A friend asked me to explain the phrase, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I think people say that for a few reasons. Sometimes it’s to get religious people off of their back and sometimes they mean that they are believers, but not like what is typically seen.
Saying that someone is a Christian can mean different things to different people. Some are drawn to them, like they’re family. Some want to avoid them, like they’re a former abuser.
The type of Christian you are and how you come across to others depends on your personality. That’s no brain buster, but there is something interesting about the way personalities work: they don’t change. You can’t teach yourself a new personality. Different environments can bring out different behaviors, but as we age, we gravitate to who we really are and that is unavoidable.
I think that sometimes people want God to make them into somebody else because they would feel more worthy of love that way.
The thousands of personality characteristics can be organized into five different categories. Two of them are consistent predictors as to whether or not a person will be a believer, and a third is a consistent predictor of what kind of believer. This is strong evidence that backs up scripture saying God chose us from the beginning (Ephesians 1:4; John 15:16)), but that’s a different subject.
The two personality traits that believers rank high in are agreeableness and conscientiousness. Agreeableness is characterized by empathy, helpfulness, and ability to trust. Conscientiousness people are systematic, self-controlled, and goal oriented. I find it interesting that in decades of studies, the relationship between belief and personality is consistent. Religion does not give people these qualities, it’s these qualities that turn a person toward religion.
In a study done last year by Vassilis Saroglou at the Center for Psychology and Religion, they were looking deeper into the type of believer a person becomes. They took a look at the other three personality categories to see what makes a person ‘spiritual’ and what makes a person ‘religious’. ‘Spiritual’ is less structural (legalistic) than ‘religious’. The study found that those who are higher in ‘openness’ are more spiritual than those who scored lower. The level of a person’s ‘openness’ determines how much they enjoy challenging and complex ideas, and how far they will travel out of their comfort zone.
They set people up in a scenario where they had to catch a train, but were stalled when someone’s suitcase flew open. They were observed for their response. Did they help the other person or just walk by? These people were tested twice. In the one test, they had a social or familial relationship with the other person, in the other test, they didn’t know the person at all. The more legalistic the person was, the less likely they were to help a stranger. The less legalistic they were, the less preference they showed between someone in their inner circle and a stranger.
Outsiders are less likely to receive help or kindness from more conservative believers. Conservative (religious, legalistic) believers show strong preference to people who believe like they do. They are more likely to ignore those who do not.
I suppose this could be a more defined way of understanding what people mean when they say they are spiritual, but not religious.
Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers. “What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?” Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.” -Matthew 9:10-13 MSG
The point is, those who have a hard time being challenged by the depth of the Truth and being outside of their comfort zone are going to have a hard time with Jesus and who Jesus chooses to lift up. It’s not impossible for conservative Christians to love people who aren’t like them, it just completely goes against their personality and requires a lot of self-denial.
UPDATE: It was brought to my attention that some of my phrasing may be confusing and for that, I apologize. Instead of rewriting this, I have posted clarifications in the comments. Feel free to add your thoughts.