Finding the links between being spiritual and being religious

Elizabeth Greene.
Elizabeth Greene. Idaho Statesman

“Spiritual but not religious.”

A very common phrase these days, one I have heard over and over in my years as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister. In fact, it is one of the fastest-growing categories of “religious belief” in the U.S. today.

Here’s a definition I found: “Spirituality gives the individual autonomy over his or her interpretation of the soul or spirit, whereas religion implies participation in a communal practice and interpretation of divine belief and worship.”

In my experience, that gets close to the position of folks who hold the spiritual-but-not-religious position. Strong adherents of the position — people who consider themselves primarily spiritual, and may actively dislike “religion” — will point to the many harms brought about by denominations and congregations, and will laud the practice of one’s individual pursuit of spirit. For the spiritually minded — exclusivists, at any rate — communal practice and interpretation of divine belief and worship lead to deadening of the individual spirit.

I find separating the religious/spiritual realm into such clear-cut categories to be arbitrary and unnecessarily divisive.

What has gotten me thinking about all this is a memorial service I conducted last month for a man who was married to a very close friend of mine. Joe’s service, so full of love, was truly a weaving of the religious and the spiritual.

I am guessing that Joe’s family members would define themselves as more spiritual than religious, in the traditional sense. Rather than regularly attending church, mosque, synagogue or temple, they honor many different spiritual traditions. The service celebrating husband, father and friend entwined religious and spiritual elements in a whole that shone with integrity and love.

There were, in fact, institutional “religious” elements. It was led by a minister (me), fellowshipped and ordained in a denomination. It was held in a church building, whose congregation maintains the building and grounds, making them available for many people to use. The service was deeply an experience of communal worship.

At the same time, the spiritual elements transcended any one tradition or path. A Sengalese poet spoke, in a lovely song:

The dead have a pact with the living

They are in the woman’s breast,

They are in the wailing child,

They are with us in our homes,

They are with us in this crowd.

A Buddhist chaplain, friend and spiritual companion to Joe in his last days rang the bell, traditionally bidding farewell to those who have left this earthly home.

Jane Kenyon wrote, in “Let Evening Come”:

“Let it come, as it will, and don’t be afraid. God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come.”

Above all, companions, relatives, minister and friends spoke and sang, weaving stories of Joe’s life and his influence upon others. Above all, our communal worship transcended any particular faith or creed, lifting us into our ties with mystery, our bonds of common humanity. Above all, our gathered, open hearts made the room radiant with the light and love of true spirit.

We were spiritual. We were religious. We were something more than either, something more than both.

Rev. Elizabeth Greene is Minister Emerita of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Contact her at

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.