Spiritual-but-what-does-that-mean, Really?

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

  1. 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.

Jesus the Consolator

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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

======================

Fernando-AlcantarBio: 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.

To the Cross and Back: An Immigrant's Journey from Faith to Reason by [Alcántar, Fernando]

>>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

 

About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • viaten

    “So they will use [the phrase ‘spiritual but not religious’] 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.”

    This reminds me somewhat of the term “Jesus Follower” from some years back. It seems to be somewhere between the traditional “religious” and “spiritual but not religious”, more like not having a “spiritual” relationship with Jesus, but rather an understanding and following of Jesus’ teachings and ideas.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Interesting insight, Viaten. Saying you’re a “Jesus Follower” can distance a person from the baggage of Christianity over the ages and just allow a simple alignment with a supposedly good and wise man.

      Doesn’t work for me, though — I doubt if very many people would have ever heard of Jesus if he hadn’t been associated with a huge religious and political movement. And if they just read about him, he doesn’t come out particularly better than other ancient philosophers.

      • viaten

        It doesn’t work for me either. Some “Jesus Followers” might act superior to other Christians as if they have gone back to the basics or they have identified the “essence” of what being Christian is.

        • http://fernandoalcantar.com Fernando Alcántar

          Yup!

    • mason

      They’re like the banker trying to separate himself from the banking scandal & corruption.

    • ElizabetB.

      This reminds me of David Galston’s “Embracing the Human Jesus:
      A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity” — and I think that last year someone — Mark Rutledge? — mentioned he might do a post on that view of Jesus, and discerning Jesus’ “voiceprint” in the traditions?

      • Linda_LaScola

        I recall hearing about Galston — thinking he was sincere, but likely to fail at interesting enough people in the human Jesus to form congregations around him.

        • ElizabetB.

          It looks like he’s leading The Quest Centre for Religious Literacy:

          “…a community that examines life, religion, science, and philosophy in an open and engaging environment. Quest is humanist friendly, intellectually responsible, and spiritually centred:

          “The Quest Centre was formed from Eternal Spring United Church. We emphasize learning and open discussion. Our leader, Dr. David Galston, is the Academic Director of the Westar Institute and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar.

          “Gatherings are Sunday mornings, 10:30 A.M.
          Mohawk College Residence Conference Centre”

          He mentions The Clergy Project (& Gretta Vosper and John Shuck) in a Centre blogpost “Christian Atheism”:

          “Some Christian clergy surprisingly use the word ‘atheism’ to describe their theological position. This should not be a surprise, either. Paul Tillich, the great systematic theologian of the 20th Century who is also taught at every seminary, said that atheism is the proper theological response to fundamentalist claims in religion (Theology of Culture, 1959, p, 25). It is not possible or fair to teach this to religious leaders in seminary and then, upon graduation, expect religious leaders to never mention it. Ministers of religion often find themselves trapped in the dilemma of not believing what they are supposed to preach. In fact, clergy who suffer in this way have set up a solidarity group called the Clergy Project (www.clergyproject.org), which is a safe space for expressing their learnings and their doubts.” http://www.questcentre.ca/blogs/view/christian-atheism

          New book, “God’s Human Future: The Struggle to Define Theology Today,” has intriguing chapter titles:

          Jesus the Teacher of Nothingness
          Creating God in 325
          Meet the New Jesus, a Christian Avatar
          When God Stopped Working
          Religion and the God Who Almost Is

          “As the reader travels through these pages, my hope is to encourage the consideration of the value of religion for the human future. In the course of expressing this hope I will certainly uphold the understanding that religion is a human creation, but I will definitely resist the temptation to regard it as a human waste of time. Indeed, I attempt to end this work with the understanding that God’s future and the human future are the same thing and that, as such, when we speak about theology we are speaking about God’s human future.” [from the Westar Institute sample]

          A fun first forray! — “spiritual AND religious”? Will be fun to learn more

          • Linda_LaScola

            Thanks for finding this, Elizabeth. If I’d known Tillich said that, we would have mentioned it in our study. And as for Galston’s comment on TCP — he’s got it wrong — it’s not at all about exploring “doubts.” It’s for religious professionals who do not believe in the supernatural, as it says if you follow the link that Galston provides. There is nothing about “doubt” on the TCP public website. I am considering contacting Galston to inform him of that and ask him to change what he wrote.

