Spiritual, but not religious?

I often meet people who were raised in a particular faith but then stopped going to church, perhaps because of a negative experience, or perhaps because they just didn’t see the relevance of religion.
They sometimes will say, “I am a spiritual person but I don’t believe in any specific religion.”

My quarrel with this statement is that it doesn’t make sense. People say this like it explains something, but it only raises more questions. Suppose a man said to you that he believes in modern medicine but refuses to go to see a doctor. Would you smile and nod understandingly? You’d probably wonder what exactly this person means when he says he believes in modern medicine.

So if you are spiritual, but not religious, what do you really believe?

Let’s start with a personal question: Are you comfortable with your position? I hope not. I hope you experience the uncertainty with discomfort, which is the normal, healthy response. I hope you are in the search to know more. To those of you in this category, let me just say in passing: don’t be a stranger. The churches are full of people who aren’t sure about God. St. Paul says, “For we are saved by hope. But hope that is seen is not hope. For what a man sees, why does he hope for? But if we hope for that which we see not, we wait for it with patience.” Rom 8:24-25. There’s not a lot of instant gratification in the journey of faith. And faith doesn’t mean absence of doubt; it just means you keep following the path.

If on the other hand you are comfortable not knowing, then there’s something wrong, and it needs to be fixed. It’s wrong to give up on the most important questions of our existence. I want to focus on one particular argument for being a committed agnostic, which goes like this: perhaps there’s something out there, but we can’t really know for certain, so we might as well not try. This argument fails on purely logical grounds.

Here’s a syllogism:

If God exists, then he is detectable by the scientific method.
God is not detectable by the scientific method.
Therefore, God does not exist.

If you believe the major premise (the first sentence in this syllogism), then you probably are an atheist. This is a question-begging argument (How do you prove that God must be detectable in this manner?), but many atheists rely on it as a clinching proof.

In structure, this argument is the same as the following:

If tigers exist, then I shall be attacked on my way home from work tonight.
I am not attacked.
Therefore, tigers do not exist.

The flaw in the major premise is that it fails to include all of the properties of tigers. The key omitted property is that they live in Africa and Asia, not the United States where I live. The no-God syllogism above also fails to include all of the properties of God. The key omitted property is that he hides his presence and only reveals it indirectly. There are well-established reasons for this that I will discuss elsewhere.

The committed atheist adopts a position that has the same logical structure.

We should believe religious propositions only if they can be verified.
Religious propositions cannot be verified.
Therefore we should not believe any religious propositions.

The major premise begs the question: How do you justify the refusal to believe things on less-than-perfect proof? We don’t require this standard of proof in many important areas of life. We take leaps of faith, we choose jobs and schools and spouses and houses without knowing in advance whether these are the best possible choices. We recognize that irrefutable proof might exist in lab experiments, but we know we can’t count on it out here in the real world.

But, you might say, if God is perfect, why isn’t he perfectly clear? That is a great question. It’s the kind of question asked by a serious-minded person. It is the right place to begin. It’s a question that shows you are ready to stop trying to find a category for God and start finding God himself.

The truth is that all religions are not the same and do not say the same things. Only one says that the one true and eternal God became a human being out of his own love for humanity. According to that religion, you find God by finding the man he is. Getting hold of God is not a matter of accepting a set of historical and metaphysical propositions. It is a matter of meeting a person. Like anyone you meet, you don’t know everything about him right away. You start with the relationship. You start by saying Hello. It’s called prayer; it’s the only way to find him. Anyone can do it, even the doubtful. “I believe,” the man in Mark’s Gospel told Jesus, “help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24)

So if you say you are spiritual but not religious, then all you’re saying is you’ve stopped at exactly the place where you are supposed to begin.

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