Spiritual But Not Religious


"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.)

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