Why I am not “spiritual but not religious”

Woo Woo Mystical Energy

When I was in college and did a lot of LSD (that’s ok to admit these days, right? I mean, it was more than 20 years ago), I gained a real appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the world around me. I was a cognitive science major, and already had a deep appreciation for computational complexity and the profound nature of systems theory: the way large swarms of simple interacting parts could give rise to patterned behavior, the way that simple evolutionary programming rules could produce programs and robots of amazing complexity, the astounding computational power of neural networks.

But while on LSD, that intellectual understanding was transformed into a strong emotional sense–a feeling of awe. I would watch flocks of birds move in the sky, or the pattern of ivy growing on our red brick house on the fraternity quad, and I would be filled with joy and amazement! All of this pattern, all of this complexity, is the product of billions of amazingly simple rules of interaction operating together! And I am part of that complexity, intimately connected with all of the things around me! I am a part of this glorious dynamic pattern that is the universe. Experiencing the universe this way was stunning, and beautiful, and from time to time it brought tears to my eyes.

Once the drugs left my system, that emotional appreciation for the universe still remained. Oh, sure: drugs can exaggerate your feelings and make you attach emotional importance to ridiculous things. Anyone who has experimented to any degree with hallucinogenic drugs has had the experience of thinking, “I’ve just had the most profound thought ever!” and writing it down, only to find the next day that the piece of paper says “Caramel birds, and the thing that goes whoosh. Colors, too!”  (or something equally senseless).

One of the lessons that artificial neurochemical stimulation can teach is that the parts of the brain responsible for feeling enlightened and the parts of the brain responsible for being enlightened are… well, completely separate and unrelated to one another.

Nonetheless! That powerful sense of wonderment at the “magic” and mystery of the universe, the sheer beauty and power of mathematics and patterns, never left me. It has given me a strong emotional attachment to the mathematics and mechanics of the physical universe around me, and a very personal appreciation for the vastness of the human mind.

The feeling of wonderment

This is an article about spirituality, but I decided to start out talking about emotions because emotions are what most people talk about when I ask them why they feel “spiritual but not religious.”

I’ve had many of these conversations, trying to find out exactly what people mean when they describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, and more specifically trying to discover what the word “spiritual” means to them. Honestly, it’s tough to delve deep into this issue with people without coming off a little bit like a dick. There’s only so many times you can say “But why do you think that?” before they need to go to the bathroom to “freshen up”, or leave you to refill their drink at the bar.

But on those occasions when people do play along, the conversation usually ends up at feelings. People have strong feelings of purpose, strong feelings of beauty, strong feelings of morality, and strong feelings of design. And it is on the basis of these strong feelings that these people–people who otherwise have completely rejected the trappings of structured religion and traditional theology–will hedge away from simple atheism.

“No, no!” they will say, “I’m not an atheist!”

“I feel beauty… so I’m spiritual.”

“I feel purpose… so I’m spiritual.”

“I feel wonder and mystery… so I’m spiritual.”

“I feel like the universe is vast and great… so I’m spiritual.”

I started out this story by talking about emotions, because I wanted to let you all know: I feel beauty, purpose, wonder, and mystery, as well. I also feel that there is a deep and powerful interconnectedness in all of nature. I sometimes feel that the entire cosmos is vast and great and larger than myself. I even feel that it can be viewed as a gigantic complex dynamic systems with multiple-hierarchical feedback loops that almost certainly bear resemblance to those systems that we describe as having consciousness!

But I’m still not spiritual.

The myth of the boring atheist

I have a suspicion about many of you: you people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”  I think you are secretly like me. I think you don’t believe in unicorns or gnomes or souls or gods, but you want to be open to a feeling of awe about something greater than yourself in the universe. You want to be open to a feeling of majesty and wonder.

And you think that being an atheist would cut you off from being able to feel those things.

This is partly because many people think of atheists as being boring and unemotional. They imagine mechanical, robotic, Spock-like people saying things like “that is illogical” and “rationality is the only way to truth.”

And to be fair, lots of atheists do fit that stereotype: robotic voices and all.

