spiritual vs. religious

Posted: June 7th, 2012 | Filed under: life | Tags: , , , | 10 Comments »

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.





10 Comments on “spiritual vs. religious”

  1. 1 Jason said at 11:13 am on June 7th, 2012:

    Hi Serena,
    I found myself scratching my head at several points while reading this post. First, is your comment that personalities don't change. Although I think that is *generally* true, I think it discounts the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel 11:19 reads, "and I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh." It seems to me that God can and does change personality on some level at the new birth.

    You then wrote that "we gravitate to who we really are and that is unavoidable." I don't know why, but this suggested a certain hopeless to me. To me it suggests a person who has given up on a hope of change. Later, you wrote, "religion does not give people these qualities, it's these qualities that turn a person toward religion." Following up on my statement above, I think God absolutely instills these qualities in people. He makes us brand new creatures.

    Also, if you could help me to understand–are you equating legalism with "religion"? If so, I also found it interesting that religious people are characterized by high agreeableness on personality tests–i.e., empathy, helpfulness, and ability to trust, but then are less likely to help a stranger. Perhaps a broken or poorly defined construct?

    I wonder too, are you implying that Jesus was "spiritual, but not religious?"

    Finally, your comment "it's not impossible for conservative Christians to love people who aren't like them, it just goes completely against their personality and requires a lot of self denial." This was probably hardest for me to swallow because I consider myself a conservative Christian. Setting my emotional reaction to this aside, I would add that it brings to my mind again the struggle I have been having lately to differentiate "love" from "tolerance." It seems that in modern culture, people equate tolerance with love, but I think that is a poor reflection of biblical truth. Jesus loved people well, but he did not "tolerate" sin, at least as it is conceptualized in modern culture. We are called to a higher ethic and neither the "spiritual" nor "religious" get this one right.

    Sorry, I just wanted to throw out some random thoughts.

    My recent post The inner and outer chaos of SAHMs

  2. 2 serenawoods said at 12:16 pm on June 7th, 2012:

    I'm glad you spoke up. I was trying to reflect on a really long article discussing genetics and religion and a few conversations I've had into a short blog post. After reading your take, I want to go through your concerns and clarify my own thoughts. I would love to learn more about this…

    The comment about personalities not changing was in response to the studies on personality. When you say that it's generally true, I'm leaning more toward that generality. My point was more about the type of people who turn to faith (and 'others' centric) rather then self-reliant or self-sustaining. I wanted to show the personality traits that believers tend to have. The reason I wanted to talk about this is because, to me, it proves that God chose us from the outset, or before we could do anything, not because of something we did.

    When I mentioned "gravitating to who we really are", I am thinking about how common it is for someone to divide their life into acceptable parts and parts they don't want to acknowledge, thereby, becoming fragmented and hollow. I find hope in that because my own life is full of things that I've tried to bury and wish or pray away. It gives me hope that God loves all of me. ("Just as I am…without one plea…but that thy blood was shed for me." ) Through my own journey of faith, I have had issues of my past, and parts of me that I don't like, well up and demand attention. Instead of ridding me of my past, He redeemed it. I can be me and know that He loves me and had a purpose for all of it. I think that 'who we really are' is who He created us to be, who we are and are not yet, and faith/grace/Christ makes it possible to figure out who that is in Jesus. He takes us and cultivates us, transforms us. That leans more toward what you are pointing out than what I may have failed to relay in my blog. When I say, we "gravitate to who we really are", I mean that in a hopeful way.

    When mentioning 'religion' with 'legalism', I was trying to show what I mean when I compare 'spiritual' with 'religious'. It is more of a current cultural or social definition than a timeless, or dictionary, definition. It is me acknowledging that 'religious' doesn't have a good name anymore for many people. People are saying that they are 'spiritual, not religious' and when they say that, many of them mean that they are not self-rightious or closed off. They are saying that they love people, even the those who are harder to love.

    I think most of the concerns you brought up are more about my word choices and what they mean to me rather than what they mean to someone else. For that reason, I'm glad you spoke up so that I could try to make myself more clear. When I mentioned "conservative Christians", I was thinking of those who are more fearful of making a mistake. I have very conservative views, but am not afraid of falling. I don't want to, I try not to, but I'm not afraid. Under that definition, I would be conservative, too. However, 'conservative Christian' conjures up images of damaging, bullying, people for many who read my writing. Scared and insecure people are really harmful to others. Many of the people who read my blog have been deeply wounded by people who are scared of losing God's favor and insecure in their relationship with Him.

    I think you have a point about 'love' and 'tolerance'. I made a decision a long time ago that if I was going to be wrong when dealing with another person, I would rather err on the side of love. I don't want to be an enabler and I don't want to turn a broken heart away from God because I thought they weren't 'repentant'. It's just my own way of dealing with the unknown.

    I hope I came through a bit more clearly. I know there is a chance that you still may have concerns and I don't love that. But, I really think that some of the terminology meaning is a difference of small 'sub-cultures'. I try to acknowledge the pain of those who have been wounded by Christians. It's not easy to find the right words without coming across wrong. I don't want to tear down.

    Thanks for making me take another look. I'll be thinking about my communication skills a little more critically.

    The article I read that spurred the conversations I had that turned into this blog post was called, "Are We Born to be Religious?" by Vassilis Saroglou. He's a professor of psychology at a Catholic university in Belgium (His use of religious is not the same as mine. My use of the term came from the conversations.) The article is in the current issue of the Scientific American Mind. I thought it was really interesting.

