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Mike Haubrich, FCD

It's even more irritating when I hear Christians disclaim religiosity by saying "I'm not religious, I have a personal relationship with Jesus." This person is smug to the ultimate, because they deny the role of church to get them to believe that they can in fact have a personal relationship with the Son of the Most Powerful Spiritual Being Ever.

They are still putting on the defensive "Oh, but I am not like them" pose, while insisting on living according to an independent interpretation of scripture.

And how would they get that without religion? I am clueless, I guess.


Just for an alternate viewpoint, I tend to use "spiritual" to mean feeling a strong connection with the so-called mundane world, a feeling of awe at what we can actually see, with maybe some wonder and curiosity at all that we have not yet seen. There doesn't seem to be another English word that captures that feeling; at least I haven't found one.

Unfortunately, the word is sufficiently vague that it can also run the whole gamut from new age spaciness to dogmatic religiosity to simple appreciation of this world. So perhaps we need a new word.


I think the interpretation of "spiritual" is too vague to properly attack. It can mean many things.

Besides, on the flip-side, what do Atheists mean by "good"? I often hear Atheists make the claim that "Atheists can still be good people", without any backing of that. I agree that they can.

But I'm also fine with them not backing up "good", even though it's something that should be thought out by the individual. It's not something that can be empirically tested, and sometimes people don't feel like going into it.


Here in the Netherlands, some people have started to use the word "somethingism" ("ietsisme" in Dutch). This of course refers to the often-heard "I'm not religious, but I believe there is something." Common variants are believing that there is "something more", or "something higher". You never get to hear what that "something" is, of course.

I have to admit, I kinda like this new word. Don't care much for the philosophy it refers to, though.


"I think the interpretation of "spiritual" is too vague to properly attack. It can mean many things."

For the same reason, one might think, it can't be properly defended either, and really is a rather useless word on the whole. Why not try to think through what one really means then, whenever one feel tempted to use a word that is so vague it really can mean almost anything?

Paul Crowley

"whenever one feel tempted to use a word that is so vague it really can mean almost anything"

And especially whenever one feel tempted to use a word that is so vague it really can mean almost anything, but which has positive connotations.


I approve of that -- people ought to think through their beliefs, no doubt.

Again, though, I'll use the "Good" analogy. Stating "Atheists can be good without religion" requires one, if they're being rigorous, to define what good is, as well as what atheism means, as it has no organization to solidify every atheists beliefs. Good is the end in all ethical discussion, so it doesn't necessitate support as to the definition, but similarly, in theological questioning, spirituality is considered an "ends" -- does someone really have to break down their belief structure every time its brought up in conversation to make a statement as to what it generally is?

Generically, I'd say it can mean a host of things, so it's difficult to attack because of that -- similar to atheism -- but making a statement of "not-athiest" (which is really all that's saying) is sometimes all a person's thought through, and that's the most honest answer they can give, because that's where their thoughts have taken them at this present moment in time.

So, I'd say it's not bad to say, because it's a generalization, as most colloquial sayings are, and generalizations are sometimes useful in day-to-day conversation to inform individuals of a generic stance. I'd also say it's not bad to use, because atheists use it, and I have no problem with people declaring their atheism, even if they are technically agnostic, and just don't feel like going into the distinction between the two (which can also vary from individual to individual).


Going from being a member of a religion to a "spiritual" position is still a big step. It is often an intermediary between religious and agnostic. For me, going from being agnostic to being even more strongly agnostic-- an atheist (see "The God Delusion" for a discussion I much agree with)-- was a bigger and harder step. For me, it took time, motivation, and study-- I lived in "spiritual" land for a long while, and in "agnostic" land for even longer.

So, while I do agree with your analysis, there's so much thinking that must change in order to be ok with denying the supernatural and all that supposed comfort that it can take time and effort to see that spirituality isn't well-founded.

I think it's important to remember that it's difficult to change one's whole understanding just isn't easy, and some people must progress in graduations.

Greta Christina
Just for an alternate viewpoint, I tend to use "spiritual" to mean feeling a strong connection with the so-called mundane world, a feeling of awe at what we can actually see, with maybe some wonder and curiosity at all that we have not yet seen. There doesn't seem to be another English word that captures that feeling; at least I haven't found one.

Qalmlea: FWIW, the word I usually use to mean that is "transcendent." It has the literal meaning of "exceeding usual limits" or "extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience." It has the connotations of ecstasy and a feeling of connection with something larger than yourself. It's an experience that can be both religious and secular, so both religious and secular people can identify with it, and it can therefore show to believers that this experience can be had without religious belief.

