Apparently a lot of people identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. I tend to pick that from the standard religion drop-down box, since I feel like it describes me better than atheism or agnosticism.
However the problem with “spiritual” as a term is that it has connotations of fuzziness or vagueness. This creates a situation where religion on the one hand and atheism on the other hand both seem attractive because they offer the clarity of actually standing for something.
I think that the tradeoff of “spiritual” vs sharp, logical thinking is a false dilemma. You can question your beliefs and hold yourself to the highest level of intellectual rigor and come out with a worldview that seems “spiritual”.
I use “spiritual” because there isn’t a word that sums up how I see the universe. I think I’m not the only one who sees it this way, though, so maybe there should be a word. Anyway I’d like to describe how I see it, not that I’m sure that I’m right, but to show how you can stand for something even if what you stand for isn’t a religion and isn’t just a denial of religion.
My worldview is based on asking myself “why do I think this is true?” over and over again, until I’ve stripped away all the hearsay and rumors and unexamined ideas floating around in my head. As well as stripping ideas away, I add new ideas as I experience new things in life. This is a never-ending task; I don’t regard myself as done, and probably never will.
My basic belief about reality is that we live in a what-you-see is what-you-get universe. What is real is the world around us. Our minds and personalities are patterns in our perceivable reality — ie, they are patterns of movement in our brains, bodies, and environment. Death represents a fundamental change in those patterns, as does, to a lesser extent, brain injury, drinking alcohol, losing a leg, and moving to a new city.
However, I believe that our day-to-day experience does not do reality justice. Our conscious minds paint a caricature of reality. We are constantly forming thoughts to summarize and organize the flow of raw experience, and these thoughts, although necessary, are extremely limiting and low-fidelity.
It is a skill to learn to separate ourselves from our thoughts and to perceive reality more directly. It is precisely this skill that lets one person look and say “oh, a boring row of houses” and another person to paint a deeply moving painting of them. In fact, I think almost all worthwhile human endeavors involve developing skill at perceiving different aspects of reality, whether it’s understanding another person’s emotions, being able to discern subtle variations in music, or being able to let fresh hypotheses emerge in a scientific inquiry.
My hypothesis, based on some personal experience and some reports from other people, is that as a person gets more adept at detaching themselves from their thoughts, and more skillful at really experiencing the world around them, they generally tend to feel the following things:
A. The separation that the mind draws between “self” and “world” is mostly illusory — in reality an individual is a part of a complex, interacting pattern, and one’s individual survival isn’t that important.
B. Reality is beautiful and miraculous, and meaningful at face value.
My sense is that as you get better at experiencing reality directly, you tend to see the world this way. In other words, fear of death and fear of meaninglessness fade away the more clearly you perceive things, just as the world becomes more beautiful to you the more you see with the eyes of a painter or photographer.
Religious traditions become useful in that they often teach various paths to attaining this perception. For instance, the idea of “faith” as taught by Christianity, or “surrender” as taught by Islam, or the meditation techniques of Hinduism and Buddhism, are, in my opinion, all useful guides, even though I tend to reject most of the intellectual content of the world religions.
I think right action — action that comes from a deep perception of what you see as right, true, and beautiful in the world — is extremely important. To have perceptions of rightness / beauty is to want to act on them, and it works both ways: failure to act can inhibit the perceptions. Often, doing what you truly believe is right is terrifying, and a common response to that terror is to dampen your perception of what’s right, so that you don’t have to face the fear head-on. So I think many of the traditional moral virtues — courage, integrity, honesty, compassion — are intrinsically tied to seeing the world as meaningful.
Anyway, I characterize this viewpoint as “spiritual” because it rejects the idea that the world is meaningless just because the world can be described scientifically, and because it accepts that religions have something to offer. But it’s not a vague, feel-good sense of meaning; rather, it’s the specific claim that meaning is something that can be directly perceived in the world by increasing one’s perceptive skill, and that this skill can be developed through a number of well-defined techniques, including those developed by various religions.
I think it’s important that people who don’t buy into religion but who do want to talk about things like values and meaning and right and wrong have somewhere to stand. “spiritual but not religious” is a starting point… perhaps over time we’ll come up with better words.