  3. 3 dawn said at 4:35 pm on June 7th, 2012:

    I got down to this paragraph and had a serious question as to the source and accuracy of this statement. "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." You didn't site a source, and I know you are not a professional psychologist, so I was immediately challenged as to the validity of the statement.

    Other than that first impression I loved the post and think the article you read must have been very interesting. I would love to read it too. Sharing the link or resource info would lend credibility to your statements about personality types and general info you speak of regarding the psychology of the types.

    love you lots!!!

    Read more: http://www.graceisforsinners.com/spiritual-vs-rel
    Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives

  4. 4 serenawoods said at 5:18 pm on June 7th, 2012:

    HI, Dawn. 🙂 What I meant by that statement is a two parter: I answered the last part in my reply to Jason, but the first part of the quote you have up there is just talking about the difference in personality types. Some people are more trusting and more open. Some people aren't. That affects everything you do, including how you walk out your faith and how you relate to people.

    Here is something to think about in reference to personalities changing: It would seem as though a person does change, drastically, when they become a Christian. People even say: "He's a completely different person." I've said it myself. However, what has happened is that he is happier and seems lighter. He's not carrying the stress of guilt or uncertainty. He is more confident as he realizes how much God loves him and how he can have a future in spite of his past. He has a second chance and that is rejuvenating. It 'changes' a person, without question. It frees them from the constraints of doing 'life' by themselves, but I don't think it alters personality, I think it brings out the better qualities and makes the poor qualities recede with relief.

    I didn't cite the source of the article directly, just the man who did a recent study on personality and religion, then wrote about it. Most of my words were reflections of a combination of what I know about psychology, what I've read (that article in particular), what I've experienced, and conversations I've had. However, the article information can be found in my response to Jason. It is really interesting.

  5. 5 dawn said at 6:40 pm on June 7th, 2012:

    thx sis, I think I will read the article, it sounds fascinating. I find psychology interesting, especially as it relates to studies and characteristics of people. Can't wait for your next post 😎

  6. 6 Sisterlisa said at 9:11 am on June 8th, 2012:

    "We gravitate towards who we really are" I think this tends to be true. Yet at the same time, He transforms us into new creatures…newborns who have more growing to do. We can either gravitate backwards into our old man, or grow up into the new man. And therein lies the choice we make. If we think our identity is in the old man, then we are believing a lie about ourselves. We are created in the image of God and planted in Christ. Tis better to believe the truth about ourselves, that we are new creatures in Christ that are showered in grace, than to carry a dead corpse around and take on that morbid identity.

  7. 7 serenawoods said at 5:33 pm on February 8th, 2014:

    "We gravitate toward who we really are" -> meaning His and not our own. We really are His. We just lose that somewhere along the line and have to learn that, be called back, respond, but we'll never be left out there. We gravitate, we're compelled, we're pulled to who we really are -> out identity in Christ. Can't you feel the tug?

  8. 8 Aimee said at 5:16 pm on February 8th, 2014:

    I normally love this blog, but as the mother of a little autistic child, it wounded me to read about certain personality traits that predispose some to come to Christ and some not to. I believe God doesn't want anyone to perish, and doesn't give only some the right personalities that predispose (or predestine?) them to be saved more than others. I see God working in my autistic son, for His glory…and believe He saves and loves my child as he is, with his limitations of personality and comprehension. This may not be what you meant to discuss, but I wanted to mention it, because I don't buy into the idea that our limitations limit God. On the contrary, they magnify Him and His grace. God bless you all, I appreciate the grace I have encountered on this blog very much, and your testimonies to God's amazing grace!

  9. 9 serenawoods said at 5:46 pm on February 8th, 2014:

    Autism is not a shortcoming in my somewhat educated opinion. I see it as a beautiful and delicate condition that draws me safely and quietly in. I feel more kindred with my autistic friends/clients than I do with the general public. They have fewer barriers to the metaphysical reality than most -> a quality I share with them <-, and while that makes them have to protect themselves in socially abnormal ways, it also makes them amazingly cued in to the things the rest of the population only wishes they could dial in.

    When I spoke of "personalities" I was talking about how some people have more structure and thrive with rules and some people are more free-spirited and thrive in freedom. It's not about being saved or not saved. It's more of a "Mary/Martha" thing.

    I don't think you have a thing to worry about with your son. You said it best when you said you "believe He saves and loves [your] child as he is." To that, I say: Without question.

    I think that autistic people know a lot more than those who are not autistic. They see a lot more and that's part of what keeps them separate.

  10. 10 Aimee said at 1:51 pm on February 9th, 2014:

    Oh, Serena, thank you so much for your beautiful words. Your words, both about grace and now about autism, have been so used by God to speak peace and hope into my life! I see that I misunderstood what you were saying about personalities, and I agree with you. Thanks for writing about that. Right now I am dealing with a lot, and I have been so blessed by your testimony, because it really speaks to me what I am needing to hear right now about Jesus and God's astounding grace for my own life. I used to be a "Martha" in my Christian life for years…until my own sinfulness destroyed my testimony and I was forced to see the preciousness of Jesus in a new way, while humbled at His feet seeking His forgiveness (while having denied that same forgiveness to others in the past…what a hypocrite I was to do that!). I now am one of those who, having been "forgiven much", "loves much"…and I am still learning from Jesus. I appreciate your writing very much, and your love for Christ is a shining thing.

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