Ask a Skeptic: Inhaling spirituality’s heady fumes

George Saunders, New York, sends a USA Today clipping in which Ed Stetzer, LifeWay Research president, says “a majority of the population is spiritual but not religious.” George asks, “Does anyone really understand what it means to be ‘spiritual but not religious?’ ”


KATIE DANIEL: Spiritual means you believe in ghosts, but don’t organize rituals around them or proselytize. Religious means that you believe in ghosts, organize rituals around them, and think everyone else should too!

PHYLLIS ROSE: I don’t — “spiritual” seems to have the same connotation as the unknown quality of “religious.”

PATRICK ELLIOTT: This is how I perceive it: “Organized superstition isn’t my thing, but I don’t mind doing it on my own.” Which is equivalent to: “You won’t find me running with the bulls in Pamplona, that is crazy! But, I’m not opposed to trying my hand at running with the bulls on my own.”

WENDY GOLDBERG: To me, it means to be in tune with nature and especially with all the winter birds that “flock” to my feeders. “… and the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop.” (from Jane Eyre)

ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR: I’ve never read a definition of “spirituality” that was comprehensible. It stems from the word “spirit” and pertains to an imaginary “spirit world.” The word “spirit” can have secular connotations today, such as “team spirit” or “keep up your spirits.” But “spiritual atheist” seems like an oxymoron. I feel it’s a mistake for atheists and other nonbelievers to adopt language that clearly has a religious genesis. (That’s a joke!) Doesn’t this just contribute to confusion, as in Einstein’s metaphorical and unfortunate “God does not play dice with the universe” kind of language?

I am guessing that most nonbelievers who are using the term “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” probably mean that they are moved or awed and have emotional responses to music, artistry, nature or being part of the community and the universe. So why not say that? Why muddy the waters by using a religious term to describe a natural (not a supernatural) feeling, emotion or sense? People should say what they mean. It seems like a good policy for atheists and agnostics to take care that their pronouncements are not misunderstood by believers.

BILL DUNN: It means, if you’re being truly honest with yourself, that you’re more of a sociopath than a psychopath.

ELAINE HAMPTON: “Spirit” has so many different meanings, from supernatural beings to very natural beings — as in a high-spirited horse, or a great single-malt Scotch! Or genuine Napoleon brandy. I like to inhale the fumes.

When I first learned the Latin meaning of the original word, I had to laugh. “The spirit left him” = he stopped breathing. Or “holy spirit” = heavenly halitosis.

It’s like using “heart” to mean anything connected with emotions. “And then my heart stood still” is a lovely song, but if the singer’s heart had really stopped, they would have needed CPR immediately, or they’d be dead. Slippery, slippery words. I love to play with them.

JOAN REISMAN: I think people hasten to say “but I’m spiritual” in reaction to the (entirely mistaken) notion that atheists are dull, pragmatic people who only believe what can be proved, and who have no sense of awe or wonder or imagination. By claiming spirituality, they are asserting that while they don’t follow any organized religion or believe in any gods, they are still multifaceted individuals who are able to sense and experience “higher” feelings and concepts and possibilities beyond mundane reality.

NORA CUSACK: I’m neither, because neither is fact-based. They’re weasel words for people who don’t want to acknowledge that when they’re dead, they’re dead.

ANDREW SEIDEL: To be religious is to believe in widely held, factually unsupported dogma. To be spiritual is to believe in factually unsupported dogma that is all your own. To alter the Robert Pirsig quote which gave Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion its name: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called spirituality. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion.”

DAN BARKER: I think when people say they are “spiritual but not religious,” they mean one of three things, depending on how “spiritual” or “religious” are defined.

Some of those people believe in a god, or gods, or a transcendent world populated by invisible personalities that have some kind of influence (they think) over their lives, but they are not members of any organized or recognized religion. They are going it on their own, defining “God” or “spirit” in their own way, and don’t think they lack anything that is claimed to be possessed by members of religion.

For these people, “religion” is nothing in itself — it is just an artificial human-made way of organizing those who hold similar beliefs into a common group. Religion adds nothing to spirituality, they think. To my mind, these people are indeed religious, though not part of any organized religion.

Others think “religion” is indeed a claim to a transcendent reality, but they reject that claim and think “spiritual” is simply a personal way to experience feelings of the sublime, to meditate, to enjoy aesthetics and positive emotions, to appreciate the finer qualities of art and music, to contemplate “higher values,” to breathe deeply and take the focus away from the mundane.

These might be atheists or agnostics who define “spirit” in a nonsupernatural manner, interpreting their “numinous” feelings in purely physical, neurological terms. They agree that others interpret the word “spirit” differently, but feel that their own material definition lacks none of the value or beauty of those who are religious. To my mind, these people are neither religious nor spiritual, even though they do try to redefine “spirit” in a nontranscendent manner.

There is a third group, comprised mostly of evangelical Christians, who define “religion” as “man reaching up to God,” but define true Christianity as “God reaching down to man.” (The sexist language is theirs, not mine.) I used to think like this; indeed, I preached sermons about it.

These people don’t eschew religion, and even agree they are part of a religion — of course they are, if they go to church, pay tithes, support missionaries, promote a Holy Book, and so on — but feel that “spiritual” is more than an attitude or emotion.

To them, the “spirit” is the Holy Spirit, an actual person, the “spirit of God” with whom they have a personal relationship. Some of them think they are possessed by this spirit. When they say “Jesus came into my heart,” they are not talking metaphorically. Pentecostals and charismatic types believe they have been “filled with the Spirit,” and feel very sorry for the (mainly) mainstream denominations that have “a form of godliness but deny the power thereof.” (2 Timothy 3:5)

When they say they are “spiritual but not religious, what they mean is that what matters to these people is “spiritual but not religious.”

If I were forced to fit into one of those groups, I would have to choose the second one — except that I don’t like the word “spiritual.” I don’t think the word “spirit” has ever been coherently defined. Every attempt to define the word ends up telling us what it is not, not what it actually is. It is the intangible essence or a nonphysical presence. A noncorporeal personality. An immaterial mind. None of this tells us anything.

In positive terms, what exactly is a spirit? If something exists, then it can be measured — it must be measured, or be measurable. How much does spirit weigh? How much space does it take up? When does it start to exist and when does it die or disappear? How does it differ from the “ether,” which we now know does not exist though we continue to use the word “ethereal”?

Until the word “spirit” is defined, and it never has been, then to say you are “spiritual but not religious” is to say nothing at all. Except maybe that you don’t like religion very much, and that is something I can agree with.

Freedom From Religion Foundation