An Exploration of What it Means to Be Spiritual but Not Religious
Disclaimer: for the sake of simplicity, I do not deep dive into the semantics of “spirituality” and “religion” as both of these words have deep, complex histories, whose exact definitions are often debated. I intentionally leave “spirituality” wide open, because it’s so subjective. In most use cases of the word “religion,” I am referring to the more rigid, dogmatic forms of religion, which I attempt to clarify with the words “organized” or “institutionalized.”
I didn’t have a religious upbringing. When I entered early adulthood, I found myself feeling lost, anxious and confused. I pondered existential questions like why are we here? What’s the meaning of life? I was desperate in trying to better understand my self — feelings and mind.
I had no guiding belief system, no anchor to keep me grounded. My self-esteem and self-respect were at an all-time low, and anger and anxiety were at an all-time high. Around this time, I came upon Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth — I was in my early 20s. The concepts within this book, along with The Power of Now, filled a lack deep in my soul, a lack I didn’t know I had.
Those books introduced me to the realm of self-improvement, spirituality, mindfulness and enlightenment. Sure, I’d heard these words tossed around in yoga class, but they didn’t have much resonance until I’d fallen into a deep, dark abyss — until I was ready to receive. It took being in a state of defeat, helplessness and surrender for me to become receptive to the idea that some higher universal Truth might exist. (There’s nothing like getting lost and shit hitting the fan to make you want to claw your way out and get your act together.)
Over the next decade, I danced along the fringes of the spiritual and scientific world, pulled by both but never immersing in either. The spiritual folk were sometimes too emotional for me, and the scientific folk were sometimes too rational. But whenever someone asked whether I grew up Buddhist or religious, I’d reply, “No. But I suppose I’m spiritual.”
I was dumbfounded the first time I heard somebody else claim they were spiritual but not religious. They were so matter-of-fact and confident. Had “spiritual but not religious” become a unique, defining characteristic? Or a newly formed denomination under “Religious Affiliation” on some government form?
In recent years, the “spiritual but not religious” movement has found its way to the forefront of mainstream consciousness. In cities along the Western coast, crystals, tarot cards, dried sage, Palo Santo, essential oils and incense saturate local shops at premium prices. Ayahuasca ceremonies have become a normative experience in a millennial’s Odyssey years. In fact, I was catching up with a friend the other day who said (and I quote):
“It took him two ayahuasca sittings to get over her!”
I almost choked and died.
But what exactly does it mean to be “spiritual but not religious?” If you asked a hundred people what spirituality means to them, you’d get a hundred different answers. It’s easier to agree on the “…but not religious” part, which means not associated with institutionalized religion and/or its customs.
According to Wikipedia, modern usages of the word “spiritual” can include a wide range of esoteric experiences, including but not limited to:
“a subjective experience of a sacred dimension and the ‘deepest values and meaning by which people live’, often in a context separate from organized religious institutions, such as a belief in a supernatural (beyond the known and observable) realm, personal growth, a quest for an ultimate or sacred meaning, religious experience, or an encounter with one’s own ‘inner dimension.’”
When I told people I was spiritual, I didn’t really know what I meant. I wanted to believe in some higher order or Truth. The idea that our universe and existence is a series of random, chaotic and meaningless events is too depressing. It was spirituality’s broadness and nebulousness that attracted me, as well as its inclusivity of so many different belief systems and practices. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet, where you get to pick exactly what you like and disregard what you don’t.
Atheism and agnosticism are too nihilistic and bleak. And since I didn’t identify with any one school of thought, “spiritual but not religious” seemed like the next best thing.
In Buddhism, there’s this idea that there are three types of wisdom. The first is accepted, ordinary wisdom, gained by hearing the words of others. The second is intellectual, reflective wisdom, gained by reasoning and analysis. And the third is experiential, transcendental wisdom, gained by heightened awareness and experience. From this perspective, organized religion, as we’ve seen it throughout history, falls under the first type of wisdom.
