Spiritual But Not Religious
    By Massimo Pigliucci | July 22nd 2010 07:21 AM | 19 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Massimo

    Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

    His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary


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    I am not a religious person, and I'm most certainly not spiritual either. Both of these statements get me into trouble in polite society, especially when they are coupled.

    Apparently I'm not the only one, as anybody who has used an online dating service will readily testify. Typically, these web sites allow you to specify your religious beliefs (and to express a preference for the religious beliefs of your prospective dates). Try simply checking the "atheist" box (if there actually is one), and you'll be waiting a long time for your matches. But if you describe yourself as "spiritual but not religious" your chances are markedly improved (though the problem now is that you'll see a lot of new agey types showing up in your inbox). Why?

    Despite the fact that more and more people are comfortable "coming out" as atheists, the word is still very much associated with being immoral, or at the very least amoral. This, of course, despite the fact that there is neither logical nor empirical reason to draw that conclusion. Ever since Plato's Euthyphro dialogue, philosophers have agreed that gods are simply irrelevant to morality, regardless of whether they exist or not. And of course modern sociological research shows that atheists are just as moral as religious believers. Still, the stigma persists.

    Enter the word "spiritual," which is becoming synonymous with retaining all that is good in a religious person, without the religion. It seems that in many people's conception if you really can't be religious, at least you should try to be spiritual. If you are not, then you must be a damned selfish materialist, an implicit admission that is not likely to get you many dates on

    But what, exactly, does it mean to be "spiritual but not religious," or for that matter, just plain spiritual? One interpretation, of course, can be arrived at by taking the word literally: if you are spiritual you believe in spirits (not of the alcohol-laden type). In some sense, this must be right, as spiritual people seem to be averse to the idea that matter and energy are all there is to the universe (hence, the above mentioned cavalcade of new agers likely to populate your inbox). But if that is the case, it is not at all clear why holding such (entirely unfounded) beliefs should translate into someone being a better, more moral (and hence more datable) person. Being spiritual in this sense seems to me simply indicative of a slightly, if often benignly, deluded mind, not one with whom I would really enjoy associating for long periods of time.

    A second possibility is that spiritual is meant to indicate someone who devotes part of her time and energy to cultivate her "spirit," as opposed to just being concerned with "material" things. But I'm not a dualist (another mild type of delusion), I don't think of my life as a dichotomous enterprise in the course of which I have to provide material/energy food for my stomach to process, as well as an entirely different kind of nourishment for my "spirit." My mind, whatever the detailed explanation of how it works, is a product of my brain, and the two simply can't be disconnected, upon penalty of the first one simply ceasing to exist.

    Which brings me to the third interpretation of the word spiritual: someone who takes care of cultivating and reflecting on his ethics, of behaving justly and compassionately toward his fellow human beings, and of nurturing his aesthetic sense through arts and letters. Okay, by that definition, I am spiritual but not religious. But so is any human being who is not a psychopath. Yes, some people are more reflective than others, some more compassionate, some more inclined to read literature and go to art museums or concerts (the latter activities also of course greatly depending on one's means and education, not just his natural propensities). But I submit that to do the above is part and parcel of what it means to be human. As Odysseus famously puts it in Dante's Inferno, "Fatti non foste per viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza" (We were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge).

    I suggest, therefore, that we reclaim the basic notion that a compassionate, ethical, and interesting human being doesn't need to be either religious or spiritual. He just needs to be human. Do we have a word to suggest to and similar services to add to their list of possibilities? Yup: humanist, as in someone who is trying to live up to the best of what humanity can be. Now, wouldn't that person make for an interesting date?


    I understand that long ago an observant Greek noticed that Ethiopians made idols resembling ethnically black humans, whereas those of the Greeks tended to be (as they say in A Man Called Ironside) “Caucasian” in appearance.   He thereupon stated that people made gods in their own image, so to speak.  Some French fellow in the 18th century generalized this to include the invisible God of the Jews and Christians (and possibly Muslims too, though I don’t know if he ever had conversation with any.)

    If one proceeds with this train of thought, methinks it therefore follows that if one is an atheist, one should deduce that one is a nobody.

    Of course, you may wish to refudiate this conclusion.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    In a sense, you're not too far off. Take Nietzsche's famous quote from "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense":

    "Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of "world history," but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened."
    On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873)

    Though I'm atheist, I'm lucky to also be extremely vain (which comes in handy while reading Nietzsche), so I don't have the dreadfully dreary "I'm nothing" philosophy.

    But back to your point, Massimo, to which I agree with quite possibly more than anything I've ever read on this site. I'm neither religious or spiritual. You are spot-on with your reasoning of why so many non-religious people would identify as spiritual. The word "atheist" has a horrible stigma, same as "godless", which both technically mean the same thing and have nothing to do with being immoral or amoral. "Spiritual atheist" is an oxymoron as much as "vegetarian meatballs", and yet somehow we have both in our little corner of the cosmos.

