Spiritual But Not Religious

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.



"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience." ~ Teilhard de Chardin


If it were up to me, I'd retire the phrase "spiritual but not religious." I consider it effectively meaningless. To my way of thinking, we can't not be spiritual. We are spirit. But I'm not being fair to the idiomatic meaning of that phrase, which could be more fairly stated as, "searching for meaning beyond the confines of organized religion."

However problematic the phrase, it is a growing trend. This seems to rankle a number of religious authorities. A quick search through the Huffington Post religion section brings up a fair sampling of disdainful diatribes against all these dilettantes who think they can have God without the hard work of religious practice in like-minded community. I read a number of these posts when they came out, sighed, and moved on.

There's Pastor Lillian Daniel who is sick and tired of hearing from anonymous strangers on planes that God can be found in sunsets. She just wishes the nonreligious would stop boring her with their irrelevant observations. And, no, I'm not overstating her tone. "Please stop boring me," is her subtitle.

There's Alan Miller's lightning rod of a post bemoaning the religious illiteracy of a populace that can't name more than four of the ten commandments. He casts religion almost entirely in Judeo-Christian terms and dismisses all else as superstition. A good rebuttal can be found here.



Most recently, I read this jeremiad from Michael P. Murphy of Loyola University. Murphy bemoans a religiously untethered generation that has filled that void with technology and begun worshiping at the altar of Steve Jobs by default. I agree with Murphy that we seem to be wired to seek out both communion with other human beings and an experience of the transcendent. But his post is a muddle. And it reeks of contempt for people who think they can find something better than church.

As I paused to watch devotees of Apple products engaging in communion with the items of their religious practice, I was struck once more not only by how religion and spirituality have reached an almost comic level of topsey-turveyness, but also with the stark recognition that Marshall McCluhan's prophetic insight from 1964 is made manifest every minute of of every day in the digital age: the medium has indeed become the message.

Murphy clearly knows nothing of McLuhan's work... or the spelling of his name, apparently. His attempt to posthumously enlist him, of all people, in his war with modernity is risible. McLuhan's famous statement wasn't meant as prophecy. He didn't say, the medium will become the message. He said it is. It always has been. The medium to which McLuhan referred wasn't some future vision of high tech. It was any technology -- any extension of our human capacities -- going back to the stone age. McLuhan's point was that the way information is conveyed is more important than the information itself, because the means of conveyance shapes both psyche and society. As we moved from the printed word, for instance, to film and television, we stopped thinking so linearly and began to take in multiple messages/images simultaneously. These newer media force us to develop new ways to prioritize and cognize that information. Information influences what we think. The medium influences how we think.

Murphy continues.

The word "religion" finds its root in religio, which means "to bind." And herein lies the main point: we like being "spiritual" because the concept, as we perceive it, makes no claim upon us. It binds us to nothing -- or at least nothing communal, confessional or public. Of course, it is liberating to be masters of our own faith practices. To be both founders and adherents of a "Sheila-ism" or a "Murph-ism" -- that is, to participate in the postmodern practice of inventing and practicing one's own hodge-podge religion -- is a uniquely empowering proposition. The problem is that it is also an isolating, atomizing and ultimately inauthentic approach to spirituality.

In fact, the etymology of the word religion is a matter of some dispute. But this is a small point. More concerning is the paternalism. Murphy seems certain that those who do not seek God through the proper channels of an organized religion cannot possibly find connection or meaning.

An assumption spans these various writings that those who define as spiritual but not religious are isolated in their experience and have no sense of community with which to share their spiritual discovery. Leave say, I have not found this to be true.

To Miller, where organized religion is real and diligent, other spiritual practices are entirely ephemeral.

Back to the Spiritual But Not Religious-ers, they seem to have appropriated the worst of all worlds. They have retained the superstitious outlook and yet do not want to engage or present anything more broadly life affirming. Selecting a superficial mixture of "nice-feeling" items from Yoga to a slice of Zen and a moment of Tao is hardly progressive as far as options for humanity is concerned. They have jettisoned the hard work, diligence and observation of organized religion for a me-me-me what-ever kind of lifestyle.

Far be it from me to claim that there aren't a fair number of dabblers in the new age marketplace and among those who define as spiritual but not religious. But we're kidding ourselves if we pretend that churches aren't also packed with people who leave their faith at the church door after Sunday services, that there are no hypocrites who give the tenets of their religions lip-service, or worse, that there aren't those who cherry-pick and twist scripture to justify whatever abuses against humanity they indulge.

