Spiritual But Not Religious

Spirituality

"Spiritual but not religious" is an increasingly popular way to describe one's religious views.

What does it mean to be spiritual but not religious? Everyone seems to define the term differently. I do know that if you tell me you're spiritual I feel like I know more about you, even if I have a hard time pinpointing exactly what new knowledge I tote. I would probably peg you a person unusually self-analytical, interested in inner peace, health-conscious, and someone who thinks more than usual about emotions and relationships. But that's a pretty random list of characteristics, and that's part of the problem.

Another common definition: Spirituality is about reverence for nature. Spiritual people display a certain wonderment at the majesty of everything around us. This was the consensus in a recent roundtable discussion on religion that I facilitated. This amusing page of atheist motivational posters contains one emphasizing secular awe at natural beauty.

Me? I'm not affiliated with an organized religion and I do not believe in a higher power. I do not evangelize my atheism and am uncertain about the correctness of my view. Am I spiritual? By the above definitions, yes.

But I am reluctant to self-identify as spiritual.

For one, many people I know who wear this label and wear it proud are fuzzy thinkers and too enthusiastic about new-age texts. Second, I am suspicious that people who check the "spiritual but not religious" box are taking advantage of semantic ambiguity to absolve themselves of actually forming a belief about God.

Utilizing ambiguity in this way is similar to people who casually call themselves agnostic. Historically, agnosticism has meant that you believe that you cannot know whether or not there's a God (this is different than saying "I don't know"). Modern agnostics tend to be all over the place. "I don't know, I don't care" is the most common translation I discover when I probe. I also encounter many "agnostics" who are really atheists but don't want to say they are or do not understand that the absence of a positive belief in God is atheism.

In any event, I have no problem if someone's stance is, "I'm not sure where I stand on the God / religion question." For that matter, I respect any stance – believer or non-believer or confused. But a clear, understandable stance on religion is what I respect most, and I don't think "spiritual" counts as one. And as a supplementary label, absent additional explanation, it can be interpreted in too many ways to be useful.

One friend offered perhaps the cleverest answer to whether he is a spiritual man: "Other people consider me spiritual." Ha! He gets all the associative benefits with being spiritual, whatever those might be, and yet since he doesn't think of himself in this way he is relieved of the fuzziness charges.

Bottom Line: "Spiritual but not religious" is in vogue but fraught with ambiguity.

(thanks to DaveJ for helping explain the agnostic point and the absence of positive belief = atheism point.)

37 Responses to Spiritual But Not Religious

  1. Chui says:

    To be religious implies having subscribed to a particular religion.

    Some people are simply unable to completely agree with the religions they encounter.

    Rather than say they believe when they only half believe, spiritualists simply opt out, and formulate one that resonates with their experiences. What they believe may be ambigious, in the sense that it hasn’t been generally defined and given a label, but they themselves are reasonably lucid with their views.

  2. Alexandra says:

    When I hear the term spritual, I think of two types of people. One follows one definition which states: “concerned with or affecting the spirit or soul.” Those who practice meditation and so forth to further there own personal lives.
    Then I think about people like me. I am Jewish. I grew up going to Hebrew school, learned about all our history and whatnot. I can still read Hebrew, more or less, and go to Temple and celebrate the High Holidays. But that isnt what makes me “Jewish” or spiritual. To me, it is the traditions that my family continues to practice over the years. As I talk to people about their religious beliefs, this is what I find a lot. People may or may not believe in a higher power but the similarity between them is the whole tradition “thing.”
    It seems this is where religion is heading. At least out in my neck of the woods.

  3. Charlie says:

    I think atheists/agnostics get to make two largely independent choices here:

    1. Where they stand on whether there is a ‘god’, and whether it is possible to know if there is or not.

    2. Which word they prefer the sound of. (I prefer ‘agnostic’)

  4. Deborah says:

    Love the Post.
    And I might just print it out to hand to all those sweet, well meaning folks who tell me that they know that I am “spiritual without being religious” even as I try as politely to say.. No, I am really an atheist!
    My father (a strong evangelical) has always referred to Agnostics as Atheists without the strength of their convictions. :0

  5. Troy says:

    I like to think of myself (to fit in your conceptual wording) as “Believer but not religious”.

