just need to be pulled along.

Religion is designed by God. When I was an Evangelical, we  often cited verses in which Jesus seems to be criticizing the Pharisees for their religious practices. True. Jesus was quick to point out the ways in which the Pharisees used their religion to set themselves above others or the ways in which they were hypocrites. He condemned the religious leaders of His day for burdening people with unnecessary rules and regulations. But true religion, seeks to draw people nearer to God in and through the practice of the faith. True religion is not just set of rules and laws. That sort of religion, the sort of religion that Jesus condemned, drives people to either rebel or to live lives burdened by anxiety and crushing guilt. But Jesus never tells us not to be religious at all -to just do our own thing. Jesus himself was an observant Jew, keeping the feasts and customs of His people. Not only that, but God never tells the Children of Israel to just worship any way they please or to do whatever makes them feel good and draws in more people. Instead He always has very specific instructions for how they are to conduct sacrifices and worship.

Back in college, when I claimed to be spiritual but not religious, what I was really saying was that I was free to pick what, if any, Christian customs and traditions I followed. I could decide for myself which doctrines were binding and which were not. Being free from religion meant that I could choose a church, if I went at all, that fit my preferences and taught what I believed to be the correct interpretation of scripture. Being spiritual but not religious actually meant a religion of my own creating.

Webster’s defines religion, in part, as an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules…

I like that definition. My religion organizes my beliefs. My religion gives me a framework and a system both for expressing my love for God and for helping me to grow in that love. My faithfulness to God does not depend entirely on my feelings. Through the various practices of my religion, I often do feel more love and awe for God, but I am also sustained when those feelings sometimes wane. My religion does not replace a real relationship with Jesus any more than living within a marriage replaces a couple’s real relationship with each other. Rather, my religion is the home in which my relationship with God is nurtured and grows.


8 thoughts on “Why I Am Religious and Not Just Spiritual

  1. Sending you much love and many blessings! Freedom of religion is a tenant of the United States of America, yet the bible says ” a real Jew is not external, literal or PHYSICAL” as it says in Romans, but “internal, a matter of the heart, and SPIRITUAL” and in James true religion is defined as “being unstained by the world” and “care of widows and orphans” as well as a temple made “not by human hands” and “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and the Holy Spirit dwells in you?” and “Examine yourselves. Do you not know that Jesus Christ is IN YOU?” The church is described as “the body of Christ” and parts with the least grandeur being the highest. The humble, yielded, surrendered, “least of these” is the highest in the kingdom of God; children enter the kingdom of heaven, and the pure in heart SEE God; not in an external building but in our hearts ablaze with the Holy Spirit and fire of God! “Do not fail to assemble together” and “worship” is described in 1 Cor 14:26-40, not follow “doctrines and precepts of men” (Colossians 2:20-23) external rules and regulations “of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh”. We can only be transformed on the inside, and overcome by the blood of the Lamb, the Word of Jesus’ testimony, and the dunamis power of the Holy Spirit and fire baptism of Jesus, the latter rain! Food for thought! Happy New Year! ~Yvonne

    1. Happy New Year to you too, Yvonne. Whew! That is some rapid fire scripture posting, but I’ll do my best to address your points. 1. Being religious isn’t merely external or physical. Being religious is both an outward expression of the what in internal and a way of helping us internalize our faith. 2. I’m not sure what your point is about the Body of Christ. The Church is the body of Christ. And a body is a unified being under one head, Jesus. A healthy body is not a bunch of different parts all doing their own thing or making their own rules. A healthy body in united. 3. I would argue that the precepts and doctrines of the Church are not the precepts and doctrines of men, but of God given to man by God and handed down by His Church. “What you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven…” And I Timothy 3:15, Saint Paul reminds us that the “pillar and foundation of the truth” is the Church. It’s tough to have a pillar and foundation made up of a zillion different sects and denominations. Also, keep in mind that the Bible did not fall out of the sky with red letters and gold embossing. The Bible is a product of years of study and prayer and examination of various texts. Who did this examination, praying and studying? The Catholic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit.The Church did not come from the Bible. The Bible came from the Church. 4.I agree, and the Church would agree. We can only be transformed through Christ, not through rules and regulations. But Christ often works through the channels of grace (the sacraments) given to the Church. He also works through personal prayer, the words and teachings of great Christian thinkers and leaders, our circumstances, and any other way He wills. But why would we not avail ourselves of every means of grace. Scrapping the teachings and practices of orthodox Christianity closes off a lot of those channels. It does not separate anyone from the love and mercy of God, but you are missing out. And amen! The power of the Holy Spirit is the key to any lasting and meaningful change. I hope I’ve addressed your points. Happy New Year to You too.