And it doesn't have the root word of "spirit," which IMO makes the word "spiritual" very hard to salvage.

Greta Christina

FUG, I simply don't agree with your premise. Most of the atheists I know can and do, when pressed, provide a definition of what they mean by "good": a rough sketch of one if succinctness is called for, a more thorough and nuanced one if there's time and space.

My own rough- sketch one would be along the lines of, "Acting to alleviate the suffering and enhance the joy and well- being of others, not primarily motivated by self- interest." (I realize that's somewhat simplistic, but it'll have to do for now, as I don't have time at the moment to write out something more complex and nuanced.)


most people who claim this nonsense have no idea what they really believe and will configure their "beliefs" to whatever is popular at the moment. We have far too many of these ditzes on the WWGHA forums right now.

Spiritual is the wrong word if you want to talk about things that aren't supernatural. I can say I am "awestruck", "connected" etc by and to the natural world without ever invoking some magical idea. I very much like Greta's "transcendent". And defining good is easy. It's what causes the greatest benefit to mankind, the person, etc. I can say I'm an atheist and I'm good becuase I do what I can to benefit myself and others.

The physical world is anything but mundane.

This is one of my personal bêtes noires: when people complain that materialists think that thought and emotion are "merely" chemical reactions, or that the universe is "merely" matter, it's like complaining that the works of every writer who ever lived are "merely" ink stains on paper; or that every concert, every profession of love, every order barked in battle is "merely" clumps of compressed air molecules.

Yes, there are only a few constituent ingredients, but there's nothing "mere" about the results.

cognitive dissident

GC, you make a great point about "mundane" existence--as does commenter arensb about ink stains and compressed air. Penn Jillette’s “This I Believe” essay ( touches on a similar idea:

"Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have."

My atheistic life isn't empty of meaning because there's no sky-daddy god watching over me--it's full beyond belief.


I have to say the same as Greta, I won't get into it very deeply, since I am busy doing my taxes (it's hard enough on my poor brain). I do not see "good and bad" as concepts which exists independently of human beings, and they are not absolutes. It is what we call behavior that, just as Greta mentions above, alleviates respectively enhances suffering in others (to be very simplistic, yes). Why we do good is explained well by evolution, I think. It can be explained in natural ways, and that does not in any way demean the importance of it, or the greatness of it.

It isn't really of the same vagueness as the concept of spirituality, I would say.


You say "Most", so is that all? Are the ones who are still working things out for themselves then in the wrong for declaring themselves "Atheists"? I would say no, and I would say that it's a similar situation to the "Spiritualist" -- the only difference residing in the fact that one says "Yes" and the other says "No" to the question of God's existence, as they both have to work out a working ethical frame-work for themselves, and that takes a good amount of time and reflection.

Also, @ vel, I disagree with the ease of defining "Good": While the utilitarian approach lends itself well to a secular position, I completely disagree with it. I am not the only non-theist who disagrees with it: Nietzsche being a good example, as he's never associated with pro-theological thought.

Greta Christina

FUG. I see your point. But I still don't agree with it. For one thing, while having a clear sense of what it means to be good is important to any atheist (and to anyone, for that matter), it's not necessarily a central defining issue of being an atheist. (There are, for instance, a handful of atheist idiots who insist that atheism does imply that we have no moral code and that altruism is a lie). A better analogy would be an atheist who can't tell you how they define being an atheist -- and I haven't met any for whom that's true.

Also, in my experience, atheists who can't explain what they mean by "good" are rare. But people who say they're "spiritual but not religious," but can't explain what they mean by "spiritual," are so common that I consider it a defining aspect of the trope.


Rather more importantly, I think the "spiritual but not religious" trope completely plays into the idea that religious belief -- excuse me, spiritual belief -- makes you a finer, better person. There's a defensiveness to it: like what the person is really saying is, "I don't attend any religious services or practice any religious practice... but I'm not a bad person. Of course I still feel a connection to God/ the soul. I haven't totally descended to the gutter. What do you take me for?"


I just wanted to underscore that point because it's so true, and so important. People who say they're "spiritual but not religious" may be rational enough to notice the atrocities associated with organized religion, and not want to be a supporter of that... but at the same time, they're still falling victim to an even more pernicious falsehood, which is that believing in the supernatural is an intrinsically good and praiseworthy activity. By so doing, they're unintentionally perpetuating an insidious kind of soft prejudice against atheists.