Now, I’m not the first person to point out that we need better atheists in the public spotlight. There was even a recent CNN special in which some overly academic-sounding atheists pontificated about the fact that we need more diversity among publicly visible atheists. But whether it’s the obnoxious mockery of Bill Maher or the mechanical-sounding drone of your local atheist Internet Commenter going on about which logical fallacies everyone is guilty of, the most well-known atheist voices tend to not be a particularly empathetic lot.

Which is a shame, because there are many of us who are filled with wonder, and passion, and emotion. There are many of us who love deeply, and cry when we see a gorgeous sunset, and say WOW ISN’T THAT THE MOST AMAZING THING?! when we experience a perfect view from a mountaintop, or a particular pattern of frost on the windowsill.

There are also many of us who have a deep and profound respect for history, culture, and symbolism. Many cultural anthropologists are atheists. You will not find those atheists parroting the mechanical stereotypical lines about how “religion should simply be abolished” or “all rituals are conformist nonsense”.

Many of us revel in the beauty of long-standing rituals and meaning that can arise from history and culture.  Many religious rituals have a deep and profound connection with the body, and with the inner workings of the human mind: certain actions, sounds, and words resonate with human beings for a reason. We should not deny or decry physical and symbolic rituals.

I, for one, would never want to get rid of “religion” wholesale… even if I believed such a thing were possible. This is a lesson that my mother taught me years ago: religion is deeply entwined with what it means to be human, and you don’t just “take it out” without thinking hard about what will go in its place.

Don’t get your “spirit” in my “natural”….

Now you might say to me: If you gasp with a sense of awe at the power and vastness of the universe, you feel that the universe is a large system that manifests some properties of consciousness, and you even have a respect for religious symbolism and the importance and value of ritual practices….. then why the hell don’t you describe yourself as spiritual, Greg????

The answer is simple: I don’t believe in the supernatural.

Or as I like to call it, “spiritnatural” … since it really isn’t all that super.

To me, this goes beyond merely not believing in gnomes, dragons, souls or gods. It means I don’t believe in “fate”, and I don’t believe in “ultimate purposes“. I don’t believe in substance dualism or “cosmic energy” or magic… well, except in the psychological sense of ritual wonderment that we create for ourselves.

I’m not opposed to using some of the fancy-pants spiritual language, from time to time in casual conversation, by the way. But when I use those terms, I probably don’t mean the same thing that you do when you use the words, if you consider yourself “spiritual.”

For example: I can use the term “purpose of life”, but when I say it I’m not talking about some external spirit-being or “cosmic force” driving us, intentionally and deliberately, to a desired end. I simply mean that life is about creating purpose, and in a lot of ways I believe that the entire function of life is the creation and fulfillment of individual purpose. To me, that’s the “purpose of life.”

Similarly, I believe in “karma” and “good vibes”, but it has nothing to do with cosmic woo-woo energy or some kind of ultimate ephemeral moral “balancer” in the universe. No: I believe in “good vibes” in the purely mechanistic and socio-psychological sense: when you are a good person who behaves in an appealing way, then good people will be drawn to you and will do nice things around you. It’s not mysticism, it’s just basic psychology.

And you can, too!

Here is the real reason I’m sharing this with you today: If you consider yourself “spiritual but not religious”, I’d like you to take a moment and just absorb–meditate on, if you will–this image that I’ve described of the happy, joyous atheist who is filled with wonderment and a feeling of connection to the universe. That type of atheist is real. And it could be you.

Now, you might sincerely believe in gnomes or unicorns or reincarnation or “cosmic energy”; and if you do, I wish you well and I have no desire to change your mind!

But I think many of you who call yourselves “spiritual but not religious” are secretly like me. You don’t believe in the supernatural at all… you are simply afraid to let go of the words and the trappings of spirituality because you are afraid it will cut you off from a feeling of wonder and purpose that is greater than yourself.

So if you are the type of person who hedges when it comes to supernatural claims… if you are the type of person who says, “I believe in reincarnation if by that you mean some kind of energy moves between living things” or “I believe in God if by that you mean some kind of thing or force that exists in the universe somewhere somehow“… if you find that you want to hang onto wonder and mystery, but can’t quite get yourself to embrace the supernatural, then my message is for you.

