The real reason “Spiritual but not religious” is a cop-out

Recently I ran across a blog post with the title My Take: “I’m spiritual but not religious” is a cop-out. I read the post with interest because I’ve often thought this very thing: that claiming to be “spiritual” isn’t an answer to a question about one’s religious beliefs, but rather a way to avoid the question while sounding like one has put some thought into it.

Sadly, the post almost immediately devolves into unverifiable, baseless generalizations. For example: 

Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent – by choosing an “individual relationship” to some concept of “higher power”, energy, oneness or something-or-other – they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.

Whoa, what now? That’s a bold statement. And it doesn’t appear at the end of a chain of rigorous reasoning or citation of studies about beliefs; it’s just thrown out there, as if it’s a brute fact of reality. The author follows this up with all manner of other vague and unsupported statements, somehow managing in an 800-word blog post to attack moral relativism, a culture centered on “feelings,” and megachurches — and going on to defend “old fashioned” values and the King James Bible (which has done all right for 400 years without his support, thank you very much).

Hidden in that rhetorical avalanche are two short paragraphs that I think actually come close to dealing with the matter at hand:

The trouble is that “spiritual but not religious” offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind.

What is it, this “spiritual” identity as such? What is practiced? What is believed?

The problem, as these paragraphs indicate, isn’t that “spiritual but not religious” is a bad answer to the question “what are your religious beliefs?” (as Miller seems to argue in the rest of the post) but rather that it’s a non-answer

Imagine a group of plane crash survivors stranded on an island, debating the best way to get off the island. Some argue that the best way is to build a signal fire. Others argue that they should try to build a raft. Still others say that trying to get off the island is a waste of time; that they should focus their efforts on basic survival. Finally one person pipes up with, “Well, I don’t agree with any of you, but I definitely think we’re on an island.”

The man isn’t wrong, but his answer doesn’t get them anywhere. It doesn’t add anything to the discussion. It’s just an acknowledgement of the predicament. And worse, it’s an answer that seems calculated to put the speaker above or outside of the arena of discussion: “Have your petty disagreements amongst yourself; meanwhile I will sit here and contemplate the ocean surrounding us.”

Let me clarify that I’m not saying that the “spiritual but not religious” person is being intentionally smug or provocative, but that this is how is answer is going to be received by people who have been pulling their hair out trying to figure out a way off the island. It could be that he has already considered and rejected as wanting all possible attempts to get off the island and possesses some knowledge about the island that the other survivors aren’t privy to. But if so, then he’s doing a disservice to the other survivors by not sharing his knowledge. And if not, then he’s just wasting their time by pointing out the obvious.

The “spiritual but not religious” label points to three possibilities, as far as I can see:

1. The person has done a thorough study of the world’s religions, found them wanting, and took a different path.

2. The person is largely ignorant of religious beliefs but has been blessed with a mystical understanding that allows him or her to see the shortcomings of any “man-made” religion, and took a different path.

3. The person is largely ignorant of religious beliefs, has no real wisdom to offer, and is parroting an answer that he or she has heard various celebrities use in interviews with some success. 

Without lapsing into pure cynicism, I’ll point out that (1) requires a lot of work, and (2) requires that the person be able to see a reality that is evidently hidden to most of the world’s traditional religious believers, whereas (3) requires only pure ignorance, which is in bountiful supply on this planet.

Of course, answering a question about religious beliefs by saying “I’m a Baptist,” “I’m Jewish,” or “I’m an atheist,” isn’t any more inherently difficult than saying “I’m spiritual but not religious.” In other words, there are lazy and ignorant Baptists, Jews and atheists as well as lazy and ignorant “spiritual-but-not-religious” people. Some Baptists have thought long and hard about what they believe and why. Others are just parroting answers they learned in Sunday school. But to their credit, at least they are answering the question.

Further, it seems odd to me that “spiritual but not religious” is such a common answer to the question about one’s religious beliefs. If you really want me to believe that you’ve made a deliberate choice to walk the road less traveled, then you might try giving a different answer to a question about your religious beliefs than that given by, say, Lady Gaga. Otherwise, aren’t you just a Gagaist? What’s the difference between you and every other “spiritual but not religious” person? If there is a difference, then tell me what it is. If there isn’t, then you’re just a member of another vaguely defined religion.

If you are asked about your religious and you don’t really have any religious beliefs, I suggest saying, “I don’t really have any religious beliefs.” If you have some vague belief that people have souls and that there are bad consequences to immoral behavior, say that. If you think that we’re all part of the Great Mystical Oneness, then say that. Saying that you’re “spiritual” doesn’t communicate anything. And saying that you’re “not religious” only communicates that while you may not know what the answer is, you suspect that most of the answers other people have come up with are wrong, or at least deficient.

You might have some really interesting thoughts about God, souls, sin, redemption, justice, forgiveness, love, purpose and oneness. But if you start out by saying that you’re “spiritual but not religious,” I’m going to seriously doubt it.