I can agree that some problems arise when we have no shared, clear cosmology. I can also agree that there is a downside to a pluralism that allows people to pick and choose nothing but appetizers and desserts from an a la carte menu of world religions. Spiritual expansion requires grounding in the deeper lessons and safeguards that come by way of well-worn tradition. Where I disagree is in the assumption that shallow practice is inevitable among the nonreligious or that a prescriptivist approach to spiritual practice is the only possible corrective.

Absent in all these posts is any sense of the responsibility organized religions might have for their dwindling numbers. This is particularly galling coming from Murphy -- a professor of  Catholic Studies. Conspicuous by its absence is any discussion of the abuse scandal that has left large numbers of practicing Catholics disillusioned and demoralized. He dismisses all of it as "the troubles and intrigues that the Catholic 'brand' has experienced." But the extent to which the Church has broken faith with its followers has caused even Catholics in Ireland to abandon organized religion in droves.

Disillusionment has always been a driver, not only of religious attrition, but also of religious innovation. But it is not just the disappointment with the flaws and limitations of religious institutions. It is the thirst for the divine that often goes unsatisfied in hidebound institutions.

In so many instances, what drives people from their churches to the spiritual path less traveled is the beginnings of spiritual awakening. Organized religion has historically been suspicious, even condemning, of mystical experiences other than those of their founders and prophets -- especially if those experiences challenge orthodox beliefs. This leaves people who have their own brushes with the numinous, experience moments of conscious oneness with the all, or in any way begin to pierce the veil, at odds with their religious institutions.

Historically these spiritual quests have resulted in sectarian conflicts, new religions -- Buddhism springs to mind -- and more than a few have led to war and wide-scale persecution. Such things still happen in much of the world. So, perhaps, it's petty of me to worry about the carping of a few religion writers.

Here, in the West, the spiritual but not religious trend is just the newest wrinkle in a consciousness expansion that began in earnest when psychedelics and Eastern thought exploded in the popular culture.

Astrologer Adam Elenbaas describes the complexity of the search for spiritual truth in a pluralistic society with an ever-expanding panoply of traditions. Spiritual but not religious has become a kind of shorthand for an experience that doesn't fit neatly into any category.

I'm an astrologer so I can't help but approach the questions I ask or the concepts I'm interested in through the lens of the system I study. From the astrological perspective I think most new agers, including astrologers like myself, struggle to define a coherent belief system for ourselves because of the times we are living through: moving now from the age of Pisces to Aquarius. Are we "believers" in astrology? Can I call myself a Buddhists even though I might be a raw foodist who practices yoga, urban tantra, and gnostic Christianity in between Christian Santo Daime works? Maybe it's just become easier to answer, "I'm spiritual not religious." Maybe it's just a shorter way of saying, "I'm looking for oneness; whatever you call it it's all the same to me. I yearn for mystical fusion. I yearn to get out of this mundane world and go home once and for all!"

Elenbaas places the debate over spiritual and religious definition in the context of the Piscean age giving way to the age of Aquarius, and our thirst to dissolve into the numinous as a Piscean (Neptune) drive.

For example, this past Friday night I went to a Dharma talk at a local Buddhist temple. The female priest giving the talk was speaking about the fundamental premises of Buddhism, and she spoke about the reality of suffering as the base condition that inspires our path toward nirvana. She talked about crossing the ocean of suffering with single pointed focus. When I left the dharma talk I felt an emotional connection to something outside of myself for sure -- at least for the rest of the evening. But it wasn't what she had to say about suffering, necessarily. It was the people in their robes, and it was the crystals glowing behind carefully arranged lamps. It was the images and icons, the quietness as she spoke to the few of us gathered together. It was the way in which the temple was filled some other-worldly magic, and how I could literally feel the presence of Neptune, like a golden trident poking through the fabric of the "Buddhist" reality. And THAT was surreal. That felt sacred to me.

It's not the words, the philosophy... it's the potency of symbols, the irrationality of myth, the sensory and intangible, that tips us toward transcendence. As per "freelance monotheist" Karen Armstrong, that is the purpose of religion. And it is precisely the common lack of that which has led so many to instead be spiritual but not religious.


"Matter is spirit moving slowly enough to be seen." ~ Teilhard de Chardin

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