You can be an atheist, and still feel all of those things. Being an atheist doesn’t have to mean you end up a miserable bitter drunk like Christopher Hitchens was, or a lunatic bitch like Dawkins.

You can be wide-eyed and filled with mirth and joy; you can be astounded at the great mystery and magnificence of the universe; you can care about the power and importance of emotions, symbols, traditions; and you can feel overpowered with the incomprehensibility of it all…

All of that, and you can still call yourself an atheist.

Don’t be scared. It’s ok. I promise.

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  1. Brian F O'Neil says:

    I love especially the part early on about being part of nature and all that surrounds us. I have always been puzzled by those who say that alone in nature they feel insignificant. I don’t. I feel like it’s all mine. It isn’t “all mine”, that sort of negates the point…lol..but I think you know what I mean.

  2. First of all, this is a great article. I appreciate everything you had to say, and thank you for allowing me to share my opinion on your platform.

    I consider myself to be “Spiritual But not Religious. And I also consider myself as a Spiritual Freethinker: in the event that I evaluate evidence from different sources and pair it with my personal Life experience to draw my own conclusions. For freethinking is not about the conclusion you come to. It is about the process that caused you to come to that conclusion.

    In the beginning, I often wondered if I was using this term to sugarcoat my atheism. But then I realized that the word “Atheist” is simply too dry for me. It reminds me of a dried up prune that has been left out in the sun for too long. It often lacks juice. However, you have challenged me with your belief in the event that you seem to be wide open to what I would call “spiritual experiences.”

    Spirituality is the juice that energizes me. It is how I define the quality of my personal Life experience. It is my love affair with consciousness through meditation. Spirituality is everything and anything you want it to be.

    I do not believe in a man-god at all. If anything, I believe man is god. However, I cannot deny the fact that I constantly experience a level of transcendence, or “energy,” if you will, that showers over me and flows through my body like a great cosmic fountain. This presence, this essence, permeates every cell of my body as I relax and align with it.

    I can understand how many people could experience something similar and say that it is God. This is because the experience is beyond every day human consciousness for most people. But for someone who explores consciousness, energy, or how neurological connections happen in the brain, this experience becomes a scientific technique that becomes easier and easier with practice.

    For me, atheism cannot define my spirituality. And religion cannot define my spirituality. Spirituality is an abstract word that is as unique as the individual. The problem I have with religion and atheism is that both sides are “often” eager to say what’s possible and not possible for someone. When in reality, what both sides are reporting, is what they believe is possible and not possible for them as individuals.

    When we don’t see what someone else sees, we say they are hallucinating. When we don’t hear what someone else hear’s, we say they are hearing things. Some people can draw really well, and others can’t. Some people can sing really well, and others can’t. Just because one person doesn’t know how to do something, doesn’t mean it’s not possible for someone else.

    Spirituality, for me, is about believing in myself more than I believe in anything. I am my own scientist, and my own lab rat: and my body is my laboratory. Through my spiritual practices, I am able to conduct different experiment that alters the chemistry of my physiology.

    To understand the “Spiritual But not Religious,” is to understand art. It’s often abstract, and it means different things to different people. Some people speak of energy, while others speak of angels, and fairies. But who cares?

    The reason why most people have a problem with this is because we live in a world that wants you to clearly define who you are and what you believe, by putting yourself inside of a black or white box with finite labels on it. The world is not as black and white as our logical brains would like us to believe.

    Religion and Atheism “often” (not always) displays an unspoken doctrine that tends to write off people’s personal experiences. It often insist that we need to join some type of philosophical team in order to be taken serious. Therefore, I reject all dogma, that comes from any side of town if that dogma goes against my personal experience.

    However, if there are parts of different dogmas that harmonize with what I’ve experienced for myself, then so be it.

