I was raised Christian and the more I’ve thought about it, the more curious something about my upbringing seems. My church was constantly denying it was ‘religious’. By any objective social–scientific measures, the community was decidedly religious. Maybe we weren’t that organised (there was no website), but we recited historic creeds, we submitted to the authority of a sacred text and we practised ancient rituals. We identified with the worldwide institutional expression of the body of Christ, yet we still liked to say we weren’t ‘religious’. Throughout my childhood I was reminded in sermon after sermon that we were ‘-Spiritual but not Religious’.
One reason for this was a sincere desire to avoid religiosity: going through the motions when your heart’s not in it. But another reason, I think, was marketability. We knew that the pews were emptying, and we knew that as the practice of religion waned, talk of spirituality flourished. Business schools were increasingly stressing the importance of ‘spiritual capital’ to entrepreneurship and headteachers were insisting spirituality was ‘a basic premise of a holistic education’. By identifying ourselves as Spiritual but not Religious we hoped we could be a home for anyone nervous of ‘religion’.
Looking back, I think we paid too high a price. Spiritual but not Religious was a mistake. Why? Because by opting for it my church smudged out faith’s real attraction. It missed the opportunity to hold out something radically counter-cultural — a much-needed alternative to spiritual consumerism.
Self-identifying as ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ took off with the advent of online dating in the early 2000s, but its roots reach back half a century further. As early as 1940, Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, referred to his programme as ‘Not Religious, but Spiritual’. Wilson was inspired by the 19th-century philosopher and psychologist William James to forge a model of spirituality which was personal, pragmatic and progressive.