My Heresy on Spiritual but Not Religious

“Spiritual but not religious” has become a new orthodoxy. In some circles one cannot say anything positive about “religion,” even in a generic way, without being informed one is behind the times.  Religion = bad. Spiritual = good.  Religion is divisive and dogmatic and corrupt. It is riddled with sexual predators and scam artists. It is interested only in its own power. Spirituality, on the other hand, is all about free thinking, self-affirmation and happy folks tripping down the path of love and light.

Yeah, whatever. I’m spiritual and religious. Sue me.

I’m also an old lady who has been around the block a few times. And I have seen many things. I agree that affiliation with an established “church” is no guarantee of quality or even decency. But neither is non affiliation. Religious history is full of charismatic freelance “gurus” who turned out to be sexual predators and scam artists.

I’m thinking of people like James Arthur Ray, who charged up to $10,000 to attend his “spiritual warrior” retreats, and who was convicted of negligent homicide after three attendees died in one of his sweat lodges. Native Americans criticized Ray because he’d had no training or experience whatsoever in sweat lodge traditions and didn’t know what he was doing. Did I mention he charged up to $10,000 per person?

So there are no guarantees. Religion, organized or not,  is a wide-open field for many kinds of predators and scam artists, because unlike with other kinds of scams there is rarely objective proof that the product doesn’t work; that the medicine in the bottle is snake oil.  With charm and the right sales pitch you can string your marks along indefinitely, assuming you don’t get them killed.

That said, I partly agree with “retreat leader” Bruce Davis, who says,

It is the human need for meaning, intimacy, joy that is driving many to leave institutions with too much theology and too little care and devotion. When religion is more about correct thinking and less about love and understanding, people feel something missing. When religion is more about judging others and less about humility and the path of looking inward, it loses the spirit of what church is suppose to be about.

Yes. However, then Davis gushes on about the bliss of “spirituality,” and please forgive me if I’m not sold on that, either. I’ve been closely observing unaffiliated countercultural “spirituality” since the 1960s. Whether you call it New Age or Body-Mind-Spirit or something else, it seems to always devolve into one of three things.

One, what I call “spiritual tourism,” or the practice of treating religion as a tasting bar. Spiritual tourists dabble in many traditions and enjoy a variety of spiritual adventures, but they never stick to one tradition long enough to get more than a superficial impression or experience anything genuinely transformative. But at least spiritual tourism usually is harmless, if you can afford it.

Second is the DIY Mystic, who doesn’t need a teacher and doesn’t need a congregation; he can find the Great Ineffable Whatever all by himself, thank you. “Enlightenment” then becomes just a projection of his own ego, or his own craziness, or probably both.

And finally you’ve got the sort of person who would actually spend as much as $10,000 to spend time with a freelance guru whose only discernible talent is self-promotion. The delusion that there must be someone out there who could sell you the magic bean that will give you whatever you imagine you are missing is very common, and it’s also the reason why “religion” and “scam” so often travel in the same circles. But in that regard “spirituality” really isn’t any better.

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I argue in Rethinking Religion that religion and spirituality need each other.  Religion stripped of all mysticism and spiritus is empty. It becomes a stupid, supernatural ideology perpetuated more out of tribal loyalty than devotion, and religious institution become exercises in maintaining authority for authority’s sake. But DIY spirituality/mysticism seems to nearly always devolve, at best, into an ego-driven but directionless quest to feel better about oneself. Too often it’s more palliative than curative. 

Spirituality and religion need each other. It’s the spiritual element that liberates us from the conventional and makes possible some sense of union with the Great Ineffable Whatever. Religious tradition challenges the supremacy of the ego, gives the quest some direction and puts traffic cones around the potholes.

However,  I do think it’s mostly up to religious institutions to make themselves alive and relevant and return to their mystical roots. Otherwise people will continue to float away in pursuit of something else.

2 thoughts on “My Heresy on Spiritual but Not Religious

  1. Buddhacrone

    Once again, you have hit it squarely; I have a long love/friendship with a person who is the epitome of the “spiritual tourist”. Always looking for the Golden Key that’s going to make everything perfect and *give* her enlightenment. She’s been through at least 5 religions that I know of and none of them *gave*her perfection. It’s the *give* part that doesn’t work; one has to do the work and that’s what she is unwilling to do. Probably that’s the reason she has never given Buddhism a whirl. The sad part is her utter terror of death. I gave up trying to make any dent in that attitude after many years. I’m far from terrific in my own practice, but at least I know I alone have to ‘do the work’. Some days I’m better at it than others, but at least know what needs to be done. About all I really know is that I don’t really *know* anything. An interesting place to be.
    I follow your work in several places and it resonates beautifully with my own path. Thank you for what you do.

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  2. Pingback: Killing the Spiritual but Not Religious Buddha | Rethinking Religion

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