Spiritual but not Religious: Reflections of an Ex-Spiritualist

Spirituality (“S”) in the western world often refers to concepts drawn from known religions or religious practice. However, unlike religion (“R”), S often does not have detailed concepts or doctrine and tends to leave the “how” to the individual. See an example of a popular definition of spirituality here.

Here are some important lessons I learned on my journey from S to R including similarities and differences between both, and why I decided to choose to identify as religious without shame.

  1. Mere Spirituality Has Unclear Boundaries 

R tends to offer clarity through definitions of key concepts such as transcendence which we Christians attribute as an essential quality of God. In S, key concepts such as “higher self” (Wigglesworth) or “higher meanings” (Zohar,46) which appear to be core aims have no clear definition. It seems to be up to the individual to interpret these.  The concerning thing here is, what if, for example, the higher self for someone is to be a serial killer? Or is there a presumption that the higher self is and should always be an ethical, non-criminal or good?  If that is the case, then S has a dogma already i.e. that all higher selves and higher meanings must be good and non-criminal and ethical. This puts S more in the realm of R than is often admitted. 

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 2. The Individual is Highly Elevated 

S seems to source its capacities and meanings from the individual person. That the authentic self is where we find solutions to many human problems (Dhiman 4-5). But what is this “authentic self” for each person? Who gets to tell people if they have attained their authentic self? Keeping in mind that attributional bias prevents proper self-assessment.

R on the other hand, while it tends to agree with the above, often provides more specific information. It urges each person to source their authenticity from God who is considered the ultimate source of all goodness. For instance, humans can refuel from the Sacraments which are direct channels of graces from God. Since God made us, and is infinitely beyond us, he knows what grace to give at any given time.  

Yet with S, I have this sense that we are re-inventing the wheel. Trying to find sources of strength through our own personal searches instead of tapping into tried-and-true means that are guaranteed by an infinitely good and personal God who totally understands our condition.  It seems more efficient to test and find the R that has lasted through time which better captures the human condition and pursue that. This way, we are not starting all over again, with a personal Religion that has a higher risk of error since it is neither time-tested nor universal.

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3. Spirituality Divorced from Religion is Mostly a Western Notion 

S is also a foreign concept to many cultures around the world who find it impossible that spirituality can be separated from religion. From my observation, the separation of S and R appears to be something that some people, perhaps hurt or bored by or fed up with (or who have misunderstood) older religions, wish to promote as a new approach to the transcendent.  This is noble but I fear that it only reflects a section of the world and risks throwing the baby (good parts of older religions including potential and actual revelation from God himself) out with the bath water (hurts, boredom, wars etc. that individuals in those religions have caused).  Moreover, history shows that the atheist state e.g. Fascism have led to more deaths than other religious wars. There is a chance that this is because the lack of conceptual clarity of key concepts such as morality and justice is more loose in atheism as it is in S.

4. Spirituality is Not Neutral

S seems to have an anti-Christian bias since it tends to exclude Christianity as rigid or religious while embracing practices from eastern religions such as meditations, yoga etc which are rites and rituals of Hinduism, Buddhism etc (See Phipps & Benefiel, at 35). 

There is also a sense from authors of S that there is a Christian-fatigue or a time-for-other-religions-to-shine approach. While this is fine, we should ask ourselves whether boredom is a good measure of what is true. We should evaluate Rs on their merits and not on whether someone finds it boring or the personal sins of some of the adherents of that Religion. 

Afterall, despite all the funny characters and horrible actions some have done in high democratic offices, no one in North America wishes to dispense with democracy as a system of governance. I believe it was Churchill who said that democracy is the worst system in the world except for the others that have been tried.

Given the influence of other – mostly eastern religions – that one tends to find in S, we can see that S is often not neutral, even though it is presumed to be so by some scholars (see list by Phipps & Benefiel, at 35).

