These days, a lot of people claim to be spiritual but not religious. They want to be connected to God and the spiritual realm, but they don’t want to be bogged down by all the rules and regulations of organized religion. They want to relate to God in their own way, and they don’t think they need anybody to tell them how to worship or how to live their lives.
And it’s easy to see why. The idea of being able to do things your own way, of being able to practice your faith how you want and when you want, is very attractive. However, I would argue that there’s something in organized religion that you just can’t get from the “spiritual but not religious” lifestyle. There’s something really important that you simply can’t replicate with this sort of “lone ranger” spirituality.
Who Seeks Whom?
In a nutshell, we can characterize the difference between these two paths in this way: being spiritual but not religious is our search for God, but religion is God’s search for us. If we don’t have religion, then we’re essentially just trying to find God on our own, but religion teaches that God has sought us out first. The whole point of religion is that God has revealed himself to us and told us some things that are essential for our relationship with him. He’s told us who he is, who and what we’re supposed to be, and how we should worship him. On the flip side, if all we have is just our own search for God and our own thoughts about all of these things, then we’re essentially just grasping in the dark and hoping that we get it right.
And therein lies the problem with the “spiritual but not religious” mindset. If we just relate to God however we want, then how do we know that we’re doing it right? For instance, how do we know that we’re doing what he wants us to do or that our moral standards match up with his? Simply put, if all we have is our own thoughts about God, spirituality, and morality, then we very much run the risk of making God what we want him to be rather than what he really is. Or, to put it another way, we run the risk of turning our own ideas and desires into God.
Getting God Right
On the other hand, with religion, we know we’re relating to him the correct way because we’re simply following his directions. We’re worshipping him the way he’s told us he wants to be worshipped, and we’re living according to the moral standards he’s told us to live by. G. K. Chesterton once said something along these lines (I don't have the exact quote, so I'm paraphrasing): I don't need the Church to teach me when I'm right; rather, I need it to teach me when I'm wrong.
His point was that we all make mistakes in our reasoning, so if we try to figure out spirituality and morality entirely on our own, we’re bound to get some things wrong. And that’s why we need religion. It tells us when we’re wrong so we can correct our mistakes. If our morality is off base at all, it tells us. If we’re doing anything that harms our relationship with God, it tells us. Simply put, if we’re doing anything wrong in the realm of spirituality, religion can tell us and help us correct our mistakes, but if we just do it our own way, we’ll just keep doing things wrong without having any way of realizing it and making the necessary changes.
Religious, Not Just Spiritual
At the end of the day, being spiritual but not religious is like trying to reinvent science or calculus from scratch. Those disciplines have already been created, so there's no need to do it again. Plus, if we try to reinvent them ourselves, there’s a good chance that we’ll make at least a few mistakes. We may not like the “rules” of science or calculus, but they’re there for a reason. They exist to make sure that we practice those disciplines correctly, and religion is the same way. Religion is all about believing that God has revealed certain things about himself to humanity precisely for the purpose of enabling us to have the best possible relationship with him. We may not like all the rules, but they’re there to make sure our spirituality stays on the right track. They exist to make sure that we do what God wants, and without them, we run the risk of doing whatever we feel like doing and just calling it spirituality.