Please note: I get a little harsh in this piece. Be forewarned.
You’ve almost certainly heard this trope:
It doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is woo (although it often does). People use it who hold more or less traditional theistic beliefs, but have left their organized religion or never belonged to one. (For those people, the trope often goes, “I’m not religious, but I worship God in my own way.”) People use it to mean they believe in something other than the physical world: they don’t know exactly what, but they’re pretty sure it’s something. People even use it to mean that they find some sort of meaning and transcendence in life, and don’t know another word or context for meaning and transcendence other than spirituality.
Now, when I’m in a generous mood, I see this trope as coming from a totally valid desire to not be connected with the horrors of organized religion… while, at the same time, still feeling some sort of personal, emotional experience that the trope-holder thinks is a connection with God. (Or the Goddess, or the spirit world, or whatever.) The people who say it are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff; to take what they need and leave the rest. And while I think their interpretation of their experience is mistaken — I think it’s all chaff — I can certainly understand the impulse.
And sometimes, like deism, the “spiritual but not religious” trope is a gateway drug, a baby step out of religious belief. For people who are questioning religious belief but have been brought up to believe that religion is the source of all morality and meaning, “spiritual but not religious” can be a way to begin to let go of their beliefs without feeling like they’re stepping into the abyss. And I can definitely be generous about that.
So what’s my problem with it? Other than the smugness, I mean?
The obvious problem, of course, is that there’s not a shred of good evidence to back it up. There’s no more evidence for disorganized religion than there is for organized religion.
And in my experience, “spiritual but not religious” tends to be a very sloppy form of spirituality. It lacks even the tortured rigor of carefully thought-out theology; the discipline, pointless though it may be, of fervent religious practice. All too often, “spiritual but not religious” seems to mean, “I believe in some sort of supernatural world, but am not willing to give that belief much thought, or to seriously consider whether the spiritual world I believe in is consistent or makes sense.”
But I think my biggest problem with the “spiritual but not religious” trope is with the “mundane world” thing.
If being “spiritual but not religious” really does mean thinking of yourself as being in touch with the special sacred things beyond this mundane physical world… then I think that shows a piss- poor attitude towards the mundane physical world.
When you take the time to learn about the mundane physical world, you find that it is anything but mundane.
And I think that the “I don’t follow any organized religion, but I know that there has to be something more to life than what we see” is doing a serious disservice to the astonishing and complex vastness of what we see.
It’s keeping all that… and abandoning the part of religion that is community, and shared ritual, and charitable works, and a sense of belonging. It’s throwing out the baby, and keeping the bathwater — and then patting yourself on the back and saying, “Look at all this wonderful bathwater I have!”