The Stupid It Burns / plognarkThis is a topic I’ve covered before, but it seems I have to address it again. The recent Pew Forum study about America’s religious lanscape … which media outlets have misrepresented … has renewed repetition of a phrase that ought to have died out long ago. And that is, “spiritual but not religious.” As but one example, this illogical phrase is the focus of this piece on CNN’s Belief blog (WebCite cached article).

I simply can’t put this any other way: There is no such thing as “spiritual but not religious.” This statement is a contradiction in terms. The reason I say that, is because everything one can call “spiritual” also happens to fit the definition of “religion.” There’s no meaningful difference between the two. People think there is one, but really, if you look at the definitions involved, you’ll see they refer to the very same things. Here are some definitions of “religion”:

  • Merriam-Webster (cached)
    2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
  • Oxford US English Dictionary (cached)
    the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods
  • American Heritage Dictionary (cached)
    1. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
    2. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
  • Wiktionary (cached)
    1. The belief in and worship of a supernatural controlling power, especially a personal god or gods.
    2. A particular system of faith and worship.

Now, compare all of these with the definitions of “spiritual”:

  • Merriam-Webster (cached)
    1 : of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit : incorporeal <spiritual needs>
    2 a : of or relating to sacred matters <spiritual songs>
    b : ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal <spiritual authority> <lords spiritual>
    3 : concerned with religious values
    4 : related or joined in spirit <our spiritual home> <his spiritual heir>
    5 a : of or relating to supernatural beings or phenomena
  • Oxford US English Dictionary (cached)
    1 of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things
    2 of or relating to religion or religious belief
  • American Heritage Dictionary (cached)
    1. Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material.
    2. Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul.
    3. Of, from, or relating to God; deific.
    4. Of or belonging to a church or religion; sacred.
    5. Relating to or having the nature of spirits or a spirit; supernatural.
  • Wiktionary (cached)
    1. Of or pertaining to the spirit or the soul
    2. Of or pertaining to the God or a Church; sacred
    3. Of or pertaining to spirits; supernatural

You see from all of these that “spiritual” includes beliefs about the supernatural, deities, the soul, spirits, the sacred, the incorporeal, etc. But the word “religion” also involves the very same things, as well. Believing the universe was created by a an almighty deity, is just as much a “spiritual” belief as it is a “religious” one. Believing in guardian angels is just as much a “spiritual” belief as it is a “religious” one. Believing in karma is just as much a “spiritual” belief as it is a “religious” one. Belief in hauntings is just as much a “spiritual” belief as it is a “religious” one. Reincarnation, astral projection, and channeling are all just as “spiritual” as they are “religious.” I could go on and on … but why should I? By now you should already have gotten the point. “Spiritual” and “religious” are equivalent words, because they all relate to the same referents.

Look, I get that a lot of people associate “religion” and “religious” with “religious institutions” or “organizations,” but the fact is that “organization” is not a requirement for any of the above definitions of “religion.” In fact, the M-W and AH definitions explicitly state that “religion” can be either individualized or institutionalized. One need not belong to a religious organization in order to have religious beliefs.

It’s time for people to stop claiming to be something they aren’t by trotting out non sequiturs like “spiritual but not religious.” If you are spiritual, then by the above definitions, you are also religious — and vice versa. There’s no effective difference between the two. None. Just fucking stop already with that gibberish. OK?

Editor’s note: I’ve repurposed and slightly edited this blog post, as a static page on this blog. So if you think I’m repeating myself … well, I guess I am!

Photo credit: Plognark.

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