That said, I do want to buck the tide a bit and say that I don't find the word "spiritual" by itself to be unacceptable. I think it can be used, with appropriate caution, to refer to the sense of awe and wonder that any intelligent person can experience. It puts those experiences in terms that the religious can understand, and helps them see that atheists have them too. We just have to take care not to use that word in ways that would imply a supernatural component to the experience.


I don't think being "spiritual not religious" or even religious necessarily means a rejection of or lack of appreciation for the physical world. It might mean precisely a great appreciation or a sense of awe inspired by the natural world, but I don't think we have a very developed vocabulary for awe and transcendence outside of a spiritual context. Often the quickest or best way to convey that an experience was deep, profound, or meaningful is to say that it was "spiritual." Who knows, we could go down the path of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and ask how much our terminology of meaningful=spiritual drives these notions...


Fair enough. :)

Greta Christina
Who knows, we could go down the path of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and ask how much our terminology of meaningful=spiritual drives these notions...

No! No! Not the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis! Pinkerism forever! :-)

Sid Schwab

Chiming in here without adding much (mainly to acknowledge the honor of Greta Christina having visited my blog). Sam Harris, in "The End of Faith" said much the same about spirituality/transcendence; ie, (paraphrasing from dim memory) that there's enough of the world as we know it that's awe-inspiring to make us feel connected to, and able to rise above, mere self. It need not invoke any magic beans or beings. The world is amazing enough to give goose-bumps, just by stopping and looking around. Meaning? Well, it's enough.

"Spirituality" is indeed a fuzzy word. As I use it in reference to myself (which is rare), I simply mean the ability to look around and be inspired, to be glad I'm alive. I doesn't imply "higher" purpose or sky people.

Usually, however, I look around and feel pissed at how, as humans, we're blowing it.


I have met people who are spiritual but not religious. I see nothing wrong with it, besides the fact that their definition of the spiritual is one's own interpretation. Some forms of Spiritual but not religious like Deism and simple forms of theism is not a rejection of evidence or personal beliefs over reason. I have met very rational spiritual but not religious people who look to the evidence first before anything, so that myth is false.

I am a bit of a spritiual but not religious, but I am more in the Deist/Unitarian/Universalist camp then anything.


I actually object more to the word "transcendent" than I do to the word "spiritual." Transcended over/above/beyond what? To me, that word is more indicative of ignoring this reality to look for something more. Spiritual, on the other hand, I think of as pointing to the "spirit" or the "essence" of this world. Funny how different words rub different people the wrong way. ^/^


I'm a copy editor, so I can't help but bite at all the talk about language. In short, I'm all for clarity.

When you want to say that an experience was "meaningful," "deep," "thought provoking," or "profound," why not just say that and then explain why you thought the experience was whatever it was to you? And if an experience was all of those things, then why not use all of those terms, or any and every term that applies to the experience you just had? Why not say that a speech you heard was "insightful" or "curious"? Why do we need to communicate through umbrella terms that really can mean anything?

Maybe some of the words I cited here could be considered umbrella terms, too, but I find that the word "spiritual" keeps way too much rain from being absorbed by the dirt, if you get my meaning. We've all done it. I'm not saying I never do, though I do consciously avoid using "spiritual," if for no other reason than it's cliche.

We often really don't take the time to say just what we mean, and maybe that's because we don't take the time to really think about what something means to us. We don't use half the words we have available to us in the dictionary, and we make up even more every day. So maybe we should all blow the dust off the top of our dictionaries and start compiling a list of synonyms or near-synonyms that will help us say just what we mean.


@ sav.

Great comment!I agree, we can't demand of ourselves or others to always think about what we say, and what we really mean, and think through where we stand on every possible issue, but I do wish myself and others did it more often.

One thing I have noticed in myself though, is that trying to communicate on a daily basis in a language that is not my own (English) has forced me to think through these things much more than I believe I did before. I often do have to consider what word to choose, what I actually mean and I have to look up words - just so that what I write will (hopefully) make sense. And I have learned much from several embarrassing moments :-) where I misunderstood the meaning of a word and used it wrong. It becomes painfully clear then how important words are.


Fug, if you disagree with what you term a utilitarian approach to "good", explain why. I've seen others claim this too but they never say why this approcah is wrong other than they don't "like" it. And appealing to some vague philosophical navel gazing is no match for reality.


Please! No Sapir-Whorf! My BA thesis, 20-odd years ago, was a take-down of Sapir-Whorf from a cognitive science point of view.

And therefore, um... I lost my train of thought.

Adam G.

It's keeping all that... and abandoning the part of religion that is community, and shared ritual, and charitable works, and a sense of belonging.

