Those who have ever made use of an online dating website know that part of signing up involves filling out a questionnaire that often includes stating one’s religious preferences. Besides the usual denominational and sectarian choices there is probably also an option for “Spiritual But Not Religious.” Seeing this for the first time was curious to me but it seemed by far the most widely-used choice (I’ve been told by the way, that selecting “Atheist/Agnostic” is the kiss of death, a FYI for unbelieving lonely hearts).
I’ve seen the term used more and more often and it came as no surprise when the distinction between “religious” and “spiritual” showed up in an essay on the Huffington Post, The End Of Church. The article shows that the number of people in the U.S. who describe themselves primarily as “religious but not spiritual” has fallen dramatically in the last 10 years, to only 9% of the population. Those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” come in at 30% and those who identify themselves as “spiritual and religious” come in highest at 48%. The author, Diana Butler Bass, suggests this shift towards spirituality as one reason why so many mainstream denominations including Catholicism are seeing dramatic declines in membership.
The question that naturally follows from this is one that has bedeviled me for years and I still haven’t seen a good answer for it. What does “spiritual” even mean? What are we to make of it? Clearly there is a large contingent of the irreligious that considers itself spiritual, but are unbelievers also “spiritual” or is this solely the domain of supernaturalists of any persuasion? Is the word in any way meaningful at all? Whenever “spiritual” comes up in conversation, I have to stop to ask what is meant by the word, and then usually wade through all the hemming and hawing that follows because there is just no clear all-inclusive definition of the term that I have ever seen, as I hope to demonstrate. I am apparently not alone.
And that’s the problem: ‘spirituality’ is vague enough that it doesn’t say anything meaningful but still gives you warm fuzzy feelings inside. It’s one of the fluffy bunnies of the English language — and what kind of sick, heartless bastard could be against fluffy bunnies?
Why is this important? Well, let me illustrate. After having played guitar for a Sufi service centered on a study of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic I was asked about my own religious orientation. I replied I had no God-ideal and referred to myself as agnostic (I was there strictly to support friends musically). The straight-faced reply to me was, “Oh! So, you have no inner life!” The way we think of the concept has implications for how we think of and treat others. I am asked often if I have any sense of mystery or awe, of wonder and fascination with life since I rely only on reason for my beliefs. I understand that for those who see everything in terms of the supernatural that must be confusing. They do not realize that even asking calls into question another’s humanity.
I think real progress will not be made until we acknowledge two things. First, there is no common or universal understanding for what constitutes “spiritual” and until there is, the word is meaningless, confusing and divisive. We must admit that the many definitions of the word include a hopelessly confused mish-mash of the supernatural alone, the natural alone, or some gooey mix of both. Second, we must also acknowledge that there are many aspects of the human experience we often consider “spiritual” that are neither supernatural nor dependent on, or rooted in anything supernatural or religious at all. There is a divide in our understanding of certain human phenomena when people wrongly attribute supernatural elements to the purely natural riches of the human experience. When this is then called “spiritual,” the supernatural incorrectly becomes a perceived component. Those who think the supernatural is an integral part of “spirituality” and that “spirituality” is a good thing will consider those who do not believe in the supernatural to be living on a lower plane of human existence, “unspiritual,” with “no inner life.” If we rule out the supernatural altogether, then why call it “spiritual?” If we reserve use of the word “spiritual” exclusively to the supernatural, then what word shall we use to describe only the natural human experiences (love, beauty and awe, for example) that also find their way into the present conceptions of “spiritual?” I think the problem then is clear and mostly a result of two things – semantics and the role of the supernatural in the use of the word. The semantics we can perhaps work out. The supernatural speculation is what gets us into more trouble because it impacts behavior and motive towards others.
I commend Dr. Bass for her attempt at defining “Spirituality” thus:
While ‘religion’ means institutional religion, ‘spirituality’ means an experience of faith. Large numbers of Americans are hankering for experiential faith whereby they can connect with God, the divine, or wonder as well as with their neighbors and that leads to a more profound sense of meaning in the world. Maybe Americans once called this ‘religion,’ but no more. Americans call it ‘spirituality.’
