A Few Words in Favor of Those “Spiritual But Not Religious”

Now don’t get me wrong, I have problems with the term. For one, etymologically it makes no sense, the terms are for all practical purposes synonyms. For another, using the word “spiritual” to stand for the good stuff in religion and “religious” to stand for the yucky, hierarchical, bullshit parts of religion begs the question of which really is which.

And so I’ve been known to say I’m religious but not spiritual. Stir the pot a little.


There are sufficient problems with religions, organized and otherwise, that trying to sort the wheat from the chaff is a worthy project.

Or, it could be put that there are sufficient worthy parts of religions, organized and otherwise, that trying to sort the wheat from the chaff is a worthy project.

So, how can one be spiritual but not religious? Spiritual but not religious in a meaningful way…

First, what’s the problem? Nice to know that before going too far after the fix.

Shunryu Suzuki once observed how “life is like stepping onto a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.” I want my religion to deal with that reality. I suggest you might want to, as well.

We look out into the world we live in and the folk in leadership in our local religions are the main one’s claiming to know what’s what. Here’s a bit of spiritual but not religious advice:

People parading around as authorities need to be viewed with utmost suspicion. Here’s a simple rule of thumb, nothing anyone does or title they get makes them other than human.

We don’t need no stinking badges.

Or, rather, badges aren’t enough. At best what they say is that the person wearing them has been at the project a long time and someone thought they deserved the badge – excepting, of course, those who found one in a cracker jacks box.

Sometimes it isn’t a person, but a book. Now, I try not to mock people who put their faith blindly in books of ancient or modern authority for no better reason than someone or a lot of people claim it to be the word of God, but I’m not going to join their club. There have to be real reasons the book is supposed to be a guide, and the person selling it should be able to explain it in a way that doesn’t offend reason or compassion.

This is all commonly understood among the spiritual but not religious. And good on them for not being tricked.

Although people and books in their naked presence can be pointers for us, and that shouldn’t be missed, either.

But, let’s focus, kids. Dumping bishops and synods and holy books isn’t enough.

For instance, lots and lots of people who are critical about organized religion let their critical faculties drop when it comes to health. And they call it spiritual.

Personally I have no interest in spiritualities that are intended to replace science or nutrition or medicine. I’ll take double blind testing in those realms over any number of anecdotes about, well, to go into much more detail will offend too many of my friends. This is one of the bigger traps for the spiritual but not religious. If it is spiritual it is supposed to be beyond testing. Ain’t no such thing. These medical/nutritional/medical assertions stand or fall on efficacy, and efficacy can be tested. To make a health claim as spiritual and then waltz into a song and dance referencing to string theory or some other jumbled up confusion about physics is just more of the religion that spiritual should replace.

Don’t be fooled.


Want to be spiritual without being religious? Well, here’s the deal.

Life is like stepping onto a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.

There’s a ton of stuff in spirituality and religion that attempts to deal with this issue.

And some of it is worthy.

So, if we’re not bowing to authority, and we’re not being sidetracked, how do we figure out what’s what?

I think we can do some pre-sorting. Reason is a wonderful thing. Just be sure to question your premises before going too far into it.

I’ve also telegraphed another pointer that’s worked for me. And it might for you.

Henry Thoreau was on his deathbed and was being badgered by a loved one about his faith and his belief in a hereafter.

His response is a rule of thumb for the spiritual but not religious:

One world at a time.

If all they can offer is the sweet by and bye, I suggest it isn’t worth the time.

So ask.

Is what is on offer of use here and now? Or, at least, in this lifetime? I’m not talking immediate gratification. I’ve noticed disciplines are often critical on the way – for me that regular sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention has been a universal solvent, cutting through all sorts of stuff and bother.

But the payoff should be in this lifetime, the one that’s sailing out to sea in a boat that is going to sink.

So, for me, with all that said, here’s a way of life for the spiritual but not religious:

rule one: question authority. And the number one authority to question is “me.” You know. The thing behind your eyes that thinks its in charge.

And that leads directly to

Rule two: don’t know.

Not I don’t know and I don’t care. Rather, I don’t know and I’m really, really curious.

Oh, this also involves

Rule three: open your heart.

Let it be full when it is full, let it break when it breaks. But don’t turn away, open your heart.

Do these things and you can be spiritual without being religious in a meaningful sense.

You’ll enjoy the ride.

And when the boat sinks, you’ll know where you’re going…

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