            However, doubters are welcomed here on The Rational Doubt Blog. There are no membership qualifications. All are welcome.

          • ElizabetB.

            An awesome Socratic society in cyberspace : )
            (with an infinitely happier outcome!!!!)

            “….he helped others recognize on their own what is real, true, and good (Plato, Meno, Theaetetus) …. Socrates was usually to be found in the marketplace and other public areas, conversing with a variety of different people—young and old, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor—that is, with virtually anyone he could persuade to join with him in his question-and-answer mode of probing serious matters. Socrates’s lifework consisted in the examination of people’s lives, his own and others’, because ‘the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being,’ as he says at his trial (Plato, Apology 38a).” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates/

            And I’d add, the additional element of compassion in RD. Rare spot!

          • ElizabetB.

            I would think David Galston would be quite interested in the distinction and very glad to hear from you

    • http://fernandoalcantar.com Fernando Alcántar

      There is a moment in many religious people when they realize they’ve been too legalistic, to step-by-step, and they call themselves into a refreshing of their faith. Calling themselves “spiritual” is a sign that they are in the process of that renewal. But they don’t have a monopoly on awe, on inspiration, nor on love. Whatever they want to call it, they are just as human as we are.

    • http://fernandoalcantar.com Fernando Alcántar

      There is a moment in many religious people when they realize they’ve been too legalistic, to step-by-step, and they call themselves into a refreshing of their faith. Calling themselves “spiritual” is a sign that they are in the process of that renewal. But they don’t have a monopoly on awe, on inspiration, nor on love. Whatever they want to call it, they are just as human as we are.

  • Sastra

    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.

    Unfortunately, their ‘ desire to distance themselves from judgmental people ‘ often means that we skeptics who ask them to explore their reasoning get included among the ‘judgmental,” for we are on the path to persuading them they’re wrong.

    • mason

      I’ve never come across the intersection where the “spiritual” path merges with the “reason” path. It’s like the hopeless task of trying to reconcile religious faith & science. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yy5yWdVHv3o

      • Sastra

        The word “spirituality ” is what Daniel Dennett called a deepity, a term with two different interpretations — one true but ordinary, one extraordinary but false — which are often treated as interchangeable by the muddled. The true but ordinary meaning is consistent with a natural universe: a sense of awe, a love of beauty, a compassion for others, having meaning, and so forth. The extraordinary meaning of spirituality involves the supernatural– God, psychic powers, vitalistic energy, teleology, essences, magic, mysticism, and faith in their truth.

        Those who value faith will stubbornly buckle the two meanings together, jumping back and forth perhaps only to grant credibility from the ordinary to the extraordinary. But some spiritual people really do seem more focus more on the significance of the humanist elements of spirituality– to the point that they care more about love, meaning, purpose, and beauty in this life and world than what these things “tell us” about others.

        I wonder then if this is where spirituality can be a step towards humanism. If push comes to shove– or when push comes to shove — if they have to pick a single interpretation of a deepity with two interpretations in conflict, it’s not the one which tells them faith means there is no conflict, only a harmonic mush..

        • mason

          “I wonder then if this is where spirituality can be a step towards humanism?” Yes, I think so. I’ve observed that happening with people. Step one, quit attending any organized religion and find better things to do with their time. :) Step two they start calling themselves spiritual, not religious.

          • http://fernandoalcantar.com Fernando Alcántar

            I’ve found that for those who call themselves “spiritual” that serves as a pathway of sorts. I play the socratic method. So you call yourself spiritual but not religious? Why? Did you depart from somewhere? Play the movie to the end, where does it end?

            Like in my own path, religion was a very sweet drug that kept me alive while killing me at the same time. Spiritual was a sweeter way to take the drug–in the “diet” version. It was a way of holding on. I do wish I would have had more people ask me questions. But as I mentioned in the book, I was at the edge of a cliff–literally. It’s hard to leave that drug. But if someone calls themselves “spiritual” without knowing they might be turning humanist already.

          • http://fernandoalcantar.com Fernando Alcántar

            I’ve found that for those who call themselves “spiritual” that serves as a pathway of sorts. I play the socratic method. So you call yourself spiritual but not religious? Why? Did you depart from somewhere? Play the movie to the end, where does it end?

