Clearly the answer to my question depends on what one means by spiritual and religious. In contemporary Christianity the question has become important as the numbers of those associated with the "church alumni association" continue to rise. In a 1999 Gallup poll three in ten Americans claimed that they were spiritual but not religious. They were asked "do you think of spirituality more in a personal and individual sense or more in terms of organized religion and church doctrine?" Almost three-quarters picked the personal and individual response. In a January 2002 poll 50% described themselves as religious, while 33% claimed to be spiritual but not religious. A poll conducted by Newsweek and Beliefnet in 2005 reported a lower percentage (24%) claiming to be spiritual. In the Gallup poll when they defined spirituality they did it without any reference to God or a higher authority. Among other things answers that defined being spiritual were having calmness in one's life and living in a way that is pleasing to oneself.
The words religious and spiritual are used in the New Testament and suggest something other than simply "organized religion" (religious) and "personal and individual attitudes" (spiritual). The words religion and religious are rare in the New Testament, but in Greek antiquity their cognates are fairly common. In general, being religious is showing devotion to a transcendent power through cultic practice, which corresponds somewhat to the idea of "organized religion," although modern Christian "cultic" practice and what occurred in ancient Greek and Roman temples is quite different.
In the New Testament the term "religious" appears only once; it is used of persons who are able to control their tongues (in Greek antiquity it carries the idea of "god fearing" or "pious"). Those who cannot control their tongues have a worthless religion (James 1:26; compare 3:1-12). That is to say, what they do in their formal worship in showing devotion to a transcendent power is worthless unless they look after orphans and widows in their affliction and keep themselves from the negative influences of the world (James 1:27). Hence, a religious person is someone whose worship is defined in terms of what we might call service to others; in James it is regarded as the only kind of cultic practice that is "pure and undefiled."
The specific term "spiritual" with reference to certain people is used primarily in the letters of Paul. The specific term "spiritual" is used to characterize the nature of the abilities with which God endows certain persons (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 28-31). These abilities are given mystically through a divine spirit, and are considered mystically endowed gifts. They were not natural abilities with which a person is endowed at birth, which can be developed through one's own human powers. Paul thought of himself as a source of certain spiritual gifts that he could impart to others (Romans 1:11). Hence he was a spiritual person and apparently not the only one (1 Corinthians 2:12-3:3). Others also thought of themselves as "spiritual" (1 Corinthians 14:37). A spiritual person was endowed with a spiritual gift for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7), and hence was a helper of others through their spiritual gifts (Romans 1:11; 1 Corinthians 9:11; Galatians 6:1).
People in the 21st century who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious would not have been understood by a follower of Jesus in the first century, since in the ancient idiom both terms are closely related. It may also be true that many today who describe themselves as religious would not be understood by followers of Jesus in the first century for the same reason. The term "spiritual" in the sense of the answers given to the pollsters in 2003 and later seem to suggest the idea of having no involvement with anything relating to transcendent power, mysticism, or being a source of aid to others. In today's vernacular to be "spiritual" apparently means being wrapped up in oneself. It does not even suggest such things as meditation, mystical trance, contemplation, or thinking about matters beyond one's own self, something Paul would clearly not have understood (Romans 8:6-7).
Can one be spiritual without being religious? Like so many other things in life, it depends on how one defines the terms. How do you define the terms "religious" and "spiritual"?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University