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Spiritual, Not Religious

One of the more ubiquitous statements that has emerged over the last decade, ‘Spiritual, Not Religious’ is a self-affirming antidote to the traditional trappings of religion, the archaic and inflexible (and at times invented) demands of doctrine sometimes associated with Christianity, Judaism and Islam. According to one Gallup poll, nearly one-third of the US population falls under this umbrella term.

While those roaming about the SBNR category can be widely divergent in philosophical outlook, the general consensus is that religion belongs to the public realm, spirituality the private musings of one’s soul. One of the most common phrases you’ll hear from the spiritual camp is that you cannot tell someone what ‘one’s truth’ is, for only they can know it themselves. 

This is vastly different from the court of public opinion defined by clergy, where followers await instruction from their local or international leader to be told what to believe. Problems arise in both of these situations, for as humans we need both quiet, personal time as well as a public life.

Religious institutions are generally blamed for moral and ethical failings, whether within the structure itself (such as child molestation or allowing violence against females) or for not keeping up with the times. Forcing abortion clinics to close doors for religious reasons even when the act is legal and predominantly wanted by society is one such example.

Yet religions provide frameworks that have been crucial in the formation of societies. Tension occurs not from a faith’s existence (in this regard), but when leaders refuse to change as humanity evolves. (This makes sense if the religious community does not ‘believe’ in evolution.) In my lifetime, the greatest struggle with religion seems to exist between old models of belief and the culture it’s trying to hold back. It’s not surprising people would be fed up under such circumstances.

When people say that all religions are one, what they mean is that certain ethical components are similar. It could not be metaphysics, for in that they are vastly different. I’ve seen a number of comparisons between Buddha and Jesus, for one. Their relationship is defined by how one is to act in society and alongside their fellow man and woman, not in their belief system about the cosmos. Comparing leaders just because you want it to be the case is intellectually lazy. 

Which is where it gets dicey for the SBNR set. As one friend said recently, thoughts are not facts. When you close your eyes in meditation, you might have a thought that seems agreeable to the situation you are in. That does not make it a fact about existence

This does not deny the potential for insight. ‘Channelers’ and other ‘astral travelers’ might, at times, make profound statements, but that does not mean their thoughts have defined reality. Such a step can only be done collectively, which is the scientific model when at its best—under group consensus and verified by said group. If over time that model no longer serves the collective, it must be discarded or amended.

‘Spiritual, Not Religious’ is an attempt at defining oneself as someone who cannot be defined, a ridiculous paradox. Everyone has private thoughts and engages in at least some level of self-reflection. Each of us understands the world in our own way, which is probably wildly different than a number of people we pass on the street.

Where both spirituality and religion gain credibility and foster trust and respect is in the selfless actions they can inspire. Any form of spirituality taken to be the ultimate truth, whether communally or personally, breeds fanaticism and intolerance. Doing good work is the deepest act of service one can engage in. For this you needn’t any religion or spirituality; you simply need your humanity. 

And so we can ask: Why be ‘spiritual’ at all? The term aims at a transcendent concept, whereas what we need is to be involved with making what’s around us the best it can be. This has personal, political and environmental implications, many of which are missed when the discussion remains fixed on beliefs instead of examining the science of each scenario. 

When I worked as an entertainment writer in Princeton in the late ‘90s, I talked to a number of sculptors who always used the same image: They trim away what’s not necessary to reveal art. When we trim the excesses of spirituality and religion (and the bickering between), a gem just might be waiting.

Image: Sunny Forest/


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