      1. I can only speak from my experience! I despaired of life and did not want to live. Out of desperation I opened up the bible my Mom gave me as a child and started reading in Matthew. The words opened up to me, true spirit and life, in a way my religious upbringing never did. On the third day, Good Friday, on my couch reading the bible, the Holy Spirit and fire of God fell on me and I had the experience of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit breathing me and raising up my arms over my head without my doing anything but submit in awe and wonder. When my arms were completely over my head I found myself worshiping at the Throne, a Revelation 4 experience, even though I had not gotten that far in the bible to know anything about it. When I came back to my normal every day awareness I ran around the house crying, “there is God, there is a God” and everything became about love of God and my heart was circumcised in his Love. A few days later, Jesus manifested himself to me and said, “Come to me you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest” at his words a warmth started in my belly and as it increased in intensity it rose up to my heart and chains broke away and I started weeping and had to go outside and take my shoes off and walk barefoot until I found a tree and sat under it in utter amazement until I felt I could walk in the world again. These experiences opened up the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven to me and I have seen miracles, signs and wonders ever since. To God be the glory now and forever and ever! May Jesus richly bless you more than you could ever ask or think, that you may know the depth, length, breadth and height of the Love of Christ Jesus! I love the church! religion, not so much, our Father and his Lamb and the finished work of the cross I love beyond words! Grace and peace to you! ~Yvonne

      2. Thanks for sharing your story, Yvonne. You have clearly had a very powerful experience. I don’t think they type of experience you describe is contrary to religion nor does religion eliminate the possibility of such a powerful experience. God can and does work in our lives in a variety of ways. I simply think that religion is a beautiful gift and it provides for us a fence outside of which we dare not wander. It structures our faith, so that Christianity does not become a matter of individual experiences or preferences. And it unifies us so that we can worship and follow God as one body. Religion does not mean a set of rules without powerful personal experiences. Religion does give us a framework for understanding and sharing our experiences. Peace and blessings to you as well. I hope you have a blessed new year.

  2. Great post! I can totally relate to your reasons – I feel the exact same way since becoming Catholic! I’d totally rather be religious than just spiritual. 🙂

  3. I would be very curious to hear your take on the whole process going on right now of the firing of a tenured professor at Evangelical Christian Wheaton College because she wrote on her Facebook page that Muslims pray to the same God as Christians. She is being ostracized and vilified, as only a religion can do, because a religion, and those who operate it and keep the rules in place, can claim you no longer belong because you have dared to step outside the agreed upon rules and beliefs. So while you say religion is unifying…I find it a very closed and controlled society that you are referring to. And very exclusive…which creates such divisiveness among other and all humans that are not of your religion. It radically curtails any effort or suggestion that other religions have the same unifying factor, as is now so clear in the case of Wheaton College vs Professor Doctor Hawkins. – See more at:
    A key phrase in the article captures what the rigidity of religious rules can do to humanity. “In this process Wheaton College has managed to especially offend women, African-Americans, Muslims, Christians who do not agree with a narrow and questionable interpretation of the college’s statement of faith, Wheaton students who have been positively served by Dr. Hawkins’ work, and every academic who thinks tenure protections and academic freedom exist precisely for these situations.” Not to mention that it smacks of “My God is better (and more unifying), than Your God” to all the Muslims she has referred to when she says they pray to the same God.

    I invite you to imagine this for a moment. Imagine your paragraph that religion is unifying written and lived into this way. Every time the word Catholic appears, imagine instead, reading Human. Like this:

    One of the things I love most about being Human is the universalness of our experience and our faiths. The oneness. There is something beautiful and powerful about the unity of Humanity. I love knowing that the prayers my family prays, the customs we observe, the feast days we celebrate, and the truths we believe are shared in their own way by countless other Humans all over the world. When we profess our faith in the words of the creed at mass, just as they profess their faith and their creeds for the betterment of their lives, we are making the same profession that billions of others Humans have made for centuries. When I confess my sins, as those of other religions do in their manner, and ask The Blessed Mary Ever Virgin, as they ask their Icons, and all their angels and saints, and all of us, all our Human brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God in whatever form they worship, I do so knowing that I am aided by the prayers of billions of Humans – both on earth and in Heaven.

    Being a part of Humanity is about so much more than just fellowship, so much more than a great youth group or an inviting ladies’ Bible study. Being Human is about being united with other believers of every kind, all over the world – those living and those who have gone before us. When you belong to Humanity, you belong to a family – a family that spans generations and transcends cultures, and transcends an interpretation of just one God and just one Way.

    It’s just a thought, just a possibility that may bring more Universal unity to a very torn world.

    1. I do not agree with the firing of Dr. Hawkins. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the God of Abraham. That is a historical fact. That’s not to say that all religions are equally right or equally true, but that’s not what Dr. Hawkins was trying to say either. I have no interest in defending Wheaton or their kind of narrow thinking. I would also argue that it is inaccurate to say that she has been “ostracized and villified as only religion can.” I have met more than a few angry atheists that could give even the most narrow religious people a run for their money. It’s ridiculous to suggest that religious people have cornered the market on meanness – not even close. When I say that religion is unifying, I mean that it unifies people who share a belief system in the same way that being a member of my family unites me with other people in my family. That’s not to say that no unity exists with other people. But religious unity and familial unity are based on deep and abiding commonality. I share a unity with other people of faith as well – not just Catholics – because of our belief in a higher power and in the power of faith and prayer. But I long for and appreciate the special unity that I share with people who share my specific religious beliefs. That is not to say that my faith teaches me that everyone outside of Catholicism is not in someway a brother or sister. We believe very strongly in the dignity of the human person – every person from conception to a natural death – and in God’s love for all of humanity – not just Christians. It’s not an us against them mentality. It seems you have some hang ups about religion. That’s understandable. People have done horrible things in the name of religion. But that does not mean that religion is bad. And it’s a stretch to think that the absence of religion or completely ignoring our religious differences would somehow magically unite humanity. I don’t disagree with your rewording of what I wrote. It’s a beautiful sentiment and a unity that all people of faith should strive for. But that sort of unity and the unity that people of the same faith share are not mutually exclusive – just like sharing a special bond with my family does not prevent me from loving and feeling connected to people outside of my family.

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