Frequently I encounter the claim, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” You may have heard something similar, or you may have expressed the same sentiment.
I’m not certain the assertion stands up to scrutiny. Is it even possible to be spiritual but not religious?
Perhaps the assertion demonstrates confusion regarding spiritual matters. Perhaps the phrase is intentionally misleading. Or perhaps the statement is a covert attack on faith put forth by adherents of atheistic philosophical materialism?
Is the “spiritual but not religious” claim intended to signal virtue? Is it meant to establish “my views are morally equivalent to the views of religious believers”? Is it meant to denigrate faith in order to gain “social acceptance” for those of no faith?
When we dig deeper into the matter, we might wonder if the phrase represents an effort, on the part of atheist psychologists, to undermine religious worldviews that contradict their view of human nature. Does the phrase signal a desire to define human nature in materialistic terms?
Does the meme “spiritual but not religious” assert a claim that a purely biological entity, absent a soul, can somehow be spiritual? Was “spiritual but not religious” introduced into the cultural lexicon to undermine religion?
In order to sort through this confusion, we need to define terms. Years ago, I attended a university conference titled “Psyche and Soul.” The first evening, the majority of those seated at my assigned dinner table were psychologists. More than one of the psychologists self-introduced as “spiritual but not religious.”
Jaws dropped when I finally responded, “No, you’re not.”
My statement was a bit of an affront, so I followed with an explanation: “Someone who’s spiritual knows or at least believes they are a spiritual being: an immortal soul. How can one be spiritual if one does not even believe spirit or soul exists?”
After a long moment, to my surprise, my statement was met with nods of agreement. I noted that they might mean they were sensitive, able to show empathy. They might mean they were good and decent people. But that was not, strictly speaking, what it meant to be spiritual.
I continued and spoke about the relationship between “being spiritual” and “being religious.” They go hand-in-hand. Spiritual people are religious people. How might that be, you may ask. Start by considering the question, what is religion?
Religion is a discipline that addresses the supernatural relationship between souls and a Creator, a Supernatural Ground of Being or God. The discipline studies the nature of God, but just as important, it studies a soul’s relationship with God.
If your nature is spiritual—if you are an immortal soul—you exist in a relationship with the supernatural ground of all being. Thus, by default, you are religious. You exist in relationship with the divine. The relationship may be troubled or broken, but nonetheless, it exists.
The fact that you are a spiritual being, a soul, in relationship with the Divine, does not mean that you will necessarily agree with the dogma or unique doctrines of a specific faith. Rather, it does mean you will hold views regarding your relationship with the supernatural. While people will hold various views regarding the precise nature of divine relationship, those views, by definition, constitute religious views.
In contrast, materialists such as psychologists do not believe they exist as a spirit or soul. They do not believe divine relationship exists. Thus, it is impossible for them to identify as spiritual or religious. They cannot make the “spiritual but not religious” claim, as they are neither.
Have people told you that they’re “spiritual but not religious”? Have you used that phrase to describe yourself? If so, did my analysis cause you to pause and reflect? In the future, will you be more likely to question the meaning of the phrase that bifurcates spirituality from religion?
How might your reflection on spirituality be informed by an NDE or the NDE literature?