Editor’s Note: before becoming an atheist, this Clergy Project member went through a long spiritual period. It gave him excellent insight into how spirituality works and what it means. He also has great ideas for how to study it. Here are his responses to my “Spirituality” questions.
By Fernando Alcántar
- When you were religious, did you also think of yourself as spiritual, or not? How did you talk about spirituality to the people in your congregation?
Yes. I think it has become a natural process, or part of the lingo, of the Millennial Christian to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Part of “modern” Christian culture is to somewhat accept that religion is old school and too rigid. So they will use that phrase as a way to identify themselves as independent and not corrupted by religion. It sounds more like it’s a relationship with Jesus and not a step-by-step religion.
In another way, people also use that phrase as a transition period between religion and atheism. They don’t have the language or knowledge to explain “awe,” the answers to the natural world, or other psychological and emotional moments.
For me, I focused on the “feeling God” part. I felt I could sell Christianity better if I put some distance between the image people had of religion and what I wanted them to buy. It became cool to attack organized religion. It bought some credibility points. But ultimately, I feel that we don’t have the language to explain awe – an adrenaline rush, love – and we attribute it to something “out there,” a “force.” But as it is with the word “god”, “awe” is the answer we give when we don’t have real answers that explain our experiences in the natural world.
2. Did you go through a “spiritual but not religious stage” on the way to being non-religious? If so, please describe it.
I did. In my book I mentioned a couple of situations that altered my life (see “Crack on the Windshield” and “To the Ends of the Earth”). I was challenged with the reality of pain and explaining it in the context of the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful god. I also noticed that Christianity outside of my circles was seen as judgmental. American culture was changing and it was becoming mainstream to be pro-gay, pro-sex before marriage, pro-pot, among other things. All of these are against fundamentalist Christian doctrine. So being spiritual but not religious made us sound like we weren’t part of that traditional group that automatically goes against those things because that’s what the church does. We wanted to be seen as those who “love anybody and welcome everybody.” But we never said that what that means is,
“We love you but we’d guide you through the process of de-gaying, de-pot-ing, de-cursing, de-dancing and de-having sex.”
In my case, I broke up with the belief in Jesus first. After that I was left with a void. I needed something to explain all those feelings I had while high on Christ.
I was Pentecostal for a long time and I often felt “the spirit.” I felt overwhelmed by god’s presence. I felt a great sense of purpose. I had risked so much, and lost so much, in the name of Jesus—all because of those feelings. So where did those really come from? My studies in psychology, social anthropology and evolution helped me understand what all those feelings were.
I now help people by being specific about their questions. What do you mean by “spiritual”? Do you mean feelings (like awe and a need for purpose) that you don’t know how to explain, so you call them “spiritual” because that makes them sound more purposeful and heavenly?
- If you know people who are spiritual but not religious, what are they like?
I see it across religions. People claim being spiritual as a way of distancing themselves from their religion’s judgmental image. They don’t want to let go of religion, but realize that scientific, cultural and technological advancements have shown that traditional belief just doesn’t make sense. Being spiritual means not having to adhere to all the rules in religion, but still avoiding hell. Spirituality is a safe space between reason and eternal damnation.
- Are there other questions I should be asking about this? If so, what are they?
I’d ask people who call themselves “spiritual” to describe it carefully, to determine if it is more like a religious experience or a psychological need. I’d also explore if their concerns about organized religion are more about the beliefs or more about their desire to distance themselves from judgmental people. I’d also ask people to think about what would come after spirituality. I wonder if they could accept that hell and a walking-talking snake are fake but still not be able to completely let go of the fear of hell. I feel that being “spiritual but not religious” is a “There is a huge chance that whole thing is not real—but just in case” card.
Bio: Fernando Alcántar is a former leader of the Foursquare (evangelical, Pentecostal) denomination in Mexico and senior coordinator of North American Partnerships at Azusa Pacific University, where he oversaw hundreds of churches in Mexico and helped to mobilize thousands of missionaries a year from all over the United States and Canada. He is now a gay atheist activist, spreading a message of tolerance, introspection and understanding. He lives in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. He is a member of The Clergy Project and author of To the Cross and Back: An Immigrant’s Journey from Faith to Reason, with a foreword by Dan Barker.
>>Photo Credits: Fernando Alcantar, by Greg Dart; “Christ The Consolator” by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890) – Private Collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_The_Consolator.jpg#/media/File:Christ_The_Consolator.jpg ; https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ae1402eddc7c8a2a0e3e92b93a58522e74d75218578e7046cb34520161de35d4.jpg