    I think this a bit different than any of the options you listed above. I do believe there is a God/High Power – my problem is I don’t know or feel that any one religion is the “correct” and only religion.

    Watching your first child born, yeah, that will overwhelm you with emotions and make you “realize” there is a higher power, but that has nothing to do with religion.

  6. Jude says:

    I’m an atheist who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church where, since you’re not baptized at infancy, you’re forced to make a decision later (usually around age 13). At a meeting once with a group of librarians, my atheism came up. The ordained minister in the group explained to the others “She’s an atheist, not an agnostic, because she’s *thought* about it.” I found that interesting and true. Yes, I’d thoroughly read our religious text. I’d attended Bible study. And I rejected it. Those spiritual people–they can call themselves what they like. But that isn’t me.

  7. Alex says:

    I would disagree with Chui. Anyone that wants to listen to some great debates on atheism vs. religion should search youtube for “Christopher Hitchens vs.” Here’s the point: there’s a difference between “deism” and “theism”-> or being religious. Deists generally believe in a deity, a higher power, but do not make an assertions as to it’s purpose or whether or not it intervenes. The burden of proof is surely heavier on the theists & the religious, who assert that not only does God or a diety exist, but they also know what He/it wants.

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    Agreed that rituals / traditions are a big part of religion and spirituality…

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    I assume #2 is a joke…

  10. LP says:

    I am mistrustful of people who use this phrase, especially if they volunteer it without being asked what religion they are, which is the only possible situation where I can understand using it, to avoid answering a nosy question. When I’ve encountered folks with genuinely unique, difficult-to-categorize metaphysical views, they seem wiling and able to briefly describe these views, when it comes up in conversation. I think ‘spiritual but not religious’ is simply a way to avoid ever having to explain or define your views, and thus a way of avoiding disagreeing with anyone else’s views, ever.

  11. “a clear, understandable stance on religion is what I respect most”

    Does that include “my stance is loosely held enough to change as I live and experience more”?

  12. Ben Casnocha says:

    Absolutely, so long as “stance” is defined in the previous sentence. :)

  13. Lucas Fowler says:

    Einstein was a thinker who proved just how irrelevant the difference between the terms “atheist” and “religious” is when it comes down to the universal ability to connect with life’s mystical aspects. His essay and lecture series ‘Religion & Science’ is an extremely wise take on the meaningful relationship between the two sides:

    link to sacred-texts.com

    Einstein finds spirituality in the subjective and deeply personal integration within the unity of nature. For instance, he points to Spinoza as one of the most spiritual people to have ever lived- yet, I know many hardcore athiest types who say they believe in “Spinoza’s God, like Einstein and Hawking.” It often feels like debates about God and His existence are missing an important point somewhere.

    I’ll defer to Albert:

    “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.”

  14. Jared says:

    Interesting post. I consider myself spiritual, based on something I hear once and my experience. “Religion is for those afraid of going to hell, spirituality is for those who have been there.”

    Do I believe in a Higher Power, yes. Simply because there are things I can’t explain. And I got tired of trying. I practice prayer, and I see results. Call it law of attraction or what have you, it works for me and I couldn’t imagine living my life any other way.

    Personally, it was a matter of life or death for me so I chose to believe in something more powerful than myself. I believe in an all inclusive all loving God.

    It’s great reading all these comments and learning about different peoples views on this. Thanks Ben!

  15. Sean S. says:

    Ben,

    You seem to be saying that a person who claims that he does not know whether or not there is a God is an Atheist and not an Agnostic, because if one claims that he does not know whether there is a God, he is not holding a positive belief in God, and a lack of a positive belief in God constitutes Atheism, and not Agnosticism.

    The issue I have with that is that claiming to not know the answers concerning the existence of God is not in any way claiming that there is not a God. And I find it difficult to label someone an Atheist, who is not claiming that there is not a God. Webster defines Atheism as the doctrine that there is no diety.