A couple of generations ago, religion and our forebearers dictated the direction of our lives and our life’s purpose. If you were born into a family of farmers, you, too, would become a farmer. If your father was a shoe cobbler, then you’d carry on his trade and become a shoe cobbler. We were told whom to marry, religion told us what to believe and taught us how to be upright spouses and citizens. Trades were passed down to us from generation to generation. We had predefined roles in our family and community. All of which provided us with a sense of purpose, unity and meaningful life.
Now, we are disillusioned by religious institutions and surfeited by an abundance of scientific discoveries that while fascinating, are outside of ourselves — hard to connect to and beyond our comprehension. We live in an era optimized for optionality, where infinite career choices and potential partners await.
In Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright writes:
“Science, in its displacement of traditionally religious worldviews, is sometimes said to have brought on the disenchantment of the world, draining it of magic.”
Modern science falls under the second type of wisdom — intellectual, reflective wisdom. The gradual pull away from religion and push towards science has led many to feel disassociated, isolated and purposeless. This has in turn, stoked the spiritual fire within towards a new search for meaning.
After all, we humans are meaning-making-machines!
In a paper published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the researchers found a concurrent trend towards increased participation in non-institutional and non-traditional forms of spirituality alongside the decline in organized religious affiliation. This suggests that while Americans are becoming less “religious,” we are simultaneously becoming more “spiritual.”
“The universe is indeed a scary place, with more than a trillion stars that make our little planet and its inhabitants seem inconsequential. Religion provide[d] reassurance that we are not as cosmically insignificant as science suggests.” Writes Paul Thagard in Psychology Today.
Enter spirituality. Or is it religion, reformed?
Wright, who grew up Christian but gave up his faith when he couldn’t unify Christianity with the theory of natural selection, writes:
“I’ve never felt a yearning for something that would replace my Christian faith, but presumably the loss of it left a vacancy somewhere inside me, and that may account for my enduring interest in spiritual questions.”
I can relate to his sentiment. Though I never experienced a loss of faith, there had always been an opening, a curiosity within me, waiting to be quenched.
The beauty of spirituality and its broad appeal to many is grounded in this core tenet: that the ultimate Truth can only reveal itself through the third type of wisdom — experiential, transcendent wisdom. And this can only occur via our own subjective, individual experience.
Frances Vaughan, in her book Shadows of the Sacred, defines spirituality as “a subjective experience of the sacred.”
Deepak Chopra has said:
“Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.”
It makes sense then that the New Age movement took off during the 1970s, following a decade of enormous social change that included the civil rights movements and women’s movement. Traditional institutions began to crumble around this time.
Western (and in particular, American) cultures have long had a reputation for valuing individualism:
“Promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires and so valuing independence and self-reliance and advocate that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or social group, while opposing external interference upon one’s own interests by society or institutions such as the government,” according to Wikipedia.
So it isn’t surprising that many of the New Age spiritual beliefs popularized at the time were founded on Eastern religions and philosophies that emphasize a subjective, individual experience. While there’s some debate as to whether the New Age movement still exists today, it’s fair to say these counter-culturers have left their mark, especially in the US — where the rising popularity of yoga, meditation and spiritual and religious books over the past several decades suggest the movement is still very much alive. Though it may have transformed and taken on a new shape, perhaps under the new alias “spiritual but not religious?”
This growing trend towards “spiritual but not religious” can in part be attributed to the fact that many of us have grown weary and distrustful of organized institutions — be it religion, government, healthcare, media, the list goes on.
Who do we look to, who do we trust, if not the authorities and establishments that have long governed our private and public lives? Who do we turn to for answers on whom to marry, which profession to choose, if not our families and forebearers?
We’re left to our own devices.
