We often hear people, not only in the West but increasingly in the East (as we progressively and inexorably adopt Western language and the thinking that goes with it) say, “I’m not really religious, just spiritual.” I cannot help but question such a lazy and prepackaged assertion.

It’s exactly like saying: I don’t eat a specific cuisine, but food in general. Unless you live in the wild and pick or hunt your food for sustenance, this idea doesn’t make sense. A notion can only become so generalized before it loses meaning altogether. At this point it becomes a container for whatever fuzzy notion the thinker wants to fill it with.  So what exactly does being generally spiritual mean?  Believing in God?  What kind of God, deistic, theistic or pantheistic? ‘Spirituality’ in itself tells you nothing about the immaterial and how it relates to humans, or even if such a relationship exists in the first place. Without the benefit of a creation story that puts humanity in the context of the larger universe (and perhaps its creator), we lose hope of forming any clear picture of values or first principles.

There is also a deep-seated misapprehension in this use of the words spiritual and spirituality. In a specifically Christian context, not only does spirituality mean believing in the creator God (which for most of history was not a serious point of contention, because everyone was assumed to believe in God, or a god), but believing in the Christian God and the story of his son Jesus Christ. Namely this means that a Jewish carpenter, born of a virgin and performing miracles, died on a cross and rose from the dead to carry the world’s sins on his shoulders. Resurrection, which even pagans couldn’t believe in, is the crux (literally and symbolically) of Christian belief and the spirituality that it gives rise to. In a Christian, and more widely Western context, spirituality is not possible without a Christian narrative.

In Islam too, spirituality cannot be shorn of its historic and social circumstances.  Here it means believing in the creator God (akin to the Judeo-Christian God), with this essential requisite: believing in the message of his prophet Muhammad, as enshrined in God’s last testament, the Holy Quran.  From here, other worship and praxis follows, both individually and socially.

So does spirituality mean believing in the unseen or inexplicable?  You don’t really need spirituality for that, just a kind of eager, though selective, credulity (I’m reminded of a canard I read in a old yellowed book: among a certain jungle tribe, bananas are offered to the Jungle God. Even though they see the monkeys eating them, the tribespeople believe they are propitiating the Jungle God. However, if a banana disappears from someone’s hut, they will immediately assume a thieving relative took it, even if it’s suggested to them that the Jungle God might’ve needed it. The point is: people can distinguish reality when they want to.)

If by spirituality we mean believing in fate or karma, then these could be as easily explained as results of a mechanistic, deterministic universe. If it is used to describe extrasensory phenomena, then it is simply giving a label to things you haven’t experienced in the first place, which by definition are extra (outside) perception; so what it does it mean to assign the label of spirituality to what we ignore (do not know)?

Very often a makeshift spirituality patch is used by individuals to justify certain disappointments in their lives, sometimes believing themselves to have encountered a Road to Damascus epiphany (even the actual Road to Damascus can be questioned). Their thinking goes something like this: “I didn’t get this thing I wished for, so perhaps there is deeper meaning to it all. I’ll make up this supposed meaning (without attributing it to myself) and feel better about myself.” While there is no harm is such justifications (provided they don’t fly too insolently in the face of reality), calling them spirituality is a bit of a stretch.

There is also a more specific, but still under-pixelated use of the term spirituality, exemplified by those who say: I’m just a general Muslim or generic Christian, I don’t fellow any denomination or belong to any church. To which I respond to the Muslim, how do you perform hajj (the great pilgrimage to Mecca) without a school to follow? And to the Christian, what are the specifics of your belief in Christ and how do you worship him? Loose claims of adherence barely scratch the surface of what are already complicated topics (even if we believe they should be simple) and engender more confusion than clarity.

So what is the alternative to the statement I’m not religious, just spiritual? Perhaps the person can say: I can’t commit to a specific religious system, with its requirements of belief and practice, but I do harbor some notions that I consider to be less than strictly materialistic. That in itself is no sin (in the metaphorical sense, at any rate), but at least they wouldn’t further diluting an already fraught term.



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