This seems hardly helpful. Defining one ambiguous term with other ambiguities only creates more problems. What does it mean to “connect with God,” or “the divine?” What does that look like? What kind of experience is that in ways that I don’t also have as a non-believer? Now perhaps there are those who would suggest that one must actually have a relationship with God to know what it’s like to “connect with God,[i]” but I think it’s a fair question and one that should be quite easy to answer if there truly is a unique human state known as “connecting with God.[ii]”
Dr. Bass did not only say “connect with God,” but also “the divine or wonder as well as with their neighbors” in a way that leads to a profound sense of meaning. Here I see a hierarchy moving downward, or rather earthward from God, to the divine, to wonder resulting in motivations and behaviors towards one’s neighbors. Now, I completely understand connecting with, or being aware of, in tune and aligned with my own sense of wonder about many things in our universe and our experience. Wonder is a uniquely human and, well, wonderful experience and I imagine all people with normal brain function experience it regardless of the presence or absence of faith of any kind.
Besides wonder, there is that “God” and “divine” in there too, and the curious use of “or” suggesting that connecting with “wonder” is tantamount to connecting with “God.” Is connecting with God and the divine different than connecting with wonder or is she saying they are all the same? What emerges from her definition is the suggestion that the word “spirituality” has two domains, one supernatural (God and the divine) and the other natural, in the sense that human wonder does not need to invoke anything supernatural at all.
Let’s consider the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of the term:
1 relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things: I’m responsible for his spiritual welfare
- having a relationship based on a profound level of mental or emotional communion: he never forgot his spiritual father
- (of a person) not concerned with material values or pursuits.
2 relating to religion or religious belief: the country’s spiritual leader
Once again we have confusion and the duality of the supernatural and the natural human experience. The first definition makes the distinction between the “human spirit or soul” and “material or physical things,” but also mentions the mind and emotions. With regard to the human spirit or soul, I don’t know if Oxford means a literal separate entity we call the human soul or spirit (for which we have no evidence) or if it means this metaphorically, as in “the seat of emotions and character,” (one of the many Oxford definitions of the word “spirit”). In any case it is open to interpretation whether we are talking about the supernatural since intangible aspects of the human experience like love, beauty and altruism are perfectly real and natural and universal even if they are not “material or physical things.” As I said before, defining one ambiguous term with other ambiguities – “spirit” and “soul” – only creates more problems. There is also once again the distinction between the “human” and “religious” in the two definitions. I am no closer to understanding what the word “spiritual” means.
In a discussion on all of this, a thoughtful friend offered yet another definition from Robert C. Fuller in his own essay Spiritual, But Not Religious:
Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issues of how our lives fit into the greater scheme of things. This is true when our questions never give way to specific answers or give rise to specific practices such as prayer or meditation. We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world. An idea or practice is ‘spiritual’ when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life.
This seems marginally more coherent, although it is not really a definition as much as examples of what Fuller thinks comprise spirituality. Unbelievers also meditate. We are deeply moved by beauty, love and creativity. We strive for deep meaning and we wonder about the experience of death. In these ways and according to his definition, all of us are spiritual beings, but these are also merely natural phenomena. Although Fuller seems to come dangerously close to hinting otherwise, it seems that I would not need to invoke a god or anything supernatural to consider the “greater scheme of things,” if by that it is understood in Albert Einstein’s terms:
I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.[iii]
But there are problems in Fuller’s examples too. What is meant by “prayer?” Is it supplication to a supernatural being, or is prayer and mere meditation the same thing? Some of his aspects of spirituality simply beg the question. Where the universe “comes from?” It may not have “come from” anywhere![iv] “Why we are here?” Other than those who are convinced by a form of the teleological argument, what reason do we have to believe that there is a “why?” Einstein surely thought there that is no purpose or goal. What about death? What reason do we have to believe anything happens at all, unless Fuller means to ask about what happens biologically, emotionally, socially or cognitively leading up to death? What does he mean by “meaning or power beyond our visible world,” and what “powers” governing life other than the Laws of Nature are we talking about? Must one believe there is meaning or powers beyond our visible world to be considered “spiritual?”
