It’s all the rage now, being “spiritual but not religious”. According to just about every headline I see on the subject--and the subject is so ubiquitous that I’ve stopped reading the articles themselves--the number of people marking this phrase as their theological or philosophical identity when asked for demographic data increases every year. We could easily get into a discussion about exactly what’s driving people away from organized religion and traditional ecclesiastical institutions, but enough people are doing that and, quite frankly, I don’t care. My purpose here is simply to talk about what “spiritual but not religious” even means, because based on the fact that I myself am not positive, my guess is that most other people don’t know, either.
It’s a convenient phrase to be sure--kind of a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ scenario. It claims the benefits of both behavioral independence and the freedom to engage in magical thinking without the cost of accountability or commitment. My sense is that one reason the term elludes delineation is that that’s how its advocates want it: resistant to tie-downs, and able to mean whatever the claimant wants it to mean at any given time. I’m okay with that in the sense that, as I hope my readers have picked up by now, I am a vehement proponent of every person enjoying the prerogative of following his or her own conviction regarding the underlying truths of the universe. At the same time, I become concerned when people throw around terminology they can’t define in an effort to define themselves.
So, let’s try to clarify. It’s easy to figure out what the “not religious” part indicates, at least on the surface. As I mentioned before, the intention behind it seems to stem from an aversion to the rigid rules and obligations that are automatically associated with any given organized religion. But what is “spiritual”? This is the rub for me, not because I think there’s something wrong with the concept but because I simply do not know what people mean when they say it. Some people are, I think, referring to an unseen and supernatural realm that they believe (or would venture to guess) exists in some way, the details of which are unknown, unknowable, and/or simply do not matter. Perhaps others, when using the adjective “spiritual”, are referring to the experiences in life that have to do with invisible realities that might have a physical/scientific explanation--that is, they are not necessarily supernatural--but the explanation has yet to be discovered or understood by the human mind. And maybe some “spiritual”-oriented people simply enjoy dwelling in the ineffable and, to them, that is best summed up by the phrase at hand.
Aside from the fact that it is vague and over-used, I do not identify with “spiritual but not religious” because I do actually think that the word “spiritual” implies some level of belief in a supernatural realm. While I am open to that idea being a reality in the sense that if a person were to show me concrete evidence for it that is clearly attributed to something beyond my own hyperactive imagination I would welcome the correction, I currently am pretty well convinced that there is/are no ‘being(s)’ beyond our physical realm. But, that being said, I also think that there are so many things going on in our physical world that are so far beyond the current comprehending capabilities of the human brain, there is no loss of wonder or mystery in choosing to be a materialist (in the strictest sense of the word) until there is proof to the contrary.
I’ve written before about how bogged down with judgment and unnecessary negative connotations the word “atheist” is in Evangelical circles. One thing that’s commonly said in this regard is that people who do not believe in a reality or realm beyond the physical one must have no sense of astonishment or awe when they look around, that everything an atheist sees around her somehow automatically loses its splendor in lieu of the divine. On the contrary, I find that attributing everything to the intelligence and intention of a perfect God tragically simplifies the universe. I mean, if, say, I have a sense or a notion that my friend, with whom I am very close, is pregnant, though she is not married nor is she trying to have a child, and I call her only to find out that my premonition was accurate, I could attribute that to the Holy Spirit speaking to me and guiding me to connect with a person who needs my support. Or, I can start without a belief in the supernatural, and say to myself, ‘Wow, that is fascinating! Was that a wild coincidence, or is there something absolutely amazing going on here that I cannot see but have the potential to discover?' And let’s say I become a scientist and study these supposedly ‘psychic’ connections and find that there is a complicated physical explanation for the phenomenon I experienced. Personally, I’m more intrigued by the latter scenario.
All of this is to say that I think I get where these “spiritual but not religious” folks are coming from. There is a desire to cling to the fun that is mysticism (transcendent or enlightening experiences) as opposed to doctrine, whether it’s theistic or not. For many, rejecting the “religious” is enough to achieve that balance; for me, at least at this point, I need to get rid of the “spiritual” too. Yes, I enjoyed the emotional comfort that spiritual experiences brought me, but when I held myself accountable to the logic that eventually disabused me of my Christian beliefs, I was also compelled to acknowledge that all active belief in any kind of ‘other’ dimension was gone, too. There is a certain kind of identity--or perception of identity--that one gives up when one chooses not to put oneself in the generically “spiritual” category at all, one of open-mindedness and free-spiritedness, I think. Yes, I’d like to be thought of that way. As you can see from this blog, though, my pursuit of transparency is currently trumping the creation of an easy-breezy self.