There’s No Such Thing As “Spiritual But Not Religious”

The Stupid It Burns / plognarkOnce again, CNN’s Belief Blog tramples into ridiculousness with a puff-piece singing the praises of people who, it’s claimed, are “spiritual but not religious” (WebCite cached article). And it’s not the first time CNN has presented such material. As I’ve blogged before, however, it’s a meaningless phrase. In light of CNN’s repeated, laughable idiocy, I’ve decided to repurpose and slightly revise one of my earlier posts on the subject as this static page.

I simply can’t put it any other way: There is no such thing as “spiritual but not religious.” That phrase is a contradiction in terms — a logical and semantic impossibility. 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 both 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. I also get that they’re trying to disassociate themselves from the (sometimes) negative connotations associated with “religion,” “religious,” and with the actions of religious institutions. It’s understandable they might want to be seen as separate … but they can’t do that by claiming their religious beliefs — whatever they might be — aren’t actually “religious” at all. Of course they’re religious!

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?

Photo credit: Plognark.

  • Pingback: It’s Time For The “Spiritual But Not Religious” Idiocy To Stop Already | Miscellanea Agnostica()

  • SantiBailors

    No, not OK, and perhaps you should "fucking" cool down and be less narrow minded, huh ? How old are you ?

    I see no valid reasons to claim that all there is to reality is what we can measure or physically perceive or even less understand (in other words I don't think we can perceive or understand everything); I in fact claim – based on this – that it's certainly possible that there is more than what Homo Sapiens can measure or physically perceive or understand, so Homo Sapiens will never know it all. This opinion of mines makes me "spiritual" (and agnostic, by the way).

    I see no valid reasons to claim that I know what happens after death (from the idea of various heavens / hells etc. to the idea that nothing happens and everything ends); how could I know that ?? How can anyone be so arrogant to claim they know something about that ??
    And at the same time I see no valid reasons to believe in any religion, as they all contradict each other and only 0 or 1 can be true (and my *bet* is on 0) and all religions have the same risible likelihood of being true as any religion I could make up right now has. That makes me not religious.

    As at least half of your quoted definitions of "spiritual" clearly show, "spiritual" does not imply "religious" at all – while of course religious necessarily imply spiritual.

    • Re: "How old are you ?

      Interesting you'd ask me that, then accuse me of having said something I never did say, which according to you, is "all there is to reality is what we can measure or physically perceive or even less understand."

      Re: "This opinion of mines makes me "spiritual" (and agnostic, by the way)."

      If you are "spiritual," then you must also be "religious." As I explained, based upon dictionary definitions of those words, everything one can call "spiritual" can also be called "religious," and vice versa. You say later in your comment that they don't, but that's not the case.

      Re: "That makes me not religious."

      No, what it means is you claim no allegiance to any particular package of "religion." But you still adhere to "religious" notions if you believe in things like the possibility there is some metaphysical entity that survives our deaths. Such beliefs can be called both "spiritual" and "religious." If you are truly "agnostic" about it, then saying you believe in it, makes no sense, and you'd be neither "spiritual" nor "religious," since you don't take them seriously to accept them as reality …you're just leaving them as "unknowable possibilities" (which is what "agnosticism" is all about).

      It's not my fault the semantics of both "spiritual" and "religious" overlap as much as they do. All I'm doing is living with it. And pointing out that, so long as they do, it's ridiculous to pretend that they don't. The SBNR folks are just trying to wrest free of the negative connotations of the word "religion."

      • SantiBailors

        I definitely believe that it's *possible* (AKA *not impossible*) that there is some metaphysical entity that survives our deaths. It doesn't matter that also religions claims that; it's logically irrelevant; and by the way religions (and you) claim they *do know*, while I clearly say that I *do not know*. Saying that I don't know whether there is something after death or not does not make me religious at all; your logic is malicious and twisted. A religious person believes in a religion.
        Also, if you claim that you are sure that you know what happens after death – be it something or nothing – you are absolutely not an agnostic.

        • Re: "It doesn't matter that also religions claims that; it's logically irrelevant …"

          Actually it's entirely relevant. Belief in a human "soul" (for lack of a better word for it) definitely is a religious belief.