Questions on the nature of the universe, of meaning, the study of death, meditation, all strike me as worthy inquiries, but again, they are available to all people regardless of belief. Many will generate and accept supernatural explanations. Fuller has carefully worded his paragraph to allow for multiple interpretations of these phenomena and by doing so he ends up again introducing unnecessary ambiguity that causes more confusion than clarity in his attempt to retain or even advance a mystical or supernatural component to what are otherwise simply natural questions we all consider. Many of us simply, humbly and openly inquire about the way the world works without speculating on powers or anything beyond our world when we have no reason to speculate. We still have the semantic problem, and the divide between human experience and the supernatural.
My longtime friend, UCC pastor Dr. Brian Quincy Newcomb, who I have worked with in a number of ways over many years, and who is one of the few Christians I feel free to express myself openly with, was part of that same conversation and gets us closer still:
Ojo, fair question. To my mind, spirituality touches that part of the human self which I think of as the ‘real me’ and extends beyond the self to connect with community and beyond social constructs to the ‘ground of being’ (Tillich).
Now that’s an excellent idea and one I can agree with. It is available to us all independent of belief system. We all have true selves. We all have a moral obligation to go beyond ourselves and social constructs to connect to the community. We are all interested in “the ground of being.” Since we do not have to go outside the human experience for these things, it removes the necessity for the supernatural that often allows the word “spiritual” to be used in egocentric, abusive and discriminatory ways. In this sense we are all “spiritual.” But then, why not simply say we are all human? Why use “spiritual” at all? We’re almost to the point of common ground, but not quite. Dr. Newcomb continues:
Science tells us the universe began with a big bang over 13 billion years ago, and I accept that, but that doesn’t resolve my inner existential longing to connect to it all while transcending it all in some meaningful way at the same time. I have no problem describing all humanity as essentially spiritual, and those actions, attitudes and practices that enhance community, progress, understanding, love & justice being acts that sustain and enrich us spiritually and those tendencies that drain us of our promise and potential that fuel our fear and anxiety and self-centeredness as the opposite. I won’t try to tell anyone that they have to replicate my spiritual experience to “know God” or “the ground of being” or even their own true selves. What I can and will say, as a person growing up within the Christian tradition and Jesus story, is that I have best come to terms with the spiritual in my own life when I have sought to embody the teachings of Jesus as a path to connect with God… and that spiritual path is not one that thrives best in isolation, but reaches its potential most often in community. To me that is the purpose of the church and religious institutions.
This is the first time we have seen an inclusive universal use of the word “spiritual.” He considers “all humanity as essentially spiritual” without any requirement for the supernatural or religious. What he describes, if I understand him correctly, is a non-discriminatory natural view, focused on the practice of virtue in a community context. As admirable and articulate as this is, and as much as I agree in practice with the end result, I would still wonder why, without the supernatural requirement or attachment, we still call this “spiritual?”
All these examples should be sufficient to make the case that the term is hopelessly confused in its entanglements with religion, irreligion, the supernatural (religious or otherwise) and the natural, and thus essentially meaningless. Let me offer yet another point of view dealing with the semantic problem that arises from this lack of clarity. This excerpt of a hypothetical dialog between two people (of indeterminate gender, brilliantly and intentionally written that way, one presumes) is from an atheist blogger discussing the idea of sex as “spiritual” inspired by the fluffy bunny article I quoted above (the whole conversation should be read to be fully appreciated).
Pat: But I think that the phenomenon that probably all people at some time experience and which they mean to refer to when they use the word “spiritual” is a kind of experience which fuses and integrates their mental, emotional, social, and even metaphysical grasp of the world into a physically shuddering experience. Don’t we all know these moments of wonder and awe? Of course they are mistaken to leap from that feeling of deep integration of these various deeply embodied and fully natural experiences to an unfortunate literal belief in a “spirit” that is capable of being disembodied. Of course they are mistaken if they buy into theologies that denigrate the physical, rather than celebrate its utterly irreplaceable contribution to those experiences. Those metaphysical inferences are counter-productive. But I don’t think they’re important to people’s use of the word “spiritual” in every case. I think people can be rightly identifying that they are having a fully integrative human experience that is, as simply a matter of standard conventions, called “spiritual”, independent of whatever other metaphysical inferences they might make from that experience. From the most to the least woo-minded person who refers to that kind of experience, I can feel comfortable saying they have the kind of experience that our language only has the word “spiritual” to describe. I don’t think that commits me to endorsing every erroneous philosophical belief with which they surround or interpret that experience. [...]