    You’ve said that you do not believe in a higher power. Is that the same as saying that you believe there is no higher power? In other words, I think an Agnostic could claim that he does not believe in a higher power, because to believe in a higher power would require the person to eliminate the possibility that the higher power does not exist. An Agnostic, however, could not claim that there is no higher power, because to do so would require him to eliminate the possibility that the higher power does exist.

    An Atheist, however, can claim that there is no higher power.

    This to me is the difference. An Agnostic can claim that he does not believe in a higher power (even though this is not necessarily taking a positive belief in the existence of God), but only an Atheist can claim a belief that there is in fact no higher power.

  16. Ben Casnocha says:

    Jared, I appreciate your comment. I’m curious your answer to this common question: if God is all inclusive and all loving, why is there so much evil and misery in the world?

  17. DaveJ says:

    @Sean S: there is a difference between the two, and certainly there is no consensus on the definition of “atheism,” although dictionaries certainly do not do it justice. These two points of view are sometimes called “strong atheism” and “weak atheism” or “atheism” and “nontheism.”

    Strong atheism is a difficult position to hold, because as evidenced by your comment, people have different definitions of “God.” You use the term “higher power,” which is of course rather vague, and one certainly can’t claim that a “higher power” does not exist until one knows what is meant by that term.

    It is only when the theist makes strong claims such as “my God is omnipotent” that the atheist can take a strong position, since omnipotence is a self-contradictory term/concept.

    In any case, I think Ben’s larger point is that people use the term “agnostic” to hide behind rather than as a true philosophical/theological position. If you don’t believe in any kind of God, then you are either an atheist or, if you prefer, a nontheist. If you believe that one cannot know such a thing, then you are an agnostic.

    But if you don’t know, then you should spend a little time learning about what it means to “know” something. Because I would bet that you “know” that there is no Santa Claus, and the evidence for each is identical (i.e., there is none).

  18. Doh! Well, “if there’s a God, I’m not it” might cover it, along with “more will be revealed”.

  19. Sean S. says:

    “If you don’t believe in any kind of God, then you are either an atheist or, if you prefer, a nontheist. If you believe that one cannot know such a thing, then you are an agnostic.”

    Are these two ideas mutually exclusive? What if one does not believe in God simply because he believes that one cannot know whether or not God exists.

    In other words, if I were looking at a wall, and could not see or hear what was on the other side of the wall, and someone asked me whether I believed there was an elephant on the other side of the wall, I would confidently say that I do not believe that there is one. To believe that there is one would require an affirmative decision on my part that it is more likely than not that an elephant is on the other side of the wall. I would say with just as much confidence that I do not believe that there is not an Elephant.

    I would not, however, with the same amount of confidence, be able to claim that I believed that there was not an elephant on the other side.

    So, I do not think that not believing in a God is necessarily the same as believing that God does not exist. I think that believing that one cannot know whether God exists is equivalent to claiming that one does not believe in God, and that one does not believe in the non-existence of God.

    This is why I was confused by the definition of Atheism as given, as I would normally distinguish someone who claims God does not exist (Atheist) from someone who does not believe in the definite existence of a God (Agnostic).

  20. Troy says:

    Just ran across this link:

    50 Most Brilliant Atheist of All Time
    link to brainz.org

  21. Kevin Cassidy says:

    Not an answer, but a perspective:

    “I want to ask God why there is so much evil and misery in the world.”

    “Why don’t you?”

    “I’m afraid He’ll ask me the same thing.”

    Not an answer, but a question:

    If there is a God, and if He has described His way of love and truth, and if many of us are not seeking it out and doing it, then why are we surprised there is so much evil and misery in the world?

  22. Audi Byrne says:

    Sean, they’re not mutually exclusive. You can be an agnostic atheist, a gnostic atheist, an agnostic theist or a gnostic theist.

    These definitions were described here:
    link to rationalresponders.com

    I have no idea how standard they are. Sometimes “agnostic” is replaced with “weak” and “gnostic” is replaced with “strong”.

