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Spiritual but Not Religious – Really?

Thomas J Parlette

“Spiritual but not religious- really?”

1st Samuel 1:4-20, 2: 1-10



There is a phrase I started hearing about 15 years ago that has worked it’s way into our vocabulary. I first started hearing it when I met with people to plan their wedding.

An attractive young couple would sit in my office and tell me that they grew up catholic or Presbyterian or Methodist or whatever church their parents had forced them to go to. But then, during college, they just drifted away from church, for various reasons. They stopped going because Sunday was the only time they could sleep in, or they had to work on Sunday mornings, or they just got out of the habit.

And then they would use the phrase that I hear more and more these days. They would describe themselves as “spiritual – but not religious.”

After awhile, I started asking what they meant by that, being spiritual but not religious.

They would usually tell me that they believe in God. They often spend quiet time, thinking about life. Sometimes they even prayed, taking some time to talk to God.

But when it came to organized religion, well that turned them off. Church scandals, the politics of an institution, denominational positions they didn’t agree with – all of that they didn’t like. They would often mention that people in churches were hypocrites, judgmental and closed-minded. “I can be spiritual on my own,” they would say. “I didn’t need to go to church. I feel close to God when I go for a walk, or sit quietly by myself, sipping my cup of tea, or even when I’m on the golf course.”

I’m spiritual – but not religious.

What they were describing is what sociologist Nancy Ammerman calls “Golden Rule Christianity.” It is a pragmatic moralism that emphasizes the importance of treating others well, believing that God exists and there is a heaven and that good people go there when they die, that prayer is good thing and we should all try to good works.(1) Follow the golden rule, and that’s what makes you a Christian.

Another sociologist, Christian Smith, has referred to this as “moralistic therapeutic deism” – a sense that religious involvement is a good thing if it keeps you on the straight path and makes you feel good. Spiritually speaking – if it feels good, do it.(2)

The spiritual but not religious crowd has continued to grow over the last 15 years. Indeed, 70 percent of Millennials describe themselves in this way. But is that really possible? Can you be spiritual but not religious?

Recent studies are suggesting no – it is not possible. Nancy Ammerman, the sociologist of religion I mentioned earlier, has finished a new study in which she concludes that spiritual but not religious doesn’t actually exist in reality. Ammerman found that, for most people, organized religion and spirituality are not two separate realms. Instead, they are one. She discovered that the people who were “most active in organized religion were also the most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world.”(3)

Religion supports spirituality. It’s hard to have one without the other. Religion is a blueprint to support our spirituality.

Now this is where Hannah comes in. Hannah is a living example of someone who is both spiritual and religious. She shows us how the blueprint of religion comes off the page and lives in our spiritual life.

As our story begins, Hannah is deeply upset about her inability to have children. This was a big deal at that time – a woman identity, her worth, was very much tied into her ability to have children, especially male children. So to be childless and unable to have children – that was a source of shame and disgrace. Hannah is so upset that she goes to the Temple in Shiloh, a major religious center for Israel at the time. This would be something like saying, “I’m going to the National Cathedral in Washington DC to offer my prayers.”

She goes into the Temple, sweeps past the priest on duty and she starts praying, silently, but her lips are moving. She is clearly upset. The priest on duty, named Eli, sees her and thinks she has been drinking. So he goes up to her, probably intending to ask her to leave and says, “put away your wine, how long will you make a spectacle of yourself.”

And Hannah comes right back at him. “I am not drunk, I am very upset. I have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. Don’t treat me like I’m nothing! I’m here for God’s help.”

Eli simply says, “Go in peace, may your prayers be answered.” And in due time – her prayer for a son was answered.

Now if Hannah had been spiritual but not religious, she probably would have left in a huff when Eli assumed she was drunk and hinted that she leave. And if that didn’t turn her off to the church, Eli’s rather gruff response and blessing would have done it.

But Hannah is both spiritual and religious. She trusts God deeply, and shows this by going to the Temple and praying so intently that Eli thought she had been drinking. She pours her soul out to God and promises to dedicate her son to God if her prayers are answered. Hannah is committed to organized religion, and is also committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world. For Hannah, spirituality and religion are strongest when they stand together.

So what about those who say they are spiritual, but not religious. Turns out they are neither. You can’t separate one from the other, not if you are serious about the spiritual life. According to Ammerman’s work, the 72 percent of Millenials who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious aren’t really doing much to practice their spirituality.

–         65% rarely, or never pray with others,

–         65% rarely, or never, attend worship services,

–         And 65% don’t read the Bible or any other sacred texts.(4)

There are, of course some valid reasons to be turned off by organized religion and church life. As David Wolpe, a prominent American Rabbi, once wrote in Time magazine:

“All of us can understand institutional disenchantment. Institutions can be slow, plodding and dictatorial. They can both enable and shield wrong-doers. They frustrate our desires by asking us to submit to the will of others.

But institutions are also the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions. If books were enough, why have universities? If guns were enough, why have a military? If self-governance were enough, let’s get rid of Washington. The point is that, if you want to do something lasting in this world, you will recall the wise words of French Catholic writer Charles Peguy: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” Got a vision? Get a blueprint.”

“To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror. Ask others. Be part of a community. In short, join. Being religious does not mean you have to agree with all the positions and practices of your own group; I don’t even hold with everything done in my own synagogue and I’m the rabbi. But it does mean testing yourself in the arena of others.”(5)

Even with their flaws and shortcomings, congregations remain the very best places to practice spirituality, even when they are made up of sometimes difficult, biased, broken and sinful people.

According to Anthony Robinson, congregations are the settings or vessels that give shape and encouragement to the spiritual life and practice of individuals and families. Reflecting on Ammerman’s work, he says that with a congregation, a person is more likely to be spiritual, and without such a community of spiritual discourse and practice, individuals tend to be less spiritual, or not spiritual at all. Ammerman concludes that the people with the most robust sense of sacred presence are those who participate in religious activities that allow for conversation and relationship.(6)

That is what we see in Hannah’s story here today. She goes to the Temple, the center of her religious practice. She pours out her soul to the Lord in a time of deep distress and she feels the presence of God. She has honest conversation with a priest. Granted the conversation at times was difficult, but it results in a blessing of peace. Hannah is a role model for how to be both spiritual and religious. The two cannot be separated. They work best together. Religion provides a blueprint for our spiritual life.

At the end of Hannah’s story, her prayer is answered. Scripture tells us that Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for as she says, “I have asked him of the Lord.” Incidentally, the name Samuel means “God has heard.” Then Hannah offers her song of praise and thanksgiving for the mighty care of God.

Hannah shows us how to be both spiritual and religious. In fact, you can’t truly have one without the other. When we practice our religion as Hannah does, we will be able to join her in her song of praise – for rest assured, God has heard.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Homiletics, Vol. 27, N0. 6, pg 25.

2.    Ibid… pg 25.

3.    Ibid… pg 20.

4.    Ibid… pg 21.

5.    Ibid… pg 25.

6.    Ibid… pg 21.