    One other word I think people mean to use when they say they are "spiritual" is "philosophical". Presumably, if you spend time pondering the larger questions of the world, you think about things larger than yourself, which I think is what many people mean when they say "spiritual". This also quells the fears of the religious about atheists. Part of the reason they equate atheism with immoral or amoral acts is because they can't see how, without a divine law handed down from a higher power instructing us not to murder, lie, and steal, and without the threat of hell or the carrot of heaven dangling in front of our faces, atheists have any moral code or even the desire to be moral. I suggest that this is a problem with THEM, not us, as I presume that means that without God, they feel that they would walk around pillaging and razing villages to the ground on a daily basis.

    You would still come up against the distinction between secular humanists and spiritual humanists ;-)

    I don't like the word "spirituality" either but, in your attempt to denigrate it, you've missed out one further definition of it: which is the study of the mind and the body from the inside. The study and experience of our psychosomatic structures is, I think, vitally important to our understanding of what it is to be human. And merely thinking deeply about such things is not enough, there are experiments to be done too, without which the thinking may go round in circles. Such experiments have been around a long time and have generally (but not exclusively) been propagated within a religious vehicle. However, a number of people, including myself, have come to the conclusion that the esoteric practices lodged within exoteric religions have only a historical reason for being where they are and are logically free to exist on their own. There is no need to eat the wrapping paper so as to eat the sweet inside. This is not just a western excuse to practice meditation without swallowing the eastern beliefs, but is also taught by some teachers who have no interest in propagating a particular sectarian religion. I don't like to use the words "spirit" or "soul" as both have baggage; so does the word "mind" but less so.

    So... in those early days of dating websites I used to tick both "spiritual" and "atheist" and left the riddle to resolve itself. But perhaps you're right and many fled to the hills without glancing back!!

    My personal thought its that people change from being religious , to just spiritual, since with time they start to notice that religions are many times contradictory. One good example of this, is that every religion claims to have the " true " knowledge, and the " true divinities " , etc.
    Still, people " needs " to believe in something, just to explain why are they here, or why do they feel sadness, love, loniless, joy, etc.
    I dont know if its in our human nature, but many people goes trough their lives, looking for approval of others, and what could be better than the approval of a superior being, which is " prefect " and sees everything ??

    im 100 % agree with the author of this particular paper. Personally, i feel perfectly fine being as human as i can be, i do not try to be spiritual or religious in ANY way.
    It is strange how people change their opinions about someone when realize that particular person, is an " atheist " , or putting it in simply ways, " not religious - spiritual person " .

    This happens mostly with religious people, which many times have a narrowed way of thinking.

    Good article.

    These are much different issues.  Atheism has been overrun by agenda-based militants so the word itself has a stigma outside the atheist community.

    Spiritual but not religious was originally supposed to mean unbeholden to a church structure, created by man and inherently as flawed, but now, like 'jobs created or saved' and 'tea party' can mean almost anything people want it to mean.  Making it meaningless.
    I completely agree with Hank in that the word 'atheist' nowadays comes pre-packaged with a strong stigma corresponding to the outspoken "militant atheists" (to borrow a term from Dawkins). And this connotation places an overemphasis on Science. Don't get me wrong, I think that the scientific method is probably the one of mankind's greatest achievements, second only to the arts, but I think all in all, most people find science altogether impersonal. The average person would gladly accept the benefits of science, engineering & mathematics, but when it comes to their everyday life - it doesn't account for what is truly valuable, and even if it is metaphorical that is the seat of the spiritual. But sadly, I would say that the word 'spiritual' has become so convoluted with non-specific meanings that it doesn't really say anything about the person using it. This probably initially added to the word's allure, but honestly what can you tell about someone who calls him/herself spiritual. In my experience, I found it almost as descriptive as "the weather is nice." Whether or not the word spiritual will continue to be used in this manner is an open question especially since there are critical comments from both the religious and atheistic circles alike (at least they agree on a few small points). I personally think that it is sad that this convoluted word is all that we have found to describe something that we all feel.
    One way I define spirituality: One's way of breathing in what happens and generating meaning(s). Numinosity is optional, for me.
    Another way I've thought of the term "spiritual" in the past is "agnostic". Used in that sense, it is completely different than atheism.

