The Disciplined Life of the Non-Religious

Christians assume that the non-religious or the “spiritual but not religious” are necessarily undisciplined. Pastors complain that young people today are more hedonistic because they are less religious. Lay missionaries publish countless Christian self-help books to address people who, because of their lack of belief, are evidently unable to make commitments or sacrifices. Jesus makes people moral, so non-Christians are necessarily less moral.

Unfortunately, moralism is not only a distortion of the Gospel, it is also condescending and false. Recently, one of my favorite non-religious YouTubers made a video about being a vegan. The video challenged my assumptions about the non-religious. Vegetarianism and veganism are growing trends in the United States. Thousands of young people every year consciously decide to give up not only meat but also eggs, cheese, milk, certain oils, and even leather. Many of these young people would call themselves Agnostics or Atheists. And yet they have decided to make significant sacrifices in their lives. It takes a lot of discipline to give up all animal products. Most vegan food has to be made from scratch.

The YouTuber explained why she decided to be vegan. She had been a vegetarian for years, but one night she suddenly decided to avoid all animal products. After considering the negative impact the consumption of animal products has on the world, she became convinced that veganism was the more ethical alternative. She was disturbed by how her consumption was hurting the poor around the world. She recognized her privilege. She wanted to love her neighbor better.

We Christians need to stop assuming the non-religious are immoral. Millions of non-religious are concerned about the ethical implications of their actions. I am not a vegan or even a vegetarian. I’ve never really considered the impact eating meat has on the poor or the environment. But that YouTuber has, and she is not alone.

Christianity doesn’t necessarily make a person more moral. Instead of pitting ourselves against the non-religious we should celebrate the sacrifices they make in their everyday lives. We should join them in their projects to better the world.

Christianity is not a moralism. It is a relationship. A relationship with a person who is also the Son of God. Instead of trying to show up the non-religious we should focus more on helping people encounter Christ in prayer, in the sacraments, and in their daily lives. In general, Christians need to be less condescending toward others. We need to pontificate less and dialogue more. We need to stop assuming that we are morally superior. Throughout history, Christians have benefited from the wisdom of the pagans.


4 thoughts on “The Disciplined Life of the Non-Religious

  1. A lot of attention has been given to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. I think another, smaller movement gaining momentum is the “religious but not spiritual” group. Religion, meaning a nexus of relationships and guide for praxis, reasserts itself even among people who have given up supernatural claims. This is where I landed after my deconversion.

    And there’s some academic work related to this phenomenon. See The Religion of the Future by Roberto Unger. Also, I think this is an extension of Foucault’s technologies of the self.


    1. I keep saying that I will read Foucault, but I haven’t yet. Thanks for the recommendation. While I have not given up on the supernatural I don’t feel particularly “spiritual”. I find comfort in the act of communal worship and identity of the Roman Catholic faith. So the “religious but not spiritual” phenomenon is something I find more relatable than being “spiritual but not religious”. I have a biology degree, so I prefer a “demythologized” view of the world.


  2. This post reminds me of Augustine’s admonition that Christians “plunder Egypt” for its wisdom. Like you say, “throughout history, Christians have benefitted from the wisdom of pagans.” I am not on board with “demythologizing” the world or the Christian religion, but I am on board with engaging seriously and humbly with non-Christians in order to think more clearly and live more faithfully.


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