            Like in my own path, religion was a very sweet drug that kept me alive while killing me at the same time. Spiritual was a sweeter way to take the drug–in the “diet” version. It was a way of holding on. I do wish I would have had more people ask me questions. But as I mentioned in the book, I was at the edge of a cliff–literally. It’s hard to leave that drug. But if someone calls themselves “spiritual” without knowing they might be turning humanist already.

    • http://fernandoalcantar.com Fernando Alcántar

      Reality is that, just like I was, most religious people exist in some sort of la la land. Everything in the world exist only to prove their god more real. Some times the best thing we can do is not tell them our “version” but ask question after question to disarm them of cliches.

      “Spiritual” is sort of the new cliche in religion. It’s that in between. It’s that word that makes religion sexy again–in their eyes.

    • http://fernandoalcantar.com Fernando Alcántar

      Reality is that, just like I was, most religious people exist in some sort of la la land. Everything in the world exist only to prove their god more real. Some times the best thing we can do is not tell them our “version” but ask question after question to disarm them of cliches.

      “Spiritual” is sort of the new cliche in religion. It’s that in between. It’s that word that makes religion sexy again–in their eyes.

  • Keulan

    The problem I have with the word “spiritual” is that it has no clear definition, it means whatever the person using it wants it to mean. To some, “spiritual” means feeling a sense of awe and wonder about the world occasionally, while to others it means having an experience which they interpret as of a god or in some other way supernatural. I’d much rather people just use more clear terminology to describe themselves, because right now “spiritual-but-not-religious” tells me almost nothing about what a person actually believes.

    • http://fernandoalcantar.com Fernando Alcántar

      Which is the point I was making. “Spiritual” means mainly two things for people. One, it’s a “I’m not religious but I still get to go to heaven” card. Two, it’s a way to make them sound better and not judgemental. In my book you see how I started being religious, and as I became more reason based I realized I became more critical of religion, so I would say I was “spiritual” because that meant somehow that I was actually better than those who followed religious step by step. I see now that for me it was an “in between stage.” But I dare say the majority of people are not as uncomfortable as I was in that stage. I really had to know for sure.

      gospelofreason.com https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ae1402eddc7c8a2a0e3e92b93a58522e74d75218578e7046cb34520161de35d4.jpg

    • http://fernandoalcantar.com Fernando Alcántar

      Which is the point I was making. “Spiritual” means mainly two things for people. One, it’s a “I’m not religious but I still get to go to heaven” card. Two, it’s a way to make them sound better and not judgemental. In my book you see how I started being religious, and as I became more reason based I realized I became more critical of religion, so I would say I was “spiritual” because that meant somehow that I was actually better than those who followed religious step by step. I see now that for me it was an “in between stage.” But I dare say the majority of people are not as uncomfortable as I was in that stage. I really had to know for sure.

  • Marcus Small

    I think one of the problems with the word spiritual is that it is often confused with the spirituality, it seems to me that they are different. Don Cupitt, who I am reading at the moment, distinguishes between the What and the How of religion. The What is the the doctrinal content, what one is living towards whereas the How is the how one lives in relation to that what that end. Both can be religious, the How corresponds to what we generally call spirituality, it refers to things that we do rather than what we believe which is the What.
    Spiritual seems to be a kind of Religion Lite. It does not hold fast to either doctrine or practice but neither does it jettison them altogether. Moreover because Spiritual does not hold fast to any particular doctrine or practice it tends to be more eclectic.
    Spiritual still has its Hows and Whats, but they are less defined.
    I think we have moved from a religious culture to a more spiritual culture I am not sure that this is a staging post to atheism.
    Another thing just think of the texture of the words as the one speaks them and hear them, which of them feels and sounds harder edged?

    • ElizabetB.

      I’m having a hard time not thinking just “adjective and noun” : ) But it’s an interesting description, and note about the texture of the words

  • busterggi

    Spiritual = means I think magically

    Religious = means I picked a specific magician

    • ElizabetB.

      I like the way you describe the distinction… tho I’d say “spiritual” in current usage includes those who mean they feel awe and meaning in life, as Fernando mentions, without reference to the supernatural. ….”spiritual lite” and “Spiritual” : ) Sastra’s and Dennett’s “deepity”?