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The Baffling Appeal of Being “Spiritual but Not Religious”



David Mills - published on 03/16/16

Real Buddhism would be better, but still not enough

You will have heard the term “spiritual but not religious.” Depending on whose reporting you read, anywhere from one in fifteen to one in four Americans describe themselves this way. My guess is that not so many people use the term, but that it describes a lot of people, including a lot of good churchgoers.

I don’t get it. The idea baffles me. It’s all too vaporous, like one of those fogs you see in a low-lying spot in the woods that disappear when you’re in them. If I’m going to invest myself in anything, I want something I can put my finger on.

What the term means is a little vague. An English writer I just stumbled upon in the reliably anti-religious English newspaper The Guardian admitted that he was one of these people, but then explained: “It’s a maddening phrase, exuding both smug superiority (‘I’m deeper than an atheist but smarter than a believer!’) and new-age credulity of the wind-chimes-cure-cancer variety.”

That’s my impression too.

The Best Versions

His article linked to another in the BBC News magazine. The writer, who seemed sympathetic to the whole thing, tried to explain what being “spiritual but not religious” meant. He didn’t help much.

For many, he said, “it’s simply a ‘feeling’ that there must be something else,” often mixed with “a sense that religion is out of keeping with modern values.” Others talk about “awe and wonder,” the feeling that “life is more than pounds and pence, work, childcare and the rest of the daily grind.” And others talk about “a divine force in nature” and “the awesomeness of life on earth.”

The best versions, by which I mean the most concrete and practical versions, are really popularized versions of Buddhism. One man quoted in the BBC article explained that, “It’s about learning to accept things like impermanence and living in the moment. If you get a glimpse of how happy you can be by embracing the moment, all the chattering of your thoughts stops.”

That makes more sense to me. It’s almost something you can put your finger on. But then the question arises: Why not just be a Buddhist? You’d be joining an ancient religion that has been working everything out for a long, long time, instead of making it up on your own. It’s like heading into your kitchen with a hammer and a saw to rebuild the whole room or getting three old carpenters to help you do it right and teach you while they’re at it.

The reason for not being a real Buddhist is easy to guess. Real Buddhism is a serious religion that makes you do things you don’t want to do.

Buddhist teachings on sexual ethics, explains an Oxford University Press introduction to Buddhist ethics, “appear to express the following ideals: 1) Celibacy is preferable to marriage; 2) for those who marry, the only legitimate forms of sexual conduct are those that are procreative in nature.” It’s apparently also down on contraception. The writer notes the “close and unexpected resemblance between Tibetan Buddhist and traditional Christian teachings on sexual ethics. Certain of the Dalai Lama’s pronouncements could almost have been issued by the Vatican.”

It’s more rigorous and demanding in many other ways as well. So Buddhism’s not going to fly for most spiritual but not religious people. Weirdly enough, it’s too close to Catholicism for them. When the Dalai Lama agrees with the pope, don’t join the Dalai Lama’s religion. Make up your own spirituality.

Spiritual versus Catholic

I don’t see the point of being spiritual without being religious. You try to elevate feelings you already have into something bigger, and you call those elevated feelings “spirituality.” You like the outdoors, so you talk about the divine force in nature and let that divine force take God’s place.

Well, big whoop. So you feel good about the awesomeness of life on earth. What does that really mean? What does it actually get you? How does it change your life? As far as I can tell, the answers are: nothing clear, not much and not noticeably.

Now, Catholicism — there’s a cash-value religion. You can put  your finger on what the Church brings you. It’s a little embarrassing how straightforwardly the Church offers the goodies. She says, basically, “Go to that building over there at 10 on Sunday morning and you’ll meet God, and he’ll give you something you want.”

When the Church talks about the good news, she means something real. She means the forgiveness of sins and meeting Jesus in the Eucharist. She means the friendship and aid of the saints and directions on how to live your life. She means the answer to death. To put it simply, she means things you’d pay for if someone was selling them.

The spiritual but not religious person goes outside and feels that nature is awesome. And then … goes back to his life as it was. The Catholic walks down the aisle and receives the Body of Christ, a medicine and a food that heals him and sustains his life. The second’s such a better deal.

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMillsWrtng.

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