September 25, 2019

Spiritual But Not Religious

yoga at sunrise

I'd like to do something a bit different in this post and ask you a question. The thing is, I want to ask you to consider the question in a particular way. The question, which I am sure you already guessed from the title is as follows:

What do you think when you hear someone say, "I'm not religious but spiritual" or otherwise claim to be spiritual but not religious?
I'd like you to consider the question not by asking yourself what you might say to such a person in response or what you might think if you were in a particularly good mood and feeling charitable. Instead, I'm interested in your immediate in-the-moment reaction upon hearing something like this. That is, what is likely to be the first thought that enters your mind when you hear this?

I am writing this post moments after hearing someone say this, so I have the benefit of immediacy in that I can still recall the thoughts I just had. I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that my immediate reaction was something along these lines:

Oh that's great! So you've decided to give up most of the benefits individual organized religions provide to their members and just cling to the superstitious nonsense. Would you like a side of crystals to go with that pyramid? Perhaps I better hold my tongue lest you summon my dead relatives in your next séance and have them haunt me.
As you can see, my immediate reaction upon hearing the "spiritual but not religious" claim is not what could be called positive. I think I'd have much the same reaction if someone were to proudly tell me (the "spiritual but not religious" crowd usually seems quite proud) that they had given up one particular form of woo for another. "Yeah, that miracle spring water is silly. I'm into Tarot cards now."

In truth, I really do feel bad that I have this reaction to the "spiritual" person. After all, I recognize that one can be "spiritual" without believing in spirits or any other supernatural entities. I've known people for whom spirituality described a deep appreciation of nature combined with feelings of transcendence and interconnectedness. There's nothing wrong with any of that. In fact, I often think it would be nice to see more of it. Perhaps we'd have less destructive tribalism as a result. Of course, I also recognize that there are plenty of people for whom "spiritual" does indeed refer to a variety of New Age nonsense that deserves to be characterized as woo.

I need to do a better job of asking what the person means by "spiritual." Spiritual in what ways? What does spirituality look like for you? And I need to withhold judgment until I have a clear idea of what they mean. Even if they do mean woo, is it the sort of woo that is silly but harmless or the other kind? There may not be much I can do about my immediate reaction, at least initially, but I can keep it to myself until I've assessed the situation fairly and know enough to proceed.