Casey: But if you validate the use of the word “spiritual” then you’re allowing them the stepping-stone to superstitious, non-scientific, anti-physical metaphysics.
Pat: Well, until we can replace the word “spiritual” in the language with another word that people are so attached to, we risk being heard and dismissed out of hand as emotionally and intellectually impoverished when we say there are no such things as “spiritual experiences.” People mean by that phrase a certain raw datum of qualitative experience. We can say, “Yes! Those exist! And they’re no less real for being fully physiologically based!” I fear it’s a losing battle to fight to expunge a word like that from the language. I think our only hope is to coax people to step by step interpret what they mean by it in increasingly rational ways a little at a time.
Casey: But they will take the validation of the word “spiritual” as all the opening they need to go off a woo deep end. We can talk about “experiences which integrate the mental, emotional, social, physical, etc.” I don’t know what you meant by the jibberish about the metaphysical, so I won’t go along with that.
What are my thoughts and conclusions on the matter from this whole thing? A few things come up.
Science and Wonder
There is a common misperception that those of us who have dismissed faith and the supernatural for reason have also abandoned the more intangible, subjective and beautiful aspects of the human experience. There is no need to distinguish between the existential longings we all have and the concrete explanations for the existence of the universe or any other scientific finding. Science is not just interested in leptons and quarks and black holes and evolution. Neuroscience for example, is making great strides into matters that have long been considered out of bounds for science- matters involving free will, values, ethics, beauty and consciousness. Whatever is “real,” whether leptons, love or beauty, is worthy of inquiry and contemplation and has implications for practice in meaningful ways that benefit our communities and ourselves. I’m not saying we have to make gods out of scientists or science, but I do not accept a false dichotomy between the physical and existential world, even if the existential is a human construct. To the extent that it is a “real” part of our world, it is all the same, all connected, all meaningful for our ground of being.
Religion and The Human Experience
Love, beauty, wonder are all human constructs and there are innumerable such constructs. Redemption, forgiveness, shame, mystery, atonement, responsibility are all part of what it means to be a human being and are meaningless apart from it. Religion is not the gateway to these experiences, my station as a human being is. Nor is religion the ground or foundation on which these experiences or their practice and refinement depend. All people experience and navigate them, regardless of belief. Religion, and by that I mean all religions, are only possible frameworks within which to bring a sense of structure to the human experience, some better, some worse, some clearly bad, depending on the relationship to their own dogma. But religion is not the only framework, it is not required for, and in fact often impedes “actions, attitudes and practices that enhance community, progress, understanding, love & justice” and meaning.
Another reason people are leaving religion is because when many of the claims of the religious (or faithful, or spiritual) are taken seriously they cannot really be taken seriously. Literal notions of a worldwide flood, hell, redemption by human sacrifice, original sin, and a six-day creation do nothing to make us better people. The things that actually do make us better people have nothing to do with anything that requires “faith.” Let us not make religion the exclusive domain of what it means to experience the full ground of being, to love, to create and appreciate beauty, to experience awe, compassion and humility.
If by the word “spiritual” we mean the fullness of the human experience, and if that fullness is available to both believer and atheist, and thus if religion is not required for that fullness, then we have an unfortunate application of the word “spiritual” if we make it the other end of a continuum with “religious” when we say “spiritual but not religious.” They are different continua. On one side of the first continuum we have the fullness of the human experience (the non-supernatural aspects of what many consider “spiritual”) and on the other (assuming normal brain function) we have sociopathy. The other end of the religion continuum is not “spiritual,” but rather “no religion” and neither end of that continuum has much to bear on these issues beyond its support as a framework, for better or worse. These are human issues and I would argue every bit as “real” as the big bang.
What About the Supernatural?
