Can you be spiritual but not religious?


More and more, when you ask Americans what creed they profess, they check the box that says “Spiritual But Not Religious.” I think what people mean when they say they’re Spiritual But Not Religious, is they have an inner sense of the divine that they’d prefer to keep to themselves, thank you. I have my spirituality. You have yours. Don’t harsh my vibe with your . . . religion. Spirituality’s all about the inward person, following one’s beatific impulses, one’s true self—all that stuff that Jiminy Cricket talked about. Religion, Religion’s all about rules—white men in robes with hair growing out of their ears forcing you to do something that doesn’t come naturally.

I don’t get it.

Spirituality—whatever that means, it must mean connecting with our best self. And our best self focuses outward. Trouble is, we’re selfish sons of bitches. I’ll take a leap: Original Sin—the focus on one’s self and one’s benefit—is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. Consider history. It’s our self-interest that causes our woes. James 4:1-3: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (Surprised I quote scripture? Don’t be. Nuggets exist amidst the dross—as much as one would expect in any document written by humans. See Does God Speak Through Scripture? Yes and No.)

I’d posit you are the most spiritual when you’re being the most religious—when you’re forcing yourself to do something you’d rather not. The spiritual person isn’t the person who is empowered by God. The spiritual person is the person who swears under his breath about the particular pain in the ass who is monopolizing his study time yet puts down his book and engages in an encouraging conversation, lends a hand. A spiritual person is not the person who is removed from the “cares of this world.” The spiritual person is the person is sees the need and attends to it when they’d prefer not to.

Really what alternative do we have? If God gave you the power to sacrifice, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice. A sacrifice has to cost you something. Turns out, being selfless requires an extreme exertion of the self.

Fittingly—providentially?—that’s the way the universe works. We’re on our own. God doesn’t interact with the world/humans in any meaningful way. Me, I think He doesn’t because He can’t. That’s the nature of God. He is wholly other.

We are left to deal with the pains in the ass that wander into our lives with naught but own wits and gumption. Spiritual forces—if they exist—are unavailable to humankind. We aren’t tuned to that frequency. We are machines made out of meat. You can’t run a material machine on something other than matter—corn flakes and bean sprouts. Supplications and rainbows won’t do the trick. Get off your ass.

So don’t worry about being spiritual. Worry about being more human. But consider yourself warned: It’s damn hard work and God is no help whatsoever.

John Draper is the author of the novel A Danger to God Himself

Photo: Meditating by Take back your health conference’s photostream CC BY 2.0


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John Draper is the author of the novel A Danger to God Himself

4 thoughts on “Can you be spiritual but not religious?

  1. Interesting ideas John…I personally experience spirituality by focusing on the potential positive outcomes of any given situation. As I access the energy of love and forgiveness for myself and others that I carry within, I allow it to guide my actions, experiencing what some may describe as divine guidance. This feeling of connection with a power that defies simple explanation is my “spirituality”, and provides the joy and peace that were sorely lacking in my upbringing as a Catholic. This all encompassing energy is available to every living thing and I am tuned into the frequency, which elevates me beyond “meat machine” status…

  2. John, I always enjoy your thoughts! You have me thinking about so called “spiritual laws,” “natural laws,” “laws of attraction,” “laws of karma,” etc. Because the topic of spirituality is so elusive, I think it helps to consider the possibility of an order in the world whereby, for instance, doing something for someone else is part of a system or order, balance and harmony. Yes, from a physical, animal point of view, we’re all in this world of survival and “getting ours.” However, a common thread in spiritual teachings are ideas of compassion and a kind of natural reciprocity that is achieved by putting others first. The idea being that everyone is taken care of if we’re all givers. I completely understand your points and agree how difficult it is to practice such “laws,” especially when those practitioners are in the minority. We might liken it to school funding or single payer health care/medicare where everyone’s contributing for the benefit of the many. Without those contributors, it all falls apart. Having lived on the east coast and west coast as well as a number of years in Europe, I have first hand experiences with how these “laws” differ from area to area depending on the local, collective consciousness (or perhaps more accurately, Jung’s notion of a “collective unconsciousness”). It’s one of the primary reasons why I believe travel is so expansive and enriching. Go to a different pond with different consciousness and awareness of energies, and life can happen in ways we might define as “magical” or “spiritual” by contrast to our previous experiences in other ponds. I sometimes watch birds and fish in formation, how quickly and uniformly these flocks and schools move together in perfect synchronization. This should surely give us humans a clue as to how we too can sync between ourselves. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if our evolution gradually decreased the use of words with psychic communication being the norm. Sound far fetched? Well, musicians are an obvious group of people who use use their psychic abilities regularly. Well-seasoned bands know exactly what it means to have that sort of unspoken ability to communicate with each other. Do we call this phenomenon “spirituality?” We might also just consider it to be a more peak human experience based on humans actively participating in hitting those high notes together. A kind of synergy where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Fascinating discussion!

    • Eric, good thoughts. Just yesterday I was listening to the podcast On Being during my noon walk. Are you familiar with On Being? Well, yesterday’s podcast was an interview with a Vietnamese monk about mindfulness and sending out positive energy. He was giving a retreat to a group of police officers and even those police officers learned to engender positive responses from the people they’d encounter during their daily work by having a positive intent. Not too sure if this is a “system” or “law” created by God. It can’t just be self-existent, though, can it?

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