What do people mean when they say, “I’m spiritual but not religious?” The Dalai Lama said, “My only religion is kindness.” John Lennon wanted to imagine “no religion” as part of creating a loving world, and the mystic-leaning Van Morrison sang of “no guru, no method, no teacher”—an idea J. Krishnamurti promoted.
The “New Atheists” (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others) argue that atheists should never politely tolerate religion but should attack it with reason any time it comes up. Those attacks don’t always factor in a key issue—the fact that there are defining differences between religion and spirituality.
Religion—and atheism—can include prejudice and willful blindness but spirituality often means simply studying various philosophical worldviews or doing certain practices (meditation, yoga, etc.) without embracing fixed religious belief systems or dogma.
Sometimes the New Atheists conflate religion with that kind of thoughtful examination. Albert Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
Some with fundamentalist views might take that to bolster the idea of “intelligent design,” but I think Einstein meant something deeper: that the universe itself is a conscious, living being. Today some physicists say we live in a quantum soup of self-organizing consciousness. The New Atheists sometimes equate those who believe in God on a throne in the sky (a Straw God), with people who simply examine in an unbiased way what many physicists propose is the nature of the universe.
A student of Eastern religions’ relationship to the new physics is not identical to a dogmatic True Believer. A centered, non-dogmatic yogi or meditator is not synonymous with any stereotypical “New Ager.” In fact, many so-called New Agers don’t fit common stereotypes.
For productive dialogue we have to move beyond dichotomous thinking. Any reasoned argument New Atheists might present against religion has to be based on a clear definition of terms. Many attacks against spirituality begin with the false assumption that religion and spirituality are one and the same. These attacks are often riddled with weak analogy, appeal to ridicule and other misleading (intentional or otherwise) methods of argument.
Those of us inclined to be spiritual but not religious tend to avoid arguing about religion most of the time, but just as evil wins when good people do nothing, false information prevails when it’s never challenged with fact and reason. Also, it would amount to “group-think” for every spiritual individual to feel compelled to go along with any generalized dictate against engaging in discussion.
Lao Tzu may have said, “Those who speak do not know,” but then again, he spoke. Volumes.
While religion is generally about externals, such as ritual, mores and dogma, spirituality is internal and often independent of such surface concerns. Spirituality is heart-centered and has to do with direct experience of certain interior states and a heightened, nuanced awareness of subtle aspects of the physical body and the world. It’s beyond the scope of this discussion to detail the minutia, but this information has been covered in thousands of books and is easy to find.
Many spiritual-but-not-religious people see compassion, clarity, serving others and intense moment-to-moment presence and attentiveness as priorities. Most of us think atheists are perfectly OK and are as likely to be good, wise and caring as anyone with any belief system. It’s likely that most of us want others to understand what we mean when we express where we are in relation to religious form and dogma. “Religious” and “spiritual-but-not-religious” are two distinctly different things, each with its own precise characteristics. If we want useful dialogue it should start with civility and clarity.