          Re: "Saying that I don't know whether there is something after death or not does not make me religious at all …"

          Yet you call yourself "spiritual" because you're open to it. This makes no sense. If you're open enough to it to call yourself "spiritual" then semantically you are also "religious." Because belief in "souls" is just as "religious" a notion as it is "spiritual." On the other hand, if you don't accept that notion sufficiently to call yourself "religious," then you must also not be "spiritual." All I'm doing is telling you what the words mean. I didn't invent them and I didn't assign them their vastly overlapping meanings. I just live with them.

          Re: "Also, if you claim that you are sure that you know what happens after death – be it something or nothing – you are absolutely not an agnostic."

          It may or may not be true that we have "souls" that survive our deaths. But even accepting that it's possible, what are we supposed to do with that? What does that mean we should (or shouldn't) do? I have no idea, because I can't even know we have them. Does it make sense to order one's life around a notion that's so incredibly vague that we can't even comprehend it at all? What would you like me to do about it?

    • tsahpina

      HE IS RIGHT AND Y O U SHOULD COOL OUT.
      AND, IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HIS AGE.

  • RabbitWarrior

    Religion is a subset of spirituality..Just believing in spirits and life after death does not make you religious, especially if they are things you have personally experienced. You can experience things and not hold any particular belief about them..it is called being open minded. For many of us religion is about belief, spirituality is about experience.

    • Re: “Religion is a subset of spirituality.”

      No, they’re equivalent terms, as I explained by examining their definitions. The distinction you raise is non-existent and is merely an excuse for religious people to swerve out of the way of the negative connotations of being “religious.”

      Re: “Just believing in spirits and life after death does not make you religious …”

      Yes, it does. Because as I explained, those things are all just as “religious” as they are “spiritual.” Saying they’re not “religious” notions does not actually make them non-religious. It’s merely an excuse for religious people to swerve out of the way of the negative connotations of being “religious.”

      Re: “… especially if they are things you have personally experienced.”

      Whether one has “experienced” a religious notion, has no bearing on whether or not it’s “religious.”

      Re: “You can experience things and not hold any particular belief about them …”

      If one thinks one has “experienced” a “religious” belief, then one “believes” in it, because believing one has “experienced” that “belief” is, itself, a “belief”! I’m not sure where you think you’re going with this “experience/belief” dichotomy, but quite frankly, I see no difference. Looks to me as though this is just another effort to swerve out of the way of the negative connotations of being “religious.”

      Re: “… it is called being open minded.”

      Nor do I see the relevance, here, of “open-mindedness.”

      Re: “For many of us religion is about belief, spirituality is about experience.”

      Incorrect. Not one of the definitions I’ve listed — nor any other that you’ll find in any credible English dictionary — has anything to say about “experience.” It is irrelevant. Again, you’re just trying to swerve out of the way of the negative connotations of being “religious.”

      As I said in my original post, I get why you’re doing this. Really. I do. “Religious” people are making you look bad. I understand that completely. The problem is that your solution, which is to insist that words mean something other than they actually mean, is not going to help with that problem. What will help is for people like yourself, who’ve claimed the absurd label of “spiritual but not religious,” to fix “religion” so that the negative connotations associated with it go away. Another way of putting it is … if “religious” people make you look bad, then change them! There’s nothing preventing you from doing so. Not one thing. Best get to it, rather than complaining to me and insisting that well-known words mean something other than they actually mean.

      • RabbitWarrior

        Sorry no they are not. You defined the terms to pre-assert your point. If you go to Wikipedia they have a different definition, so do other dictionaries.
        Here is a counterexample. Husband and i never really believed in ghosts, in fact we were both pretty convinced they did not. Neither of us are religious either.
        While we were in NM, we were talking to a clerk in an art store. The day was hot, the air conditioner was over the only unlocked doorway. The store had a front door and a firedoor (that had an alarm) in the back.She and i were discussing animal rescue, husband stood there bored, when we felt cold air..saw a man with a hat enter the store..ALL THREE of us saw the man, husband was the only one paying attention to the fact that the door did not open when the man came in and he went around the corner to check it out..the man was gone. We opened the fire door and the alarm sounded. THAT is a spiritual but not religious experience.

        • Re: “Sorry no they are not.”

          Of course they are!

          Re: “You defined the terms to pre-assert your point.”

          No, I reviewed many dictionaries to discover what their definitions were. I reached my conclusions based on that.

