People Who Think They're “Spiritual But Not Religious” Are Deceived

Félix Joseph Barrias (1822-1907), “The Temptation of Christ by the Devil”
Félix Joseph Barrias (1822-1907), “The Temptation of Christ by the Devil” (photo: Public Domain)

Don't you hate it when people claim to be “spiritual but not religious?”

Not I!

I love it! I love it! I love it!

I love it when pretentious, unthinking people mindlessly repeat this meaningless statement to me.

When I have one of these people in my clutches, I furrow my brow (look at the accompanying photo in my bio to the right and imagine me furrowing my brow) and say, "You're spiritual? What does that mean?"

That's the last they expect you to counter with. They're so self-satisfied at hiding behind this nonsense, they've never stopped to think what it actually means.

And then I explain to them why they've been so wrong for so long. (Spoiler alert: You can be spiritual only in a religious context.)

There are as many kinds of spiritualties as there are Christians so it would be impossible to devote a substantial space in this work to such a topic. An apophatic perspective on spirituality, however, might be more helpful. That is, instead of attempting at understanding what spirituality is, it might be more helpful and less confusing, to consider what spirituality isn't:

  • If your spirituality involves developing your "inner power" then you're practicing magic and not spirituality. If you’re hoping to do parlor tricks, you're out of your mind. You won't float, bilocate or prophesy, nor should you want to. It's more important that you learn to love your enemies and those in need rather than setting up a stage magic show. By doing so, you call attention to yourself rather than to the needs of those who are suffering. In such a situation, compassion is impossible.
  • Unless you're truly becoming a humbler and more compassionate person, you're not actually practicing spirituality. If you feel yourself superior in any way, shape or form, you're only fooling yourself and annoying the rest of us.
  • Your spirituality must motivate you to help others. Unless you are moved to actively perform acts of mercy, you've been duped. Your spirituality must develop within you a spirit of utter humility and ever-expanding compassion. Compassion is not the same thing as "selective and manipulative kindness" which even the worst mass murderer can muster on a bad day.
  • Spirituality destroys the ego, step-by-step. It doesn't feed one's ego. No one in the world would suggest that the great spiritual masters in human history are flaming narcissists. Think Mother Teresa, Mother Cabrini, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Abbé Pierre Grouès, Sr. Antonia Brenner and Sœur Emmanuelle Cinquin rather than charlatans like Sylvia Browne, Peter Popoff, Claude Vorilhon (a.k.a. "Raël"), L. Ron Hubbard, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, E.W. Kenyon, Chuck Dederich, Yogi Bhajan, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Werner Erhard, Marshall Herff Applewhite, Sun Myung Moon, David Koresh and Swami Muktananda.
  • Stop congratulating yourself. Spirituality has nothing to do with being prideful and falsely superior. A true spirituality will show your moral and spiritual lacunae with greater clarity. This will inevitably translate into a compassion for everyone you meet.
  • If it's on-again/off-again, then what you've done is created a hobby or a way to pass the time rather than a way of life. As such, it is only a matter of time when you get bored with the whole thing and abandon it. A legitimate spirituality is life-sustaining and self-sustaining. It motivates one to accomplish even the impossible.
  • Many things feel good but not everything is good for you. A runner's high, or a stoner's high for that matter, is not the same thing as spiritual enlightenment. Runners and stoners aren't motivated to feed the poor.
  • If you believe you've become enlightened, think again. If you were truly enlightened, you would have been imbued by a spirit of humility and thus you would be above such crass bragging.
  • Spirituality isn't an “accessory” one adds to one's life. In our acquisitive, fad-driven society, people are judged not by objective standards of behavior and morality, but by what we say. Spirituality is not duplicitous or disjointed. It's the healthiest and most authentic life one can lead.
  • If you're actively striving towards a religious experience, however you define it, you're destroying any prospect of ever attaining it. You need to do a great deal more learning, reading and praying. You need to crush your ego before you can start having religious experiences.
  • If you still embody bad habits like smoking, drug use, drinking excessively, promiscuity, alcoholism, lying, bragging, jealousy, spitefulness and greediness, you're as far away from a true spirituality as one can be. Christians refer to Deadly Sins as deadly because they destroy the soul and any prospect of spirituality.