Like the author of the Pat and Casey story but on the side of theism, there are still many well-meaning people who believe that “spiritual” necessarily implies or involves the supernatural. But unlike Casey they attach value to the word “spiritual” and thus choose to brave that slippery slope assuming that those without belief in the supernatural are somehow different, that because they reject the supernatural they cannot be living fully. I received this email from another dear and longtime friend:
Many would argue that belief in spirituality requires the existence of a spiritual realm. […] Apart from faith or religion, what do atheists generally think about supernatural phenomena? Is there any kind of consensus? I would presume most would have psychological explanations and rightly so for many individuals; however, what about experiences that have been shared by several rational people. I’m not talking about so-called “ghost hunters” or people claiming to have been abducted by aliens, but let me share an abbreviated story. […] What do you make of this? Does atheism allow for an actual spiritual realm outside of the human psyche?
Without getting into the particulars of the story he shared or how I would explain it rationally (which I could not do with just an anecdote), I will answer the other question. I cannot speak for atheists generally or as a group because contrary to what many people believe, the only thing that unites atheists is a lack of belief in God, and many would say, the supernatural. I suppose there are some people who do not believe in God but do believe in UFOs or other supernatural entities and goings on, but if there is any kind of consensus, I’d say that most atheists, at least most of the ones I know, do not believe in the supernatural.
For me personally there is a better answer. I never really waste time thinking about myself as an atheist. I have no problems with those who do, and in some sense of the word it could fit for me; I am without a working god-ideal and technically that makes me a-theist. It is also true that one can be atheist and agnostic simultaneously. There are things that we just don’t know. I have, however identified myself as a Freethinker, a much better fit, and this colors how I would answer the question. A Freethinker is “a person who forms opinions on the basis of reason, independent of tradition, authority, or established belief.” For me, forming opinions and beliefs (all opinions and beliefs) on reason is more important than any label about religious beliefs. Allow me the liberty of rephrasing the question then. Do freethinkers allow for an actual spiritual realm outside of the human psyche? I hold open the possibility of anything for which there is reason to believe, requiring, as Huxley said, “corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probability by the thing testified.” So far we have no such corroborative evidence to believe in such things. We must go outside reason to “tradition, authority, or established belief.”
The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery-even if mixed with fear-that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms-it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.[v]
I think Albert Einstein again captures the point of this entire matter of spirituality, religion, and the supernatural vs. wonder and mystery in the human experience. He argues that wonder is fundamental, that it is human, that it precedes and supersedes religion, and that reason is preeminent in our ability to understand anything, even at an elementary level, and that this is what constitutes a viable “religious” attitude, if that is the word that must be used (and if he was alive today, he might just as well have used “spiritual” instead of “religious,” as Dr. Bass says many are doing). Along with him, and only in this sense, I also am a deeply religious man. Unfortunately I am also one of the heartless bastards that would prefer to see the word “spiritual” and a few other fluffy bunnies in the English language that make no sense replaced with words that do. Let us preferably ditch the word altogether. If not, then let us admit that it only involves belief in the supernatural, but if we do that, we must come up with another word at least equally respectful and powerful that then integrates only the full, known human experience without the supernatural. I don’t expect either to happen anytime soon, so please forgive me if we happen to be talking and I have to ask, “Spiritual? What the hell does that even mean?”
[i] In a discussion where I asked a similar question, I received this gem in reply: “Well, this whole thread has proven Jesus right again. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God… Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto you, You must be born again. The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound thereof, but can not tell from where it came, and where it goes: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit… If I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how shall you believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” (John 3:3-12 KJ2000)… “God is a Spirit (a spiritual Being) and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth (reality).” (John 4:24 AMP). Unless we are born again of the Spirit of God, we will never know Him, nor will we have His life changing force in us as mere humans. Without this miracle of faith in us there will be no conversion from being mere men, no matter what the political or religious persuasion we might have.”
[ii] I could, after all, describe to a non-musician what it’s like to be caught up in musical ecstasy in the midst of a performance and what that feels like.
[iii] Replying to a letter in 1954 or 1955; from Albert Einstein, the Human Side, p. 39.
[iv] From this article in The Guardian on Stephen Hawking’s his newest book, The Grand Design: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing,” he writes. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
Hawking says the first blow to Newton’s belief that the universe could not have arisen from chaos was the observation in 1992 of a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun. “That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions – the single sun, the lucky combination of Earth-sun distance and solar mass – far less remarkable, and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.”
[v] Albert Einstein, The World as I See It, Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, 1999, p. 5.