I read this thought-provoking piece on CNN.com the other day about people who identify as being “spiritual but not religious.” The author’s basic stance is that this growing trend is not a good thing. In his words, “…the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience ‘nice things’ and ‘feel better.'” He adds that “at the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position.”
Despite the author’s conservative and judgmental tone, I can’t help but agree with some of the things he says in his article.
Modern-day yoga students are perhaps a prime example of “spiritual but not religious,” as a lot of these people (and I’m no exception) are at least partially motivated to do yoga by selfish desires: they want to feel better, they want to look good in a bathing suit, they want a “yoga butt,” etc. But sometimes this desire to “take care of yourself” leads to a kind of moral relativism, where no one can tell you what is right for you, and no one can judge your actions or choices. This type of hyper-individualism is sometimes celebrated in this country as the paradigm of freedom. But as anyone who has taken Political Philosophy 101 can tell you, this is a very impoverished and simplistic view of personal freedom. (For a great primer on freedom/liberty, click here.)
In any case, I do think the author of this article is onto something when he points out that people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” may do so as a way of enjoying the benefits of spirituality without having to put up with the responsibilities, or even the burdens, of being a spiritual person. These are often responsibilities we have to others, including total strangers. There is also another responsibility, namely, to study the ideas of those before you who have grappled with the very same issues regarding morality, mortality, god, and so on. But a lot of people who are “spiritual but not religious” are of the New Age Hippie variety, and may spend very little time struggling with texts or ideas, and easily confuse enlightenment with a good or uplifting feeling.
Now I admit that I am actually one of those people who sometimes identifies as “spiritual but not religious.” But I hope this is not because I am dodging the hard work of mindful or spiritual living. In fact, I spent six years of my life pursuing a PhD in philosophy, with a focus on ethics and morality. The outcome of this intense study, though, was not a commitment to any one philosophy or doctrine. Rather, I ended up with a sense that there are a lot of things that are beyond my ability to know — e.g, whether or not there is a god. I also left graduate school with a profound sense of bewilderment at the complexity of our moral lives. If anything, I am now in a worse position to take a firm stance on any spiritual or moral issues.
So, to return to the article that prompted this posting, I agree with the author that “spiritual but not religious” is often a cop-out. But I disagree that the better path is to make a commitment to a religious doctrine or institution. There’s a third option, which is to be a curious, active learner, one who is open to new ideas, including ideas that may challenge or even supplant your firmly held beliefs. Done well, this can be a life of learning and feeling good.