“So, You’re Spiritual — But Not Religious?”

Ten years ago, I wrote a column titled “I Believe in Seeking, Not Believing,” in which I expressed my frustration with the incoherent beliefs (though rarely expressed as “beliefs”) of people I termed “SNBers” — “seekers, not believers.”

One such SNBer had e-mailed me and explained, rather confidently and with obvious satisfaction, that he was not a narrow-minded believer (like me!), but an open-minded “seeker.” The journey and the seeking, he explained, is what life is really all about — not knowing, believing or finding. Just seeking. Seeking is open-minded, believing is close-minded. Seeking is intelligent, believing is silliness. Seeking is enlightened, believing is superstitious.

Ditto for those who say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” A common variation is, “I’m into spirituality, not organized religion.” Twenty years ago, a book was published with the title “Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging.” Increasingly, however, there is neither belonging nor believing. A 2001 census in Britain found that 14.8 percent of the population said they adhered to no religion. By 2011, that number was higher than 25 percent.

What to make of those who claim to be spiritual but eschew what they label “religious”? First, I’d like to point out that Christianity agrees with the term “spiritual,” for the simple reason that man was created in the image and likeness of God so that he could have communion and fellowship with God. “A spiritual creature,” explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “man can live this friendship only in free submission to God” (No. 396). It is that latter part — the bit about free submission to God — that is the problem for many, for it brings into sharp relief three closely related issues: authority, truth and freedom.

The authority in question is not just any authority, but is almost always the authority of either the Church or the Bible. Everyone must eventually appeal to some source of authority. Yet some “spiritual” seekers want it both ways, such as when they appeal to reason — apparently a universally accessible and objective source of truth — while insisting that no one can really know or apprehend truth itself. Shortly before being elected to the papacy in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote a brilliant book, “Truth and Tolerance” (Ignatius Press), in which he observed: “To lay claim to truth for one religion’s particular expressions of faith appears today, not merely presumptuous, but an indication of insufficient enlightenment.” He described this prevailing disregard for truth as “the dogma of relativism,” a term that aptly captures the contradictory nature of relativism, which says there is not truth — and that’s the truth! Likewise, the spiritual but not religious person will eventually, if push comes to shove, express his spiritual views in doctrinal terms and with dogmatic certitude, even if he continues to deny the existence of any absolute, objective truth.

A related irony is that the spiritual seeker says, “It is too narrow and confining to follow a single religion.” And so, instead, he assuredly follows none — as if having nothing is somehow better than really having something! This, it seems, is a profound expression of his tremendous freedom. He is so free he need not choose anything at all. And freedom, it must be emphasized, is the essential point. The very concept of freedom, even poorly considered, hints at a deeper purpose and goal: the freedom to do this or to be that. But why? That’s a good question. The spiritual but not religious man denies authority through the exercise of his personal authority; he rejects truth in name of his personal “truth,” and he insists on freedom, but without a basis or a goal. This, Cardinal Ratzinger warned, will not suffice: “If there is no truth about man, then he has no freedom. Only the truth can make us free.”

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.