In a twist on Robert Frost’s old saw about vers libre poetry, a priest friend of mine once remarked, “Being spiritual but not religious is like playing tennis without a net.”
This strikes me as very apt. There does seem something unsportsmanlike about claiming the consolations of spiritual living without binding oneself to a God or creed. It’s all dessert, no dinner.
And, like eating a gummi bear soufflé every night, it’s not very healthy, either. “Spirituality” (loosely defined—that’s part of the problem) without religion applies a veneer to the soul that can thwart close inspection of the rot beneath. As candy can keep us from noticing our hunger for real food, at least for a while, a vague and undemanding spirituality suppresses the God-hunger. The purely secular materialist may feel something’s missing in his life, but our homemade spirituality always tells us that we’re doing just fine.
The result is spiritual narcissism. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton critiqued the Quaker notion of the “Inner Light,” but his words could just as easily apply to its modern equivalent:
Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.
Religion, on the other hand, even the basest forms of paganism, rescues man from self-worship and orients him in a spiritually healthy direction: away from himself:
Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.
Spirituality without religion goes hand-in-hand with another modern religious trend: moral therapeutic deism (MTD). Even more popular with today’s youth than wearing jeans around your knees, MTD eschews revelation, religious commandments, and formal worship in favor of a divine Santa Claus: He’s out there somewhere, he wants us to be nice, but he gives us presents even if we’re naughty. As with unregulated spirituality, the chief moral principle of MTD—be nice to others—relies on the subjective (and thus infinitely malleable) interpretations of the practicioner. What’s nice for you isn’t necessarily nice for me.
Small surprise, then, that a recent sociological study published in the journal Criminology found that young people who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” are more likely than their religious peers—whether spiritual or not—to commit crimes.
"Calling oneself 'spiritual but not religious' turned out to more of an antisocial characteristic, unlike identifying oneself as religious," said Baylor researcher Aaron Franzen, a doctoral candidate and study co-author.
The researchers’ remarks focused on possible sociological reasons why self-identified religious folk commit fewer crimes: shame, fear of divine judgment, greater investment in family and community, and so on. But although there may be merit to such theories (though they turn a blind eye to the most obvious reason: grace), they don’t account for why the “spiritual but not religious” group was also more likely to commit crime, and to display anti-social characteristics and “negative emotions,” than those who claimed to be neither spiritual nor religious.
Maybe it’s because the most broken among us—and thus the most likely to be criminals—are somehow also predisposed to inventing amorphous spiritualities and therapeutic God-concepts. Or maybe it’s just what happens when Jones worships Jones.