UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Finish This Sentence

When I hear, 'I'm spritual but not religious' ... I take it to mean, 'I believe in God, but I'm not a big fan of the Bible.'

By Brian Platt

Organized religion rubs many spiritual-but-not-religious people the wrong way. Some don’t like its rules, its claim to be the sole source of salvation or its often male-dominated hierarchies. The list goes on.

This is a familiar conundrum discussed in United Church circles — and not just by those in the pews. It’s safe to say that a fair number of United Church ministers couldn’t be in their jobs if they were required to be in more than essential agreement with the Christian canon.

To a certain extent, this whole issue depends on how you define the terms “religious” and “spiritual.” I know there are many people who don’t fit neatly into such categories. If “religious” is defined as identifying with a religious denomination, then we can agree that one can be spiritual without being religious. But can one be religious without being spiritual? That’s a more difficult question. There must be many people in the world who regularly attend church without believing in God; they go because of the community aspect or for some other reason. I know people like this, and I’m sure most readers do as well.

You can’t go very deep into the religious-versus-spiritual distinction before it becomes useless. Some people call themselves spiritual, not because they have any belief in God, per se, but because of an attraction to new-age philosophies of energy fields and astrology charts and so forth. And for those on the religious side, there is a long and sometimes tragic history of one church attacking the credentials of another.

In other words, defining yourself as either “spiritual” or “religious” ultimately says very little about you.

But the issue is nonetheless unavoidable. The late Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, noted that he found it almost impossible to have a coherent debate with Christian leaders because each one would pick and choose which stories of the Bible to defend. In one well-known exchange, Hitchens sparred with Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian minister from Portland who describes herself as a liberal Christian. She said many parts of the Bible were not to be taken literally, and that she didn’t believe, for example, in the doctrine of atonement — that Jesus actually died for our sins.

She asked whether Hitchens made a distinction between her beliefs and those of fundamentalist Christians. Hitchens responded, “I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”

So, then: if someone’s going to question whether you can even belong to the church you help lead (and we must admit, it was a fair challenge by Hitchens), you may have to make hard decisions about whether the “religious” label fits you — by which I mean, the extent to which you can really identify with one denomination over another, or any denomination at all.

I personally don’t worry much about the question and won’t go asking others if they’re religious or spiritual. I’m of the mind that you should just decide for yourself what you believe, and if you don’t feel comfortable in a given church, then find a place where you do. It may not be in a church, and that’s okay.

But that’s easy for me to say, because I’m not in a pulpit.

Author's photo
Brian Platt is a master of journalism student at Carleton University.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.


June 2017


by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart


March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image