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…despite all the funny characters and horrible actions some have done in high democratic offices in North America, almost no one in North America wishes to dispense with democracy as a system of Governance.”

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5. Spirituality Seems to be a Subset of Religion

S can often be summarized by one word: Wisdom. (Wigglesworth). In Christianity, Wisdom is one of the many names and attributes of God. It describes God but God is also revealed to be bigger than Wisdom. God is Love.

Wisdom for Christians is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirits.  If S is really Wisdom, then spirituality is only a piece of the pie of Christianity and therefore both cannot be equated. That said, spirituality may lead an honest inquirer to religion in some cases since to be wise is to know a core aspect of God.

6. The Hotel Analogy

By way of analogy, S is like the foyer of a hotel with many rooms. The rooms being various religions that have settled in their concepts etc. The spiritual person stands in the foyer without commitment to going into any room. Some even stand in the door way of some rooms so they are spiritual with some influence from that room. Others stand far away from the rooms and are just spiritual but this is rare since most spiritual persons tend to come from various rooms in the first place. Therefore, S, is the beginning of religion or a withdrawal from religion or the adherence to religion without strong commitment to settled concepts. This non-commitment to concepts seems to allow for malleability to contemporary trends and situations.

 R people on the other hand – because they can come in and out of the room – can, if all is done right, visit in the foyer by living out a spirituality there with others. They can stay there as long as needed while having access to rooms from which they can refuel. In other words, the foyer is a common room where common ground in religion can happen. However it is important for those in the foyer to be aware that they are not without religion. They are just religion-lite.

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7. Some Practical Implications

S is where I meet people with a lighter version of my religious values and principles. It offers a space to influence people with virtues that I hold in common with them such as humility, patience and charity or love. With this idea of spirituality, I can work with people from all faith backgrounds while sharing transcendent ideas such as what is good, fair, and just for the future.  I can do so without using technical terms of my religion or insisting on its concepts to people who do not subscribe to it.

That said, because we cannot be forced to leave our soul or religious identity at the door. It especially doesn’t seem fair given that S is not necessarily neutral and tends to absorb rituals from other Rs. Therefore, I strongly encourage Catholics to discreetly put signs of their faith at work. For instance, I was taught by a very holy woman to have a small photo of Our Lady in my book case at work. I can see it but most people can’t unless they come to rummage through my bookcase. 

I believe that discreet signs of our faith which constitute our identity such as these or allowing Islamic colleagues to go and pray in a prayer room during Ramadan, enhances spirituality. It gives us all a chance to “go to our room” and then to return to the foyer where we can converge through the rubrics of spirituality to guide our work with wisdom. 

In applying S at work or other communal spaces, we should be aware that S is not neutral and at any given time, it will reflect one faith or the other.  A leader should ensure that S is not out of balance in this regard. For instance, if people are allowed to do yoga at work and posters are put up about this, other colleagues should be allowed to put up posters about a Christmas event or a call to prayer.  If this gets too difficult, then S at work should probably be kept to the barest minimum e.g. respect, best practices in customer service, client satisfaction, professional standards of ethics and so on.

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Cindy Wigglesworth, Spiritual Intelligence: Living as Your Higher Self, October 10, 2012: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/spiritual-intelligence_b_1752145, accessed October 24, 2022.

Danah Zohar, Spiritually Intelligent Leadership. Executive Forum, Leader to Leader, Fall 20015.

Kelly Phipps & Margaret Benefiel,  Spirituality and Religion: Seeking a Juxtaposition That Supports Research in the Field of Faith and Spirituality at Work, Chapter 3, in Handbook of Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace , pp 33-43.

Robert A. Emmons, Is Spirituality an Intelligence? Motivation, Cognition, and the Psychology of Ultimate Concern, Department of Psychology University of California, Davis, THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL FOR THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGION, 10(1), 3–26.

Satinder Dhiman, Holistic Leadership: A New Paradigm for Today’s Leaders. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan (2017).

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