    I’m spiritual, because I do experience an alignment with a source that “appears” to be bigger than this little me that’s manifested as this physical body. However, I’m not religious, because connecting with this energy or source has nothing to do with stories of virgin births, or someone getting nailed on a cross to die for something wrong I did or didn’t do. And it has nothing to do with spending my Life experience worshiping a man-god that lives beyond time and space somewhere.

    I understand why many atheist shy away from spirituality, or the spiritual language of souls, fate, ultimate purpose, and meaning; it’s largely do to what religion had to say about these subjects that are such a turnoff.

    When I find myself getting so caught up on words, I remind myself that every word is defined by other words that are defined by other words. In other words, there is no word that is the ultimate truth.

    “Spiritual But Not Religious” is just an abstract term that I feel best describes my abstract experience of what we call reality. It might be better stated, “I’m Not Religious But I’m Not Atheist.

    Robbie Cornelius
    “Spiritual Free Thinker”

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Thank you for your great comment! I love your personal story. I understand exactly why you use these terms the way you do…. A part of me only wishes that people like you WOULD embrace the term atheist…. To perhaps reform what that word means to people! 🙂

      Thanks again for your comment.

  3. Wes says:

    Love the topic, personally I see atheists use “agnostic” or “spiritual” the same way closeted gay guys use the word bi-sexual… it’s like a stepping stone that they don’t feel is as threatening to those who they otherwise feel would reject them… it’s all about self esteem. I don’t think I’ve met an atheist that really feels any different than you do in terms of spirituality. They’re just afraid of coming out of the closet.

  4. nJ says:

    I enjoyed this article and agree with many points that you have described. I truly believe that many people tend to hide behind a label that they do not fully understand or endorse – simply latching onto a vague comprehension of a word, or relying on an emotion that they find themselves too lazy to explain logically.

    Spirituality is an interesting topic and teases the inner child within me to dabble in semantics. Spirituality really does not have one exclusive definition, but is generally regarded as having to do with some type of personal transformation. Spirituality has been traditionally associated with allegiances to supernatural belief systems, mysticism, and even pseudoscience, on some occasions. This is akin to how religion has commonly been linked to belief in the supernatural and individuals that claim to be religious are assumed to follow some form of deity.

    However, there could exist a scientific spirituality, if you may. As an individual acquires new information, a new pattern can become discernable. The individual may then be able to link together this pattern with pre-existing patterns, contributing to the formation of a new and logical understanding of a certain subject/phenomenon. New understanding of a topic can then lead the individual to alter his/her behavior and viewpoints, effectively transforming the individual into a new state — therefore, resulting in personal transformation. Spirituality and logic do not have to be mutually exclusive. Furthermore, if spirituality is achieved through logic, it also does not mean that logic will be completely devoid of emotion, especially when one considers that senses of awe and wonderment (deep contemplation) drive many scientific endeavors to begin with.

    The instant atheist knee-jerk to the term “spirituality”, while understandable, is not obligatory.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Thanks for your comment, nJ!

      And I like the idea of evolving the word “spirituality” to mean simply “personal transformation”. That certainly does seem to be in line with the way some people use it: as signifier of their identity, and the way they see themselves emotionally and from the perspective of personal growth.

      But…. what worries me about this usage is that–as you said–it’s by no means the way the term is universally understood. For many people (maybe most people? but that’s hard to tell) the term “spiritual” contains at least some overtones of supernaturalism.

      So for me, I worry about the trade-off that’s going on. It feels kind of like saying “I’m using this word that will lead to many people misunderstanding what I mean… because the word itself makes me feel better.”

      To me, that’s very similar to people who say “I believe in God, but all I mean by ‘God’ is the sum total of the forces in the universe.”

      That strikes me as a generally bad practice, destined to lead to confusion. It’s clinging on to a word that means to many people something different than what YOU mean… for no better reason than attachment to the word.

      Does that make sense? I might be misunderstanding you… but this is my first reaction to the way you describe “atheistic spirituality” here.

      • nJ says:

        Hi Greg,

        Yes, you bring up good points.

        Despite the inevitable confusion that the phrase “atheistic spirituality” would cause, I believe that it is an important idea to consider and defend, if the circumstances merit it. Atheists certainly have the right to openly take ownership of the term spirituality, even though the term is generally associated with that which atheists abhor.

