The term "spirituality" can be used in several ways.

  1. The first definition, highly unremarkable and rather banal, is a person's focus on their so-called "inner" world, or the essence of their being.[1][2] People who are exploring their spirituality frequently talk about feeling "one with the Universe" on an emotional or intellectual level, or "understanding the meaning in life or their place in it",[3] and they do not have to be religious or believe in a god to say so.[4] People who see themselves as spiritual in this way may pray, meditate, or do other activities for these personal "journeys". There is rarely anything magical or even marketable about it. A more appropriate descriptor is "chemical," as the amount of oneness with the Universe that they feel is usually directly proportional to the amount of dope they have ingested, as it was when the Turkish dervishes hit the opium, or the American Indian shamans lit the calumets, or Norse pagans overloaded on mead, or a Romantic poet drank too much laudanum. Spiritual feelings can also happen without any drugs and are consistent with Metaphysical naturalism [5]
  2. The second meaning falls right in the heart of Woodom. These are people who see their spirituality as something greater than human, magical, and transcendent of all rational ideas. They use the term "spirituality" because they do not have a particular religion, or even because they feel they are beyond religion and all the Earthly trappings of religion.
  3. A third group uses "spirituality" as a code word of sorts for a person who has moved away from organized religion but has not given up God, even though their view of God is really no different than it was when they believed in their religion. "I am no longer a Christian. Now I am just spiritual."

Believers made uncomfortable by idiots[]

Some people have given "religion" such a bad name that other people want absolutely nothing to do with it, but still believe in God, which makes them feel awkward by association. So, instead of taking the trouble to challenge the Christian fundamentalist and other Fundamentalist loonies, and denying them a monopoly on the use of a very strong word, they try to pussy-foot around the issue by saying things like, "I'm more spiritual than religious."

It is this second and third definition that this article primarily focuses on.

New Age quacks[]

See also: New Age-ism

These smooth-talkers slither around waxing lyrical about human potential and making claims such as, "I can help you get in touch with your unique spirituality," and "There's a little bit of God in all of us," never considering that the most divine part of them is probably what is bubbling in their intestines. Some of them put a "scientific" veneer on their blather by trying to claim that it is "scientifically proven," e.g., saying that prayers have been caught in the act of healing hospitalized people.

Of course, they usually charge a fee for their incalculably valuable services, which has let some of them become rich as professional brown-nosers.

The biological connection[]

Spirituality is often an attempt to place meaning on profound, but nevertheless natural biological experiences of the brain, termed "mystical experiences" by William James.[6] James' work supplemented by a century of scientific research, posits that under duress, the brain sends out chemicals that cause the mind to have an experience that is similar across cultures, though it is interpreted from within those cultures and their religions. It is perhaps unfortunate that this experience was first described with religious tones, for it adds a layer of woo that doesn't help in studying the brain's working.

The general characteristics are reported as:

  • A profound sense of the breakdown of self which can lead to the feeling of "oneness" with all things, a shared identity or beginning
  • A profound sense of the loss of time, or shifting of time
  • The experience is transient, ineffable, Noetic, passive[7]

These states have been induced in people without religious connotation by stimulating the brain with various levels of magnetic pulses. They can be indued by drugs, by dangerous or frightening experiences, by meditation, or spinning, but they all seem to come back to the same biological hard-wiring that is then interpreted through the glasses of the person's worldview.

It is actually possible, though not yet proven, that these biological experiences and the near-death experience may be part of the seed of religion.

Spiritual but not religious[]

"Spiritual but not religious" is a neologism that has evolved from online dating sites and continued with social networking profiles. By using it, people attempt to distance themselves from the "bad" aspects of religion while embracing the "good" aspects of it.

Because religion can impact a person's choice of mate, dating sites usually try to get some data about members' religious background or views.[8] Given the difficulty of reducing complex worldviews into simple data points, these sites need to create a category for people who may feel or even "experience" that "there is something more", but do not subscribe to any formal religious ideology. This is similar to the caveat of "organised" that people put before religion when describing what they dislike, as if not belonging to an official organisation excuses a variety of crackpot beliefs.

So, they check off the "spiritual but not religious" box. It could mean anything.

Noted reactions[]

According to the Secular Humanist Declaration, and other such documents, the "spiritual" side of religion is, for the most part, what is wrong with it.[9]

Secular uses[]

There are ways that spiritual experiences and spirituality can be studied and used to make scientific claims without resorting to woo-woo. Studies have shown that psilocybin mushrooms impair brain function in such a way as to make their users believe they are having certain experiences which they might define as "spiritual", which can lead to individuals feeling happier.

Sam Harris is a big proponent of spiritual experiences as potentially positive, transforming experiences.[10] He cautions however that we can't use it to make claims about neuroscience or the universe, but there may be objective claims about the subjective experiences of consciousness that can be determined, much like we can learn things about the human brain about religious experiences that won't ever justify religious beliefs.

See also[]

  • Psychic


  1. Such a person may, for example, explore inside himself by placing his head inside his large intestine.
  2. Spirituality on Wikipedia
  3. Philip Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality, Wiley-Blackwell 2007 p. 1-2
  4. Carl Sagan [1] and David Attenborough are two authors who have talked about the spirituality they find in studying the stars or nature. See:
  5. Spirituality Without Faith
  6. The variety of religious experience, (1902)
  7. Varieties of Religious Experiences
  8. Yes, some people really won't date outside their faith. But they're never accused of discrimination...
  9. Secular Humanist Declaration, ethics section recognizes a system of morals — what is, in essence, the "non-spiritual" side of most religions — as "central" to human life.

Adapted from a RationalWiki article