Spiritual But Not Religious: What Does That Mean?

089A recent conversation with a friend (my inquisitive and always ready-to-challenge One None) led to a discussion of the nature of the spiritual but not religious. What does that term mean? Isn’t the spiritual just for the religious? Is spiritual but not religious really just fence-sitting, a reluctance of the agnostic to abandon the trappings of theism? I spent a good hour in an intense volley of opinions and ideas and came to, well, nothing new. It seems it’s complicated.

So I turned to my favorite crowdsourcing site, Facebook. Caveat lector. My Facebook friends are largely socially, politically, and religiously liberal, and the sample of respondents was in line with that reality. Out of nine respondents, four identify as Unitarian Universalist, three as Christian, one as Reform Jew, with the remaining one unaffiliated (at least per FB page).  My question was, “What does ‘spiritual but not religious’ mean to you?”

Well, it seems as a group we agreed what religious means. Religion is the structure for spirituality, a set of beliefs organized and then followed by people in agreement with them. No one overtly mentioned creed (and Unitarian Universalism is purposely without one), but it was alluded to by some. Religion was said to inform spirituality and to be “the way spirituality gains traction.” Across religious traditions, the definition of religion was the same.

Spirituality proved stickier, which came as no surprise. What does it mean to be spiritual? Does it assume accepting that one has a spirit? What is a spirit? Is it something that exists before and after one’s body exists? Can one be Humanist and spiritual? Does it demand a belief in a higher power? Does spiritual require a sense of transcendence? Is it a private matter or linked to religion? The responses begat more questions, but along the way, there was plenty to consider.

For almost all, spirituality was a bit nebulous and far more personal than religion. A few theists linked spirituality to belief in God, but this was not absolute. A Christian respondent defined spirituality as “practices or experiences that lead to an awareness of the self, both in affirmation and negation, as more than any single identification of body, mind, or elements thereof.”  One (UU) described the spiritual as “that which connects us (to) one another and to the universe,” with a theist responding that that was her definition of God. Other definitions also revolved around spirituality being connection with essence of the self, and others related spirituality to a feelings:  aliveness, love, and warmth as well as to sadness, grief, and despair.

Discussing spirituality brings forth another question: what is the spirit? I didn’t pose that directly, but one UU answered on their way through the issue of spirituality:  “… my understanding/use of this word (spirit) is the essence of living beings that persists before and after our earthly incarnation. My personal belief is that we all have a spirit and our spirits are a piece of a universal divine spirit. The universal divine spirit could be called God or Creator or something greater than ourselves.” Thus, no spiritual without a belief in a spirit. For others, spirit was more an essence of self, with no mention of the temporality of that essence.

What I came away from  was this: spirituality — whatever that is — may be fostered by religion but is not bound by or to it. Whether religious or not, people agreed on this. Additionally, spirituality was seen as a personal issue, again possibly supported by a religion or religious body, but largely the responsibility of the person. The language of spirituality was personal: peace, love, essence, core of being, energy, meaning, purpose, and even more nebulous terms.

I found this reassuring. I’ve struggled to explain what I, as Unitarian Universalist agnostic, mean when I mention having a spiritual element to my life. While I don’t feel I have a spirit that continues after I die or existed before I was here, I have a sense of essence. Perhaps ironically, I’m most comfortable with the word soul to describe that essence (for more on that, read The Soul, a post on just that from 2010), a word that actually has more meaning to me now than when I was a Catholic and moderately religious.

That essence, or soul, is easy to lose under the rush of life and the noise of the ego. For me, it’s nurtured by intentionality. Over the years the form of that intentionality has shifted. Twenty years ago, that was prayer and time with others in a religious community. In the past five years, it’s quite different and generally evolving. While at points I’ve touched that essence through more formal spiritual practice — meditation, yoga, or chant — those aren’t mainstays of my spiritual life. My soul is nurtured on a walk outside or even a long, quiet gaze out a window that opens onto a natural scene. It’s nudged along when I’m truly with someone, whether that be one of my children or a dear friend. Even in challenging interactions — the kind that require breathing and tongue-biting — bring me closer to that essence of myself, perhaps because, when managed with respect, the require plenty of tapping into the soul and tuning out the ego.