    Suppose an atheist thinks that if there is a God, you could know but that if there isn’t a God, you couldn’t know. What would that make?

  23. DaveJ says:

    “Free will” does not explain brain tumors in children.

  24. link to youtube.com

    ff to 14:30. Tim Keller references this question in his talk at Google.

  25. Ben Casnocha says:

    After spending one minute talking about how he’s going to disprove the
    philosophical argument, Keller spends 15 seconds actually making the
    argument. He seems to say “there’s all this suffering because God has a good
    reason for there to be suffering.” He says that it may not be senseless; but
    rather it’s thought through and deliberate. WTF? So what is God’s reason for
    allowing millions of children to be born into utter poverty? They deserve it
    somehow?

  26. Aaron says:

    Spiritual is a label I accept, and one that others do apply to me, but I don’t concern myself too much with it. Part of my belief is trying to avoid as much as possible the influences of others. Critically considering their point of view, what they are saying, and who they are that is saying it is what I strive for and is different than being influenced by some one or thing. To that end, I try not to apply labels or containers (restrictions) to how I live my life.

    So I would agree with you that rituals and traditions are a big part of religion. In fact, I would call it a hallmark of them. Spirituality does not necessarily contain traditions or rituals, and if it does I think it generally has more tradition than rituals.

    Going into the forest to cut down a fir tree for the winter solstice is much different then say picking a tree of the right height, cutting it down by X number of chops, dragging it back to the home in a certain manner, so on and so on.

  27. Aaron says:

    I prefer to call myself areligious. It’s my own personal attempt to be clever. I feel that religious zealots in my country have co-opted the general definition of secular. That secular is now a dirty word of sorts, that it refers to someone who is lacking something. Lacking morality and some guiding light to keep them good. Which is absurd and so I like to avoid using that word, and use it more like the word “apolitical” which, at least to me, seems to come across as a more neutral word.

    But really, it’s not about neutrality. It is about being against the type of organized religions that exert so much control over so many people on this planet. So really when I say that I am areligious to people, I am telling them I am anti-religious. Only I don’t spell it out if it doesn’t seem like the person will be keen to here my say that. In which case, I talk about what I mentioned above with regards to the word secular and apolitical.

  28. Dan says:

    I tell people I’m “philosophical but not spiritual.” I don’t believe in spirits, not literally. I know that some people use “spiritual” metaphorically, but I don’t want to be confused with the millions of people who really, literally, believe in spirits.

  29. Great discussion. I recently moved back to South Louisiana where religion is thick. Hard to find open minded peers. i am going with “free thinke” having voided myself of past indoctrinations from the spiritual/religous majority in my present location.

    I think being present is as close to spiritual as I can get at the moment.

  30. Jared Akers says:

    At one time in my life I was hell bent on self destruction. Friends and family members had come to see me and try to talk some sense into me. However, my mother did not come. She simply prayed for me. She knew there was nothing she could do for me, I had to find my own way. In the end, it was just me and my demons. The way I saw it I had two choices, suicide or ask for help and face my problems head on. At that moment I remembered or heard something my mother had told me as a child, “The Greatest Gift a child can give, is that their parents they outlive.”

    Looking back now, I can’t imagine how incredibly difficult it must be for a parent to watch their child kill themselves. I know my mother loves me, that she would give her life for me, that I don’t question. Part of my mothers gift of life to me, is allowing me to live it. That’s how I view God. God is love (I know that’s such a cliche’)… God is my conscience telling me it’s horrible that children are dying. God is the love in my heart that feels empathy. Like the wind, I can’t see it, but I can feel it.

    There’s a line in The Ragamuffin Gospel that goes something like this… “It’s not definitive proof that God exists we seek, but the experience of his presence.” I experience things today I can’t explain, and I quit trying to. It may be as simple as thinking of a song then hearing it on the radio when I get in my car. Little things and some big things. The simple fact is, the more I seek, pray, and try to live a life based on spiritual principles, the more fulfilling my life is. Sure I doubt sometimes, but that’s OK too.