This is why I'm a Unitarian Universalist. And an atheist. I like the sense of community and shared ritual and connection and belonging, and charitable works. I don't like the moral superiority b.s. or the belief in things that can't be supported through evidence.


@ vel -- First off: It is not necessary to state "why" to show that good is difficult to define -- the fact that there are so many differing definitions of "What is good" is proof, or at least support, that it is difficult. The fact that these definitions come from intelligent people throughout the ages also gives support.

However, I'm still game to play: In "Utilitarianism", John Mill gives support to the idea of what good is by stating we should ask what everyone says -- not just everyone, though I would consider that similarly fallacious, but a select group of intelligent and experienced people. His statement, "Act so that you bring the most happiness to the most amount of people" requires qualifiers -- what is benefit, what is happiness -- and that's how he goes about qualifying them. By Republic.

So, one has to ask: Just because a select group of people say that something is a benefit, or even if that were determined by a true democratic process, does that make it good? You are in a group of 5 people. Two want to rob a store, two don't want to rob a store. You have the choice to either rob the store or not rob the store. Your vote would then determine what "Good" is. Because you have a choice in the matter, good could be defined as either choice. That contradicts, logically speaking. In addition, you wouldn't have a metric by which to make a correct choice. Suppose the store was owned by one person, and the five of you would split the profits: 5 people would be benefited more than that one person, or at least in equal amounts, since you had to split the profits.

Another scenario: Suppose a town is known to have a mass murderer. Before the mass murderer came to be known, the town was peaceful and free. But because of the presence of the mass murderer, people have stopped trusting one another, they lock their doors, and live in fear. Time passes, and it seems that the murderer has moved to another town, but the town still lives in fear of him. However, there is a homeless man that no one cares about that, if you were to turn in, the town would then feel safe and possibly gradually return to its idyllic state. This would bring the most benefit to the most amount of people -- is it right to turn in a man you do not have any reason to turn in because it would bring happiness to the most people?

Because I don't think morality is dictated by democracy, and because of the logical inconsistencies of certain scenarios, I disagree with JSM's definition of "good". He's also far from the only differing viewpoint on what "Good" means. Aristotle's "Virtue Ethics" are completely different, and don't really rely upon a God to reinforce the goodness of them. Similarly so with Hume -- not that they're virtue based, but they do not rely upon a God to define what "Good" is. And, as I stated before, Nietzsche was staunchly opposed to Utilitarian ethics -- though I don't personally subscribe to a "Nietzschean" ethic, either, I'm just giving examples to show that it's harder to define than you seemed to be suggesting in your first post, even without the consideration of "God".


Following up on what Adam G said, although maybe this is slightly different, I for a while felt "religious, but not spiritual." I didn't fully believe in God or the supernatural, but I did like knowing all the rules of the religion I was raised in, like no meat on Fridays during Lent and when to kneel and stand during Mass and all that. I've felt the same way about rules in other areas, like grammar and sports-- I think the feeling of being an insider and knowing how things are "supposed" to go is very appealing. So when people would describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious," I couldn't relate at all.



I liked your piece about this pet peeve of mine, but my take is mostly different.

I have run across these people mostly through online dating sites, where "spiritual but not religious" is a fairly popular option. Because I'm a hetero male, these my experience is limited to hetero females. Disclaimers out of the way, here's what I've found "spiritual but not religious" to mean:

1. "I don't go to church, but I still believe silly bullshit like my horoscope and the crystal I wear around my neck keeps cancer away." This subgroup is the majority one. They're mature enough to realize there are better things to do with your Sunday morning than sit down on a wooden bench and listen to a babbling preacher, but they can't or won't give up their superstitious streak.

2. Atheist Unitarian/Universalists -- the woman I met who fit this mold just liked the social aspects of going to church but she was staunchly atheist. Apparently didn't have a "U/U" option.

3. People who are atheists and skeptics but who don't want to advertise that because they think it'll scare people away. It will scare people, but it'll scare the right sort of people. The current girlfriend used to describe herself as an atheist, but she found it severly limited her dating options. Lucky for her, I was able to forgive this indiscretion. :)

Timothy (TRiG)

Just to say that I enjoyed the little essay. I came here from Jesus and Mo.



Ahhhh. (Sigh of happiness at being understood.) Thanks for this post.

Bible Belted

Wow. Completely missed my reason for saying it: I don't want to get shot, here in the bible belt. Actual fear of the religious who can and will hurt you.

I'm in the closet, girl, and until you are willing to hire a bodyguard for me, guarantee a source of income, and bear my children, BACK OFF.