          Re: “If you go to Wikipedia they have a different definition, so do other dictionaries.”

          Wikipedia is editable by anyone, including people who’re semantically fraudulent and are promoting the lie that there is such a thing as “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, Wikipedia can be commandeered by propagandists who don’t know what their own dictionaries actually say (and in reality, don’t even really care). Wikipedia is useful for some things, but not for this.

          Re: “Husband and i never really believed in ghosts, in fact we were both pretty convinced they did not ‘exist’..”

          I will be clear: Belief in “ghosts” is just as “religious” as it is “spiritual.” There’s no difference.

          Re: “THAT is a spiritual but not religious experience.”

          No it’s not. To repeat: Belief in “ghosts” is just as “religious” as it is “spiritual.” There’s no difference. There just isn’t!

          Look, I get that you don’t have the courage to admit that. Really. I do. I also get why you don’t want your belief in ghosts to mark you as “religious.” Honestly, I get that, too. But with that said, I really don’t care, because the dictionaries don’t care, and semantics tells us so.

          • RabbitWarrior

            Again you are completely incorrect. I did not believe anything. AlL 3 of us witnessed the apparition, no belief or religion was involved.Too bad you do not have the courage to face the fact that you don’t know what you are talking about…

            Definition of spiritual:

            : of or relating to a person’s spirit

            : of or relating to religion or religious beliefs

            : having similar values and ideas : related or joined in spirit
            You just chose to exclusively focus on the second definition because your viewpoint EXCLUDES the possibility of the other two, especially the first.
            That is called cherry picking.

          • Re: “NONE of us believed anything.”

            What you “believe” or not is irrelevant. “Ghosts” are, by definition, just as “religious” as they are “spiritual,” as I explained long ago and which you keep insisting — contrary to the facts — isn’t true.

            Re: “AlL 3 of us witnessed the apparition, no belief or religion was involved.”

            Witnessing a “ghost” is just as “religious” an event as it is “spiritual.” Continue saying that’s not true, if you want, but it cannot and will never actually make you correct.

            Re: “In fact I am wondering if you have a reading comprehension problem.”

            None whatsoever. I fully comprehend your continued unwillingness to admit your “religiosity” in favor of what you call “spirituality.”

            Re: “Those two lists of definitions, while not mutually exclusive are entirely different.”

            Again, and to be clear: The meanings of “religious” and “spirituality” overlap … by quite a lot. Both cover a lot of things. As it turns out, “ghost” is one of those. “Ghosts” are just as “religious” as they are “spiritual.” Claiming to have met a “ghost” is just as “religious” a claim as it is “spiritual.”

            Re: “You just chose to exclusively focus on BELIEF(mind) because your viewpoint EXCLUDES the possibility of SPIRIT (experiential),.”

            You keep spewing this distinction without a difference. Whether you call your meeting with a “ghost” a “belief” or an “experience” absolutely does not matter in any way. A “ghost” is just as “religious” as it is “spiritual.”

            I can’t say enough, apparently, that I fully understand why you’re swerving out of the way of being called “religious.” I get that there are many “religious” people who’ve made “religion” a bad word that folks like yourself don’t want to be associated with. But the solution you propose — which is to spontaneously redefine both “religious” and “spiritual” to your own personal satisfaction — isn’t going to work. It can’t work. You don’t get to redefine words for your own convenience. You just can’t. Thinking you can, is pretty childish, actually.

            What you need to do, instead, is to reassert control over what it means to be “religious.” If there are “religious” people out there making your “religiosity” look bad, rein them in. Bring them to heel. Correct them, discipline them, control them if you need to. If it’s a problem, then get off your ass and fix it already. Just don’t run around telling people like me that you’re “spiritual but not religious.” That you — and others — keep reeling off this lie is getting out of hand.

            I’m not an idiot, and I refuse to buckle to your swindle. If there’s any part of this you don’t understand, then just repeat after me: “Ghosts” are just as “religious” as they are “spiritual.” “Ghosts” are just as “religious” as they are “spiritual.” “Ghosts” are just as “religious” as they are “spiritual.” Got it?

          • tsahpina

            I SUPPORT .Y O U !!!

    • tsahpina

      HAHAHA!!!

    • tsahpina

      ASK NEUROLOGISTS AND PSYCHIATRISTS ABOUT YOUR ‘EXPERIENCES’!!!