Have you heard that quite a lot lately? Have you found yourself saying it?

You’re certainly not alone. One survey recently found nearly a third of Americans describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

That’s about 25 times as many who identified themselves as “atheist” or “agnostic.”

Clearly, it’s the fashionable thing to say. Only a few years before, the survey had found about a quarter of Americans calling themselves “spiritual but not religious.” If there were a Church of the Spiritual but Not Religious, it would be the fastest-growing denomination in the United States.

But what does it mean? What are people trying to say when they tell a poll-taker that they’re “spiritual but not religious”?

Think for Yourself

We live in a culture that tells us to think for ourselves, and that’s a very good thing. People who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” are at least partly trying to tell us that they think for themselves. They don’t just accept what somebody tells them is true. They’re looking for the truth in their own way.

So when they reject what they call organized religion, what they suppose they’re rejecting is the idea that someone can tell them what to think. The impression they have of “religion” is that you have to turn off your mind to be a part of it. They don’t want to turn off their minds. They want to think for themselves.

The problem is that you can’t think for yourself if you don’t have something to think about.

We see this truth clearly and easily when we talk about science. Only a few cranks think that “organized science” is something that keeps you from thinking for yourself. Science doesn’t close off our thinking: it’s what makes it possible for us to think about these things.

The same is actually true of religion. We have to know the starting principles of the spiritual world. Only then can we make any new discoveries. Only then can we think for ourselves, because we have something to think about.

This is the way every kind of knowledge advances. We don’t start knowing nothing; we build on what a thousand previous generations have taught us.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church starts right off at the beginning by telling us that we all desire to know God (see No. 27). This is why there are so many more “spiritual but not religious” people than there are atheists. Atheism is easy: all it requires is sticking to what we can see and refusing to go beyond that. The simple fact that so few people can bring themselves to look at the world that way shows that the Church has found the right starting principle for her Catechism.

Faith Is Freedom

Faith is the great stumbling block for the “spiritual but not religious,” because it seems to be a giving up of that freedom they’ve preserved so carefully. But faith isn’t giving up freedom: faith is gaining freedom. Venerable Pope John Paul II explained the relationship of faith and freedom in a strikingly convincing way:

“It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: it is absolutely required. Indeed, it is faith that allows individuals to give consummate expression to their own freedom. Put differently, freedom is not realized in decisions made against God. For how could it be an exercise of true freedom to refuse to be open to the very reality which enables our self-realization? Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith; it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth” (Fides et Ratio, No. 13).

Our popular culture admires “spiritual seekers,” people who are open to new ideas and possibilities in the spiritual realm. But we can’t forget that the purpose of seeking is to find. Aimless wandering, after all, is not the thing we admire, but rather it is purposely looking for the truth. At a certain point, we’re going to have to admit that we’ve found it, or admit that it can’t be found.

Just as science is the method by which we seek the truth in the physical realm, religion is the method we use to explore the spiritual realm. This is why faith is freedom: it gives us the ability, the license, to investigate the spiritual realm we instinctively know exists. We are naturally spiritual. We know that there is something to discover beyond the physical. Religion gives us the freedom to explore that reality.

An Opportunity, Not a Problem

So how do we, the people who actually do see religion from the inside, deal with the outsiders who call themselves “spiritual but not religious”?

We should see the “spiritual but not religious” as an opportunity, not a problem. These are people who are seeking the truth, and we have a Christian duty to help them find it.

Reason may be the thing that will lead them back home to the Church. There is a reason for everything we do in the Church: a reason for each part of the liturgy, a reason for every vestment the priest wears, a reason behind every Catholic social teaching. We cannot present these things as simple facts, take them or leave them. We need real apologetics, a religious education that reaches out to the world and says this is why.

 To the “spiritual but not religious” we can say this: Your instincts are right. There is more to know. God is happy that you’re seeking him. God desperately wants you to find him. In fact, he wants it so much that he’s been seeking you all this time. TCA

Christopher Bailey writes from Pittsburgh, Pa.

First Principles (sidebar)

We need a starting point to be able to think about spiritual things. So what do we really know about God?

We know that there is a God. This is a knowledge that we religious Catholic Christians share with most of the “spiritual but not religious” people: they also know that there is a God, though they won’t take a position on what kind of God they know. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that we can know by observation and reason not only that there is a God, but that there is a personal God (see No. 35). St. Paul told us the same thing centuries before:

“For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (Rom 1:19-20).

We know this knowledge is possible because we’ve seen it happen: all over the world, philosophers have come to that same conclusion. When we follow things back to their first cause, we must acknowledge that there is a God.

This knowledge is not enough, but it’s a good start. It’s important to recognize the role of revelation in knowing God, but it’s important also to recognize that reason, without revelation, can know that there is a God. It’s so important that the Catechism puts knowledge of God by reason first, before even mentioning revelation.

And it’s especially important if you think you’re “spiritual but not religious.” If you think for yourself and reason carefully, you will know that there is a God. Your “spiritual” instincts are right.

But reason alone will not tell us the whole truth about our relationship with God — who God is and what God’s plan for us is. For that we need revelation, and for revelation we need faith.