Rationally Speaking

In Pursuit of Positive Skepticism

Spiritual but Not Religious

What does it mean to be one and not the other?

I am not a religious person, and I'm most certainly not spiritual either. Both of these statements get me into trouble in polite society, especially when they are coupled. Apparently I'm not the only one, as anybody who has used an online dating service will readily testify. Typically, these web sites allow you to specify your religious beliefs (and to express a preference for the religious beliefs of your prospective dates). Try simply checking the "atheist" box (if there actually is one), and you'll be waiting a long time for your matches. But if you describe yourself as "spiritual but not religious" your chances are markedly improved (though the problem now is that you'll see a lot of new agey types showing up in your inbox). Why?

Despite the fact that more and more people are comfortable "coming out" as atheists, the word is still very much associated with being immoral, or at the very least amoral. This, of course, despite the fact that there is neither logical nor empirical reason to draw that conclusion. Ever since Plato's Euthyphro dialogue, philosophers have agreed that gods are simply irrelevant to morality, regardless of whether they exist or not. And of course modern sociological research shows that atheists are just as moral as religious believers. Still, the stigma persists.

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Enter the word "spiritual," which is becoming synonymous with retaining all that is good in a religious person, without the religion. It seems that in many people's conception if you really can't be religious, at least you should try to be spiritual. If you are not, then you must be a damned selfish materialist, an implicit admission that is not likely to get you many dates on Match.com.

But what, exactly, does it mean to be "spiritual but not religious," or for that matter, just plain spiritual? One interpretation, of course, can be arrived at by taking the word literally: if you are spiritual you believe in spirits (not of the alcohol-laden type). In some sense, this must be right, as spiritual people seem to be averse to the idea that matter and energy are all there is to the universe (hence, the above mentioned cavalcade of new agers likely to populate your inbox). But if that is the case, it is not at all clear why holding such (entirely unfounded) beliefs should translate into someone being a better, more moral (and hence more datable) person. Being spiritual in this sense seems to me simply indicative of a slightly, if often benignly, deluded mind, not one with whom I would really enjoy associating for long periods of time.

A second possibility is that spiritual is meant to indicate someone who devotes part of her time and energy to cultivate her "spirit," as opposed to just being concerned with "material" things. But I'm not a dualist (another mild type of delusion), I don't think of my life as a dichotomous enterprise in the course of which I have to provide material/energy food for my stomach to process, as well as an entirely different kind of nourishment for my "spirit." My mind, whatever the detailed explanation of how it works, is a product of my brain, and the two simply can't be disconnected, upon penalty of the first one simply ceasing to exist.

Which brings me to the third interpretation of the word spiritual: someone who takes care of cultivating and reflecting on his ethics, of behaving justly and compassionately toward his fellow human beings, and of nurturing his aesthetic sense through arts and letters. Okay, by that definition, I am spiritual but not religious. But so is any human being who is not a psychopath. Yes, some people are more reflective than others, some more compassionate, some more inclined to read literature and go to art museums or concerts (the latter activities also of course greatly depending on one's means and education, not just his natural propensities). But I submit that to do the above is part and parcel of what it means to be human. As Odysseus famously puts it in Dante's Inferno, "Fatti non foste per viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza" (We were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge).

I suggest, therefore, that we reclaim the basic notion that a compassionate, ethical, and interesting human being doesn't need to be either religious orspiritual. He just needs to be human. Do we have a word to suggest to Match.com and similar services to add to their list of possibilities? Yup: humanist, as in someone who is trying to live up to the best of what humanity can be. Now, wouldn't that person make for an interesting date?

Massimo Pigliucci is a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College. more...

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