...You left out the other reason, too. How many photos of electricity do you need to see before you "believe" in it? More than negatives cannot yet be proven. Do you not believe it possible that in some distant future, humans may develop brains with telepathic capability? There has to be a first one.... SO I'M SPECIAL. DON'T SHOOT ME, PLEASE.

kris schs

It is way too vague a subject to attack. And of course it cannot be "defended". But then again that is all on ones own perception. That is faith. And yes, a lot of spiritual principles do come from the bible, or many like to claim the bible created. Haven't you ever had the natural instinct when your doing right from wrong? It does not come from words written in black and white. Who's to say who's right or wrong? Its been there from the start. Deep down in every man, woman, and child is the fundamental idea of God. This is just my belief. This is just my perception =]

Greta Christina

kris schs: "Deep down in every man, woman, and child is the fundamental idea of God."

If that were true -- then why would different people's ideas about God vary so wildly, to the point where they contradict each other completely?

Yes, there is evidence that human ideas of right and wrong are partly instinctual. But that's not evidence of God. There is now strong evidence that ideas of right and wrong are hard-wired into our brains, as part of our evolution as social animals. Certain basic moral ideas -- justice, not doing harm, etc. -- seem to be part of every human brain (except for the brains of psychopaths and sociopaths). But then different individuals and cultures interpret those basic moral guidelines differently... and different individuals prioritize different values over others.

There's no need for the God hypothesis to explain this. It's just neuropsychology.


I'm guessing I may be much younger than the rest of the posters on here, but this is my opinion

From what I've read of this, you seem to me to be the type of person who thinks that a person, no matter what their belief, should have good and viable reasons and be able to back up their beliefs with logical reasoning. I disagree, why should someone have reasons for what they believe just for the comfort of others? If someone has a certain belief that differs from your own we should accept that, as it is their own point of view on life and the beyond. However, its human nature to discard or ignore anything that we don't like or are not comfortable with. I for one am one of those people who frequently answer "I'm spiritual but not religious." when asked the "What religion are you?" question. To me this line means, yes, I don't attend any church services, and yes I may not pray or serve a god, but, I do feel a strong presence that surrounds us in the physical world. And sometimes I think I even feel that there is something beyond this world. The next world or afterlife and even the Spiritworld, including Heaven and Hell. I feel a connection to all of these and to me its the spiritual connection that I feel that makes me human and to deal with living in this life. It's just one of those things, it's different for everyone. And although I'm young in years (I'm 17), I know that its necessary for all human beings to get along with one another and to accept the differences.


I stumbled upon this site avoiding work today and read each of the interesting arguments above. Seems to me, these are all words that have different meanings and associations for each writer and reader.

Does it matter what someone else believes (or doesn't believe)? Do you feel in integrity with what you believe (or don't believe)? Who knows? Fundamentalists may be right. Or, we could all be the butt of an infinite cosmic joke. Or our existence is flash of light in an immense void, never to be illuminated again.

Instead of looking at others and wondering how they could possibly believe what they profess to believe and then judging them for it, wouldn't it be more useful to wonder how we could possibly believe our own beliefs? I’m smug, you’re smug, we're all smug when it comes to comparing our deepest's human. There is no either/or.

A.C. Hearn

What's really wrong with not knowing what is entailed by being spiritual but not religious? I am one of them.
I don't really have to back up my "why" because I am happy with my thoughts, I am happy with my children exploring a sense of being a loyal, well mannered, giving and caring human with out having to attend church on Sundays, or even explain why I chose not attend. What's really wrong with aiming to please your own mind with thoughts of love, wholesomeness, emotional intelligence based on experience and not a written or preached set of beliefs passed down from who know's who? I am atheist because I disagree with the passed-along idea or set of rules taught by organized religion but even saying that, explains too much. Learn to live within your own mind, happiness, spirituality and quit trying so hard to make other's follow the "why" path. You know why we choose to be spiritual and NOT religious? BECAUSE WE WANT TO!! We (I) follow what's good for man, what's good for the earth and mostly, what's GOOD for my children.

Dave w

The SBNR approach is a real problem..

Not just because it is vague - but I argue in that there are 3 main things about it that are troubling..

It damages our understanding of the nature of truth- its mystical, monistic pantheism is so inclusivist as to not understand what it means to have content in belief..

Via an 'inner turn' it drives us away from an engagement with the material concerns of the world..

Thirdly it actually obstructs an engagement with the existential realities of mortality and finitude- by denying them, and allowing false and vain hope to stand as a comfort blanket...


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