    I don’t believe God’s will is for suffering, of course not. I really like what Kevin said, “I’m afraid He’ll ask me the same thing.”

    “I used to ask, ‘Why doesn’t someone do something?’ Then I realized, I am someone.”
    – Lily Tomlin

  31. Kevin Cassidy says:

    DaveJ – Agreed, free will does not explain brain tumors in children. I think Jared was responding to Ben’s question in the entirety of “evil and the misery evil causes” rather than “evil” and “misery” as separate things. There are hard, brutal things of this world that are not caused, in ways we can show and understand, from evil that we directly do. It is hard to come to term with those things, and I don’t have a glib answer in this response. The closest I would come at this time is to say that much of this sort of thinking comes from the presupposition that pain and death in this world are the worst things that can happen to a person (and I do not say that blithely). Away from that, the evil that is then *caused* by that misery is when we don’t spend our time/energy/money to cure these ills, such as research to the brain tumors and playing with the kids in the cancer hospitals. I know those are the evils I perform, for which I ask forgiveness, and the strength to do more, and better.

  32. Ben,

    You write fantastically. I enjoyed this article a lot – it really hit home as I often have to check the “spiritual” box or the “religious” box.

    I recently had a lengthy conversation with a friend of mine who is very “religious”. When defending my own personal practices, it became evident that it’s difficult to define who you are if others have different definitions of how you are defining yourself (you follow me?). Specifically in my religion, Judaism, I feel that there are disputes among what is considered “religious” or “spiritual”. The line is fuzzy as you said. But “spiritual” does seem to be the “religion” of choice these days….

  33. CS says:

    If it wasn’t so late, I would comment at length. In meantime, thanks for this post, its great and def agree that
    “spiritual not religious” is way to ambiguous!

  34. No labels, please says:

    If it works, use it. If it doesn’t, discard it.Spiritual and not religious is a convenient label to use for someone who cannot or won’t define their beliefs. Lots of these people just don’t care. As for me, I’ve been searchin and reasearching since I was nineteen years old after following Christianity. The problem with religion is that it wants to label something that cannot be labelled. I prefer spiritual as a less constricted way of searching for something that works for me, as an individual. Whatever belief someone arrives at,does it work? Is it open to criticism? Does it put the welfare of the people above the hierarchy? What I see going on is that the more people research their own questions, the less there is of a “church” spoonfeeding them beliefs. Not too long ago, the journalist arm of the Catholic Church said this,”How are people going to want to help the poor if they don’t have someone telling me to do it?” This floored me. I will not associate with any one belief because all beliefs have something I respect. Personally, I believe the value of churches is fading and the upsurge with Tea Partiers is scared. I’ve always found it weird that a Higher Power needs to be worshipped. Wouldn’t a Higher Power be beyond that? We’re going to either perish(I don’t hold to this view) or evolve. That is where we are now.

  35. I understand why someone would say this:

    are taking advantage of semantic ambiguity to absolve themselves of actually forming a belief about God.

    … but it’s certainly not true in my case. I have definite views, and some of them are based on some traditions that have been called ‘religions’, whilst some are not. I don’t practice any religion. I also think that if one is mystically inclined and investigative in tone it is perfectly reasonable (because true) to say you don’t exactly know.

    “Spiritual but not religious” describes Plato, Yeats… and many shamans.

    “Spiritual” certainly counts as a real stance. If you have had spiritual experiences, for example, they may make you want to take up religion or they may not. But the experiences remain spiritual, in the sense of “to do with the spirit”. This is very important to understand because it is so common — see for example Hufford (free paper).

    “Spiritual but not religious” has a looooong history, eg. in the States. In the late 1600’s less than 1/3 of colonist adults were church members, and by the time of the Revolutionary War this had dropped to about 15%. But they were investigating many spiritual angles still. See Spiritual But Not Religious by Robert Fuller.

  36. Jass Brown says:

    Hi sir,
    Thanks for sharing the valuable information regarding religious fundamentalists and science fundamentalists with us . we are also providing the information regarding Science , Religion and Spirituality . Keep continue to posting like this.

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