Are you religious? If so, what is your religion? If you have one, is it of central importance to you, quite important, or not at all important? You could face such questions when filling in a form – for the National Census, on a dating website or (ominously) when you are about to undergo surgery. You might tick the boxes without much thought, to satisfy a bureaucratic requirement.
But the questions could also face you with issues whose truthful answers might cause some private embarrassment. If the honest answer is ‘I am a Christian, but not particularly interested in the fact’, then can you leave things there?
But sometimes you are allowed to indicate that you are "spiritual but not religious". It is increasingly common for people describe themselves in this way. But what does it mean? To many committed believers and avowed atheists alike, it represents something depressing about contemporary attitudes to religion.
For many active worshippers, it demonstrates indifference and confusion about doctrine and a preference for comfort over challenge. For hard-headed non-believers, it likewise appears woolly and evasive, a perverse attempt to retain the comforts of faith in spite of knowing that there is no rational basis for them.
At its worst, the spiritual-but-not-religious box points to a smorgasbord of New Age foolery, from the crystals that found favour with Cherie Blair to the arcane mysteries of astrology. But it is easy to deride scientifically groundless belief systems that offer fake solace to the shallow and self-absorbed. What is more difficult is to have a nuanced and honest discussion of the spiritual, to see whether those who embrace spirituality without religion (or at least organised religion) may be on to something important after all.
Religious apologists often point to the widespread human quest for meaning and purpose, for things that transcend the mundane and the material. They warn us that this quest is impeded by vices like covetousness, greed and the habit of instant gratification.
Above all, they remind of the importance of selfless living and our need both to give and receive love. Yet you may agree with all this but doubt the existence of any divine being. Many atheists and agnostics find meaning in close human relationships, or in the beauty of nature. Some early Romantics sought meaning in art rather than faith, setting aside the sacred to make way for the beautiful. Some people with no religious convictions find fulfilment in the spiritual disciplines of meditation, contemplation and even prayer.
Furthermore, the fact that we have spiritual, or at least non-material needs, does not entail that those needs can be satisfied. Some needs, like the need for water if you are stuck in the desert, may not be able to be met. The fact that we crave an objective meaning for our lives does not imply that there is one to be found. Similarly with purpose. When believers announce, with an air of profundity, that "although science can tell us how the world came to be, it cannot tell us why", they seem to be assuming that there is an answer to this question. But why should there be? Why should every question we ask have an answer?
This is how the matter might be debated superficially. But it is also important to see what the quest for spirituality says about human beings. You can always tell some story about how spiritual quests might have conferred an adaptive advantage on our remote ancestors, or been a side-effect of something else that had that advantage. Neuroscience may tell us what happens in the brain during spiritual (or religious) experience.
Yet we humans are the only known creatures who can use the first-person pronoun, who can offer justifications for our actions, and who know we are going to die. We seek meaning and value, truth and beauty precisely because we can stand outside our condition and reflect upon it. We can see the arbitrariness of so much that we take for granted. We can look at the values that have implicitly informed our lives so far, and ask whether they might be improved. We can ask obvious, yet hard questions, such as whether we have been too self-absorbed – perhaps with the connivance of quack spirituality – and not concerned enough for others.
These are all, broadly speaking, spiritual matters – matters concerned with desires, motives, character and orientation. They may not lead us to any metaphysical beliefs. They may be catered for by the better varieties of self-help, the sort that tells you not only how to achieve what you want, but how to want things worth wanting. At the same time, traditional religion cannot be divorced from spirituality of this sort. For example, the central claim of the Abrahamic faiths – that there is one God, with whom we can enter into a relationship – is a truly astonishing one. There is a radical, unbridgeable gap between the cosmos as conceived by theists, and by atheists. Spiritual practices within those traditions are designed to foster that relationship, for example by developing faith, hope and charity.
So the quest for spiritual growth and development can show itself both within, and outside, theistic traditions. Although there is a bland, even tacky side to spirituality, the deepest spiritual traditions remind us of our nature and our needs.
The traditions of organised religions cannot be reduced to spirituality, since these religions also make definite claims, with supernatural and miraculous elements that many people find hard to accept. But within these traditions, spiritual practices like prayer and meditation may help believers understand the meaning of the historic creeds that include these elements. For those unsure of those claims, spiritual practices and disciplines may aid a clearer grasp. And for people strongly inclined to disbelieve, questions about the Good, the Beautiful and the True can still have ineradicable resonance in their thinking and their lives.
Dr Piers Benn is a writer and philosopher. His latest book is Commitment (Acumen Press 2011). He is speaking at Religious or spiritual or neither? At the Battle of Ideas on Saturday 20 October
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