I’ll find my soul touched by acts of kindness, both given and received. It’s strengthened more often by the words I withhold than the ones I speak, unless those words are, “I love you,” “I hear you,” and “I’m sorry.” But it’s also strengthened by saying what’s hard to say, in the times I speak up for myself or others, voice quivering and sweat pouring. Standing on the side of love, peace, and justice is spiritual work.

My understanding of my essence grows as I read what others have written, turn it in my head, deciding what to take and what to leave. It finds traction when I write, sorting my thoughts and often discovering something new about myself or my spot in the world. It is nurtured by silence, whether accompanied by thought or just my breath. And it is shared when I can let go and deeply love.

Still, I don’t describe myself as “spiritual but not religious”. First, I’m a Unitarian Universalist, which may not seem so some as much of a religion, what with no creed or prescribed path, but does provide a wide path of sorts, lined with community who supports the searching process.  And I’m not sure how spiritual I am. While I believe in the soul or essence of a person, I don’t have a traditional — or even untraditional — spiritual practice. I have instead a rather hodgepodge of paths to a bit more inner peace that, I hope, are reflected as increased kindness and compassion to my fellow travelers on this shared journey of life.

I’m not sure the answer to my friend’s question is any clearer than when we first spoke. Spirituality is certainly separate from religion for many, and it’s alive in the atheist and agnostic community. It’s deeply personal and hard to explain, expansive while highly interior. It’s not the exclusive domain of the deeply religious but rather, to some, accessible to those across the belief spectrum.

So the question remains open: What does it mean to be spiritual but not religious? What is spirituality to you? And just what is spirit? Let the crowdsourcing continue.

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12 thoughts on “Spiritual But Not Religious: What Does That Mean?

      • Well, I don’t claim to be a guru or have it all figured out …

        But, I think we start with the word, spirit — disregard every definition that we’ve ever heard and decide never to try and define it again.

      • Well, I’d not say you clarified anything. 😉 It’s a difficult topic to discuss, and it’s all to easy to become mired in the language. However, I’m a fan of working through the language, if for nothing else than increasing understanding.

      • I totally appreciate that. This may sound absurd, but I think what I’m getting at is that it may be necessary to foster a functional level of disinterest in the meaning of the word. I’m not sure that spirit is something that we are going to find any satisfying language to describe it in a concise way …

        Now, if our goal is only to “conceptualize” spirit, then maybe we could associate it with “action”?? “Spirit” is, in a sense, manipulated by our actions?

        Perhaps a more scientific explanation might be that “spirit” is our current neuronal architecture. Our actions (far more forceful than our thoughts), prune, reinforce or add to the structure depending on whether or not we are engaged in a routine or novel behavior.

        You may say, well, but the “spirit” remains the same, doesn’t it? Isn’t the “spirit” of something inherent?

        Well, that doesn’t seem like a constructive understanding of spirit to me. If we go with the understanding that the “spirit is inherent,” then how are we to approach things objectively? It’s hard enough, if not impossible, to discern the level of effect that our hormones and more primitive systems are having on our perception.

    • I dithered over that sentence, but its an issue within the UU church (and that word can be a problem, too). Yes, it is a religion, a creedless religion with a powerful message of love, inclusivity, and compassion. Thanks, Andrew.

  1. Pingback: this is your brain . . . and this is your brain on Unitarian Universalism | Raising Faith {dot NET}

  2. What a great post. I have many of the same questions and you articulated your questions really well. I hope you don’t mind – I re-blogged this post to a blog I’m helping run. Are we a religion…that question comes up time and time again. It seems to me that we are more a philosophy. But in the end…as long as well work to better our selves through the somevery sage guidance given to us by the Principles…I think it’s all good.

  3. Hi! Visiting from Raising Faith. I love this discussion, because I really hate the term spiritual but not religious, especially as it is traditionally understood. Because, yes, I am religious (I’m a UU). My personal use of the word spirituality relates not to what IS (or could be, i.e. ‘spirit’), but to how I respond to what is. My spirituality is my reverence for what is Holy. My very understanding that there are things with such a distinction – in fact my sense that there is nothing without that distinction. In the most literal sense, I guess this is not spirituality at all – after all, the very word contains within itself the word “spirit” and my definition has nothing to do with that. But I do think of myself as a spiritual being, even though I’m not big on the mysticism of it. Wow, end ramble. 🙂

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