Monday, March 12, 2012

Spiritual But Not Religious

I am not spiritual, and I don't believe in angels either.

The phrase “spiritual but not religious” is firmly entrenched in our culture. Its use has gone viral and one can find it in the comment sections of left-leaning blogs as well as being bantered around in polite conversations. However, I am and atheist and I refuse to call myself spiritual for a variety of reasons.
But what does the word spiritual mean? Here is what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term.

1 : of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit : incorporeal
2a: of or relating to sacred matters b: ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal
3: concerned with religious values
4: related or joined in spirit
5a: of or relating to supernatural beings or phenomena b: of, relating to, or involving spiritualism : spiritualistic

From the definitions listed above the word is far removed from the rational and the scientific. Spirtual belongs to the murky realm of ghosts, angels and estrasensory perception - in other words, ideas that are fantastic rather than realistic.

However, it’s not impossible to be an atheist and call oneself spiritual. Contrary to popular opinion there are many types of atheists. There are atheists who believe in Bigfoot and alien abductions. There are atheists who deny that global warming is occurring. And then there are those who become atheists because they are skeptics – dedicated to the rigorous practice of logically, systematically analyzing what they believe and the world around them. While atheists who are non-skeptics may feel comfortable with classifying themselves as spiritual, this skeptic/atheist does not. That doesn't mean all skeptics shun the term. Some skeptics may call themselves spiritual because he or she may play with meaning of spiritual and use the term to refer to a psychological state where one feels euphoric and transcendent. After all, everyone uses language pragmatically. For example, I refer to myself as an atheist, but in all reality I'm a 6 on the seven-point Dawkins scale of belief - an agnostic who holds the possibility that God exists but understands that the odds are very, very small. Skeptics who do call themselves spiritual are similar to those who use the pronoun he when referring to a male or female. He is not gender neutral and to use it as so perpetuates the notion women are secondary to men. Using spiritual when one really means a psychological state which is caused by the brain, and not some mystical "stuff" perpetuates the irrational over the rational, the make-believe over reality.

This does create some problems when interacting with people who consider themselves spiritual. I've been asked before whether or not I am spiritual in public. Although I could have given a lengthy explanation on my position on the subject, in many cases doing so is counterproductive. What the asker really wants to know is whether or not I feel connected to my community, my family, the universe, and I speak to that. I say that my has meaning and that meaning is beyond pleasing animalistic urges.

So far that answer has worked. I politely ignore the absurd idea that the supernatural is valid, while confirming that I am not some nihilistic monster because I'm an atheist. 




  1. In I suggest that there are very good reasons why atheists should reject the notion of spirituality altogether...

    I believe that contemporary accounts of spirituality are a dead end for human potential, a threat to intellectual rigour, and opposed to social and political engagement. Rather than accept the “Spiritual, But Not Religious” response as the only alternative to either formal religion or egotistical, shallow consumerism, I argue for a post-spiritual response to the existential realities of life.

  2. Given the dictionary definition of "spiritual", the only one that I can subscribe to is number 3. And I hasten to add that my religious vales are of the liberal variety, and I am a non-theist.

    When I say "spiritual", I mean that I experience feelings of connectedness with nature or people, or that I look up at the stars and feel awe.

    So if there was another word for all these feelings, I'd use that instead, but there isn't.


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