"Spiritual But Not Religious"

The Origins and Fate of A Liberal Darling

Quick Announcement: I’m delighted to share my podcast interview with Rabbi Ari Lamm on Good Faith Effort. We spoke about Heidegger, Maimonides, Athens and Jerusalem, the Scientific Revolution, poetry, and more.


1.

The term “spiritual but not religious” may be a new one, a category of the PEW report, but the substance of it is old.

When Luther criticized the Church authorities and advocated consulting one’s own conscience, he was initiating a process that would culminate in “spiritual but not religious.” For Spirit is that which we all have access to, while “religious” is code for something external, imposed from without.

The distinction between an external shell and an internal freedom is older even than Luther. We find this concept in Stoicism, in the work of Epictetus, who counseled that we focus on that which is in our control and suspend judgment around that which is not in our control. Religion, in this taxonomy, is that which lies outside my will; spirituality is that which I can do. I can’t make it rain, but I can measure the calories I burn on my Peloton.

2.

Paul, the intellectual architect of Christianity, distinguished—in his polemic against rabbinic law—between the dead letter of the law and its living spirit. You could argue that Christianity itself was a movement of the spiritual, but not religious, at least in relationship to Judaism. To be spiritual but not religious is to be a follower of Paul, no matter one’s religious identity.

When Paul says that through faith there will be “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:8), he introduces the modern notion of the liberal individual subject, stripped of association, uprooted from tribe. Ironically, those who today assert Christianity as an axis of resistance against liberalism fail to appreciate the ways in which Christianity itself made liberalism possible.

Yet as history has shown, and as Dostoevsky dramatized well in his parable of the “Grand Inquisitor,” the posture of pure dissidence cannot be sustained. Eventually the spiritual, but not religious will want to rule, will want to transmit values to their children, will want to stop the “spiritual and religious” from corrupting them, and so they will have to adopt a certain infrastructure that makes them indistinguishable from all that they criticize. “Spiritual but not religious”—as a matter of substance—is destined to become a Church. The tribe of those who have no tribe—those who reject tribalism—is remarkably homogenous. Cosmopolitans are at home in TSA pre-check no less than folksy localists are at home at the farmer’s market. And with the ascendance of Zoom and remote work, cosmopolitans can now enjoy both worlds, being “of them, but not in them.”

All are “welcome” in the Church as long as one accepts the view that at bottom we are all the same through faith in Jesus. Modern liberalism took out the Jesus part and replaced it with a more amorphous God, but kept the first part. The world is divided between those who don’t see difference and those that do.

3.

The alternative to the Church of the “Spiritual but not religious” is a posture of continuous critique, permanent counter-culture. We find this mode in the figures of dissident mystics, who stand apart from the mainstream, in bohemian artists who sacrifice a life of comfort for their art, in vagabond intellectuals, like Walter Benjamin, in the Timothy Leary acolytes who think that a life of tripping is preferable to a life of 9-5. But the tally of misfit souls would hardly move the sociologist’s needle.

Today, “spiritual but not religious” simply refers to anyone who feels alienated from a single tradition or community. The confluence of globalization, individualism, and tech guarantee that most people, most of the time, but especially elites, will feel alienated from their communities and heritages of origin. The surprise is not that there are so many “spiritual but not religious” but that there are still so many who are “spiritual and religious.” “Spiritual but not religious” is more or less code for “individualist in search of peak experience.”

Both the experience junky and the experience hobbyist are “spiritual, but not religious.” They differ in degree, not kind.

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4.

Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim presents the Hasidic masters as “spiritual, but not religious.” Today, it is a classic amongst in liberal seminaries, but is unknown and unread by actual Hasidim.

5.

The reigning assumptions of the “spiritual but not religious” are:

  • individual experience is fundamental and social life secondary.

  • the spiritual content of all religions is the same.

  • spiritual experience can be found without the scaffolding of tradition.

While Paul’s version of spiritual but not religious involved the evisceration of group identity and the enshrinement of a new group united around faith in Christ, the Buddhist version is “form is emptiness.” Underlying all cultural forms is a shared nothingness. Less abstractly, the core experience of the regular meditator is, paradoxically, “ego-lessness.”

Ego-lessness—the realization that all matters of identity are just stories—fits well with liberalism, which is one reason why pop Buddhism is popular in the West. An ideology of “open borders” that is anti-nationalist and sees the notion of protectionism as antique and irrational also accords well with the insight that, really, we are all One.

Spiritual but not religious means: boundaried by the belief that boundaries between self and other are illusory and ultimately bad. As Patrick Deneen argues in Why Liberalism Failed? The left and the right are both classically liberal. The left is socially liberal (my body, my choice) while the right is economically liberal (free markets). Immigration is a good example of how left and right are more alike than not, because it’s an issue on which they’ve traded places. The old left was anti-immigration, seeing it as a way to bring down domestic wages. The new left is pro-immigration because it’s xenophobic to think there’s some national or cultural essence worth protecting (at least when it comes to the majority culture; minority cultures are, meanwhile, inherently worthy). The more, the merrier (as long as the more don’t live in my neighborhood).

6.

Individualism, in practice, is alive and well. And most invocations of collectivity are a form of role-playing, a costume assumed by the bored subject tired of itself. But, rhetorically and culturally tribalism is making a comeback. It’s now considered naive (and prejudiced) to relate to someone simply as an individual, and not as a member of a group. I suspect that this turn or re-turn to identity politics will have major, disruptive consequences for those who claim the mantle of “spiritual, but not religious.” Where once it was trendy to evoke Lutheran dissent against the powers that be, now the Lutheran posture is seen by many—on the left and the right—as a convenient ideology of the powerful elite. Left liberals, it is said, invoke conscience to undermine “solidarity,” while right liberals, it is said, invoke it to undermine “realpolitik.”

In the future, the Pew Report may come to report on those who are “Religious, but not spiritual.”

Yet in the realm of both religion and politics, the sundering of religious from spiritual, the claim that one is primary, the one sided belief that experience is a-social or that the social is all that matters, is confused.

A liberalism that ignores the group is destined to fail, but an anti-liberalism that ignores the individual is likewise doomed. To solve this problem, we must be religious, and therefore spiritual; spiritual, and therefore religious.


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