Spiritual But Not Religious — a Defense of

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This is a response to a recent article on Medium by Vanessa Torre, who says that she is ditching the term “spiritual but not religious” and asks what it even means. She says that she no longer knows; it seems no different to saying that she belongs to a particular religion. What follows is not intended as criticism, rather some friendly observations, which might start a conversation.

Her first complaint is that “it seems like a weird kind of religious cherry-picking”; it’s for people who “are just too afraid to commit to any one concept or religion”. She continues: “People that say they’re spiritual but not religious have a tendency to believe in a mishmash of religions, taking out of them the good stuff and leaving behind the bad”. This is put in very large print, and therefore seems intended as a criticism. However, I would say that is the whole point of being spiritual. It is very hard to commit to one particular religion precisely because of the perceived faults in each of them. What exactly is wrong with taking out the good stuff and leaving behind the bad? For example, I consider myself to be a sort of Christian, albeit a weird one that most Christians wouldn’t recognise as such. On the whole I find Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Kabbalah etc. more meaningful than what the Christian churches teach. (I wouldn’t want to follow any of these exclusively, however.) I don’t think that there is much wrong with Christianity as it was originally intended, but think that the Churches have distorted, or have at least failed to understand, that original meaning. So I may be critical of the various religious traditions within Christianity, but I still believe in its spiritual truth.

Ms. Torre meditates, but does not want to get bogged down in Buddhist teachings. She then says that people who think like that say “we’re spiritual, but not religious”, as if that were some kind of cop-out. But that is the whole point. Meditators engage in, and enjoy, spiritual practice, but aren’t necessarily interested in the accompanying ideas. How is that not spiritual but not religious?

In similar vein, she notes that people who don’t like the rituals and rules of Christianity or Judaism, might reject them and call themselves “spiritual, but not religious”, as if that were a cop-out. Again, that is the whole point of being spiritual. These rituals and rules are part of the exoteric side of religion. There is nothing wrong with them, if an individual finds satisfaction in them, but the spiritual seeker is looking for a transformation of consciousness, which, I believe, is the true meaning of the word religion. The churches seem to have forgotten that, however, if they ever knew.

She says: “I am on a path of exploring my faith and trying to figure out what I believe”. She has therefore begun a personal quest, so I would say, she has begun her spiritual journey, in the sense of moving beyond religion. She then says something that I find strange: “Being religious does not mean you have to go to a church or any other house of worship… That frees me to move beyond spiritual and into religious”. I would say the exact opposite; she has freed herself from the Christian religion, and can move beyond into spirituality.

At the next point in her article I start to feel more in tune with her. She says: “At some point in our lives, we need to figure out what we believe… We can’t run around saying we’re spiritual and not take a minute to understand what we mean by spiritual. Declaring myself as merely spiritual means I haven’t given enough thought to what I hold as truth. How can I declare that I believe in a spiritual self without understanding what that spirit self means?” Here she is saying that some people seem to use the word ‘spiritual’ too freely, without really contemplating what it means. If that is the case, then it would indeed be a good idea to study more deeply; I would recommend cherry-picking among the great spiritual traditions.

She further says: “There will be many different ways in which people interpret any one religion. We do not need to commit to a certain sect, denomination, or church in order to be religious”. This is an interesting point. I would ask, would these denominations accept her if she has a different interpretation to theirs? She would call herself religious without being attached to any religious tradition, which is what I would call being spiritual but not religious. It sounds as though she wants to be an individual and find her own way, very spiritual indeed.

She worries that she might spend her whole life believing in something that is not true, i.e. the Bible. There are many criticisms that can be made of the Bible, as several generations of scholars have revealed. There is also the question of the theology that the Church has superimposed upon it. There may well be some good things in it, however, given the influence that it has exerted down the centuries. Why not adopt a spiritual approach, study it, and come up with one’s own personal understanding of it?

She says that “being a Jewish-Christian-Buddhist is not going to help us figure out our spiritual truth”. Maybe not. But being a Hindu-Buddhist-Christian-Sufi-Kabbalist-Gnostic-NativeAmerican-Pagan just might.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, Christianity, psychology, science, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Graham Pemberton

Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com