We live in a time of displacement and disassociation. For the first time in human history, we do not have religion to guide us on matters of morality. We aren’t born into a trade to give us a sense of a purpose. We no longer have a predefined role in our family nor community to give our lives meaning and fulfillment. We aren’t even bound to a city, state, country, or continent. And while I wouldn’t want to turn back time and give up my freedom, it is terrifying and lonely to navigate the vastness of space without an anchor grounding me towards “reality.” Without an anchor or a commitment to a belief system — any belief system, whether it be religion, a political party, a nationality — society fragments, disintegrates and degenerates. Life begins to feel hollow and meaningless.
On a subconscious and perhaps conscious level, we notice this happening. Those of us who gravitate towards the “spiritual but not religious” camp have perhaps found in this movement an anchor, a commitment, a newish “myth,” as Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus) might call it. A myth to devote ourselves to and unite ourselves around.
Spirituality has helped restore meaning into our transient lives.
“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.” From Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection.
Rather than looking outside of ourselves for answers — to religion, government, media, science even, many of which have failed us and further divided us — the pendulum has swung towards looking inwards, towards reflection, introspection and meditation. While these individualistic pursuits and practices of spirituality may, at face value, appear more isolating, what we ultimately experience is unity in our humanity, and a connection to each other and all matter in the universe that’s grounded in limitless love and compassion. (I haven’t experienced this profundity without the help of hallucinogens, but I know it to be true because of those experiences. All it is is an altered state of consciousness.)
Per Harari, our entire humanity’s existence and success have been built on collected fictions — “common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.” “Spiritual but not religious” may very well be yet another “myth,” but as long as we’re living together on this rock, in this realm of consciousness, why not pick one that best serves ourselves, each other and the world around us?
I can’t think of a better myth to buy into than one built upon love, compassion and a profound connection to all things.
And so, present-day spirituality has in some respects replaced organized religion. It’s evolved out of religion. But many of spirituality’s core tenets are more robust than its predecessor, as they have yet to be challenged or disputed by science.
On the contrary, certain aspects of spirituality — meditation, mindfulness, consciousness — have been supported and substantiated by the scientific community, in brain scans and neuroimaging, as well as as in the realm of quantum physics.
Unfortunately, because science acknowledged and corroborated a few, select facets of spirituality, some people now attribute a disproportionate amount of credence to the more mystical, questionable and woo-woo elements of spirituality, such as crystals, manifestations, tarot cards, spirit animals or the supernatural. This has to some degree tarnished spirituality as a whole, causing it to be viewed with a cynical eye.
Luckily for spirituality, but less so for science, many of spirituality’s belief systems and practices can’t be touched by scientific experimentation because of spirituality’s emphasis on subjective, individual experiences. This protects it like an untraversable mote. And subjectivity, as we know, is the antithesis of science.
After all, if you swear the prana energy in a rose quartz has helped open up your heart chakra, who am I to say otherwise?
To clarify, being “spiritual but not religious” does not make me anti-science. Though I’ve met many who are wary of the Western mindset of wanting to understand everything via intellectual means — to evaluate, analyze, classify, validate. I recognize the limitations of intellectual knowledge when it comes to matters of spirituality. But rather than subscribing to or putting more stock in either science or spirituality, I subscribe to both, equally. To me, science and spirituality operate in synergy. Spirituality sometimes demystifies the mystical parts of science and inspires further scientific research and experimentation, while science demystifies spirituality, making it more approachable and attainable for all.
Tony Jack, director of the Brain, Mind and Consciousness Lab at Case Western Reserve University said it best:
“Analytical thinking and spiritual, empathic thinking rely on different neural pathways and processes. They don’t happen simultaneously in the brain, but both modes are necessary, like breathing in and breathing out. You can’t do both at the same time, but you need both to stay healthy and well.”
So here is my singular definition of what spiritual but not religious means to me right now: a seeking of Truth rooted in feeling and experience (supported by solitude, meditation and mindfulness practices), and buttressed by intellect and knowledge (reinforced by learning, reading and writing). As I continue to change and evolve, spirituality changes and evolves with me. While it’s easy to think of spirituality as a reformed religion, I prefer to think of it as an attitude, a way of living.
Tell me, what does spiritual but not religious mean to you? Feel free to leave a comment below!