  • Spirituality is not the equivalent of psychological counseling. One's aim is not to learn more about oneself as if one was the most fascinating creature in the universe. If you want to be a fascinating creature, then get on Dancing with the Stars.
  • Spirituality is the opposite of materialism/physicality. If someone is suggesting a spiritualizing hedonism or greed, run (do not walk) to the exit.
  • Spirituality is the opposite of exoticism. One practices a spirituality because one recognizes the vast emptiness inside oneself not in order to be “cool,” “different” or “with it.” Novelty wears off but a real spirituality will last forever. Following trends or fads will offer nothing of value. Most likely, you are interesting in entertaining yourself rather than connecting with a Higher Power. Further, no race, ethnicity or nationality has any special advantage spiritually speaking. (Tibetans, Mayans et al. all have their fair share of criminals in their prisons.) If one group did have a special advantage, spiritual enlightenment would be a matter of genetics or the happenstance of birth rather than the active participating in a relationship with the Creator.
  • If you believe yourself “advanced” or “superior,” think again. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “If you think yourself not conceited, you are truly conceited indeed.” St. John reminds us of the same notion: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and there is no truth in us.” (1Jn 1:8) The very suggestion that you are sinless means you are as far away from spiritual enlightenment as is possible.
  • If you possess “great power” then your spirituality is worthless. Only the humble will advance spiritually. The prideful are delusional.
  • St. Catherine of Siena reminds us that spirituality must be based firmly upon one's morality and one's morality must be based upon one's sense of compassion. One must be careful of how one behaves for fear that by one's actions, one might because others to sin. For example, by being cantankerous or moody or selfish, one might prompt those around you to anger, epicenters of change in others. As St. Francis of Assisi reminds us, "Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me!"
  • I suspect very few people can understand the enormity of even a tiny fraction of their sins. It's a special grace to have such an understanding. If we all realized what kind of emotional good and harm we actually were capable of, we'd all be a great deal more circumspect in our dealings with others.
  • Spirituality is not compatible with a relativistic morality. This is especially true when one is particularly forgiving of one's foibles, crimes, sins and misdemeanors but holds all others to account for even the slightest inconvenience they may have inadvertently caused.
  • Spirituality is not a means of manipulating God―it's giving God the opportunity to change you. Prayer in a theocentric life allows God to replace your heart of stone with one of flesh. (Ezekiel 11:19) You will gain no powers over the universe or over others. Those who suggest differently are either mentally ill or charlatans.
  • If your spirituality doesn't bring you to a new, practical perception of humanity, then you're doing something wrong. Every Tom, Dick and Swami Harry claim to universally love mankind but not many of them are willing to forgive others for their transgressions, let alone pry open their wallets and give to the poor. (Atheists always claim to love humanity but seem to fall short when it comes to actually feeding and clothing that humanity. Their uncritical support of abortion, euthanasia and suicide doesn't help their case.)

Spirituality and religion are irrevocably tied together. The word “religion” is derived from the Latin meaning “to tie.” Without a structured grounding, without figuratively binding oneself to a tried and true system, one is setting oneself up as one's own spiritual master—as the final arbiter as to how to improve yourself. If you are your own guru, then who is teaching whom and why are you learning it if you already know enough to teach it? The problem lies in not knowing if what one is doing is effective, healthy and correct. One can be easily fooled into thinking that anything anyone does is good. These people are easily fooled into thinking they are spiritually quite advanced. Remember: the proof is in the pudding, not in talking about how wonderful your pudding is. No one is smart or good enough to be his or her own spiritual teacher. Find an authentic spiritual master. Make your decisions slowly and carefully and if anyone asks you to write a check for them, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. After all, as Tertullian reminds us, “Nothing of God costs money."­­”