        You could relate this to whether a person should say that they are religious, or belong to a religion, when they, in fact, belong to an atheistic religion. The act of negating religiosity could, in effect, be giving authority to theistic religions over a word – privilege to those with supernatural beliefs. There would be no good reason to do this, as religion does not have to be exclusively tied to the supernatural, despite the common association of the two. However, given these facts, should an atheist rebuke certain adjectives, such as religious? I do not believe so.

        • Greg Stevens says:

          Wow… you ABSOLUTELY got me on that one! I agree completely.

          I’m a big advocate of groups like the Satanic Temple trying to push into public awareness the idea of atheistic religion. I agree that we need people to embrace the idea of atheistic religions for both personal philosophical reasons AND (separately but in conjunction) for political reasons. But you are absolutely correct: this means I’m advocating for a PUSH against many people’s common conception of the word “religion.” I am, therefore, fully prepared to accept that sometimes we should use words in an activist way, to deliberately try to shape culture and usage in a particular direction.

          OK… you’ve convinced me! I still think I will–for myself–be very cautious about using the term “spiritual” for myself, and will likely only do so when I am also able to make a specific point of explaining how I’m using it and why. But I definitely am willing to go along with the idea of promoting a secular usage of the word “spiritual” when the opportunity arises. 🙂

  5. As a matter of fact, I’ve often pondered about this topic a fair bit in my life as question of ‘theist, atheist, spiritual, karma’ often gets laid out on the coffee table among me and friends.

    Personally, I do not have a ‘belief system’ even if you were to ask ‘Do you believe in atheism’ – because I do not conform to the need to BELIEVE in any ‘ism’ or system. As you well put it, I have emotions, good feelings/vibes, attraction to things, awe towards how it all happens but my ‘reaction’ is more ‘mechanical scientific amused’ than ‘spiritually connected’.

    After all by logics to connect to spirits I need a spirit or soul and I am yet to be ‘convinced’ about the entire soul logic. I do not deny that I don’t quite understand ‘death’ per say but for me it is all mechanical with a ‘use by date’ and many of it amuses me, makes me wonder and often day dream but I still struggle to ‘believe’ – instead I often just ‘experience’ and ‘enjoy’ what is happening around me and my questioning and reasoning is more from ‘technically’ how does this happen, than ‘what power makes it happen’.

    If what I m saying makes sense at all!

    Inspire Progress

    Szebastian Onne

    • Greg Stevens says:

      I think it makes sense for you to say you are more focused on “how do things work?” than “what power made it happen”… it’s a very practical stance. My partner, Jon, actually is very much like that. He loves me for my intellectual quirks and philosophical attitude, but he is complementary to me in this way: he is the practical one, the engineer, the businessman. I’m the artist-philosopher, between the two of us!

      I will quibble about one thing you said, though: You DO have a “belief system”! Of course you do. It is your own, unique to you. Just because it isn’t a system or “ism” doesn’t mean you don’t have a worldview! 🙂

  6. rocko says:

    Harsh words for Dawkins, man.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      I know. LOL.

      I actually have mixed feelings about Dawkins. He’s written some amazing stuff, and been really influential. But he’s also written some very dopey stuff… especially on social media.

      In any case, I know that sentence about Hitchens and Dawkins was probably more harsh than it needed to be. If anything, though, I think it reflects how SOME people perceive the “abrasive atheist” type.

  7. DD says:

    It’s refreshing that you are so open-minded as an atheist but trust me when I say most atheists are not like that. I have a lot of interaction with atheists online and they are always very closed minded and a little too certain that they know everything if you know what I mean.

Pings to this post

  1. […] Era philosopher born 400 years too late. I really am! I’m an atheist who is filled with awe and wonder at the world around me. I see humanity as full of potential and beauty. I firmly believe that all […]

  2. […] other. Well, that’s not completely right: space has been made in our culture for the “spiritual but not religious” crew: those metaphysical in-betweeners for whom the organized cultural trappings of religion […]

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