    "It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation." Y. Martel, "Life of Pi"

    I think that "spiritual" is just religious lazy

    Deist, problem solved

    Fred Pauser
    Massimo, A fourth take on what it can mean to be "spiritual" is this: To be imbued by nature with a sense of awe, wonder, and mystery… and a realization that we are a part of a fabulous unfolding evolutionary process of the universe… a sense that there is something more -- something behind it all that is currently far beyond human comprehension, somehow involved… Although hard atheists often try to take the position that they are merely "unbelievers" in gods and the supernatural, when push comes to shove they clearly take the materialist position that there are no gods, etc. and they make related assertions such as, "Life has no purpose other than what individuals decide for themselves." But no one KNOWS if there is some kind of great intelligence behind the creation of the universe, or if there is some general purpose of life (although there are hints, especially on the second point). I fully agree with you, Massimo, that to take the Bible literally, or to subscribe in a fundamental way to any of the dogmatic religions, is to be in a state of delusion. However, to take the position of the atheist/materialist seems also delusional. And besides, it seems a remarkably arrogant position. Maybe that's why you rarely got a response on
    heh, the article itself is an example of why i have distaste for a-theists ... (very spiritual original meaning of the word, btw) ... it is all head stuff

    just be conscious ... the questions change with that

    Fred, I completely agree with you. I think Massimo has some good points, but NOONE knows what life is about, where we come from and where we'll go to. And because human beings only understand things through words they know, I also call myself "spiritual but not religious", (although I wouldn’t run away from an atheist in a dating website as fast as I would from a religious!) and by that I mean exactly what you wrote above on your comments - I do no believe in any known God, in any religion - but also, I am not sure that nothing else exists.
    The word agnostic was invented by a British scientist, Thomas H. Huxley, in the 19th century, to describe his attitude toward religion. He wrote:
    "Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method." This method of thought advocates that people "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable." An agnostic doesn't necessarily believe or disbelieve in a god -- he or she doesn't profess to know if there's a god at all. Huxley's writings may also suggest that it's impossible to ever know if a god exists or not.
    That said, I should state then: I am an agnostic!
    It was interesting though to read through Massimo’s and all the comments, I do value the different opinions, that’s the way to bring us to have our own!

    Here's hoping you understand Huxley's metaphysics better than his language; agnosto theo is Greek and is from Acts - he didn't invent the term, he was simply anglo-fying a phrase from the Bible to suit his concept that (any) God was unknown to him.   :)

    Otherwise, I agree with you and with the overall sentiment.   Many agnostics are just atheists who want to look more intellectually nuanced and they mistakenly use the term synonymously - was that the case with Huxley?  I would think so.  Out and out atheism was socially more difficult in 1869, even for Darwin's Bulldog.
    Agnostic (Greek: ἀ- a-, without + γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge) was used by Thomas Henry Huxley in a speech at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876[7] to describe his philosophy which rejects all claims of spiritual or mystical knowledge. Early Christian church leaders used the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) to describe "spiritual knowledge." Agnosticism is not to be confused with religious views opposing the ancient religious movement of Gnosticism in particular; Huxley used the term in a broader, more abstract sense.[8] Huxley identified agnosticism not as a creed but rather as a method of skeptical, evidence-based inquiry.[9][10]

    Hank, thanks for that, but it was Huxley who started using the word as we know it today, but this is secondary, really...

    Regardless of the world to use - "spiritual but not religious"or "Agnostic", the point is that many people simply believe that there is a possibility of something unknown yet to man kind to exist that are neither religious (as we know it) nor atheist (lack of it).

    "Which brings me to the third interpretation of the word spiritual: someone who takes care of cultivating and reflecting on his ethics, of behaving justly and compassionately toward his fellow human beings, and of nurturing his aesthetic sense through arts and letters. Okay, by that definition, I am spiritual but not religious. But so is any human being who is not a psychopath."

    No, not everyone who doesn't fit this definition is a psychopath. They could just be what we'd categorize as an immoral type of person. More like a sociopath perhaps or someone with sociopathic tendencies. That your mind immediately went to the extreme of a psychopath indicates to me perhaps that you tend to think in extremes. Something is either all one way or all the other way, and perhaps that has something to do with your shortsighted view of there ONLY being religion or atheism. Nothing else is allowed!

    Spiritual but not religious is used in the liturature of most 12 step programs and is used as code to identify yourself as a member without "outing" yourself to the rest of the world...

    I've been trying to put this into words for so long, and you said it exactly as I wanted to say it. I think I love you.

    To Dave: psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably. There is no attempt on the part of the author to suggest that such people are necessarily physically violent or dangerous, I don't think.

    I'm not sure the reason is because people assume 'atheist' means amoral or immoral.

    "Spiritual but not religious" is an attractive property for many because it implies an emotionally sensitive and receptive nature. I would associate the term more with a new age or deistic outlook, one that has a sense of something 'greater than the mere sum of its parts' but doesn't proselatize or moralise. The term 'atheist' for many precludes this kind of view (wrongly), and is instead associated with a cold materialistic 'what we see is all there is' mentality that many women in particular seem to find unattractive, because it brings with it a stigma of emotional detachment.