When we say we are “spiritual but not religious” we are implying that there are some aspects of traditional religion that we are not comfortable with. But which parts? It’s certainly not the festivals which everyone participates in with gusto over Christmas, Hanukkah or Holi. It is generally not a belief in God. Unlike atheists, people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” generally want to hold on to a universal sacred “ground of being” although beliefs about God are sifted, weighed and sometimes rejected. The most reported expression of religious faith that we struggle with are the statements of exclusivity, the stories which tap our credulity and the moral certainties which are proclaimed as black and white in a world of grays.
So what we are struggling with most often is the religious myths – the stories which mark the foundation of the world faiths and the beliefs about the nature of the life which flow from them. We want to preserve the fatherhood of God but not the stories of his angry-father-judgment destroying the earth and all who do not believe in him. We are happy to imitate the meditation and compassion of the Buddha but may not be convinced about doctrines of re-incarnation. We want to engage humans “spirit” but may be skeptical about claims about the way these spirits can be contacted.
Here’s an idea: People who identify as spiritual but not religious are instinctively wanting to access religion archetypally rather than mythically or dogmatically. They draw energy from spiritual forms and images such as the divine child at Christmas or from the playfulness of Krishna at Dahi Handi or the spirits at Sanheim without buying into beliefs that have gathered around those divine archetypes. The transformation of spiritualties into systemic belief systems and then world religions marks a period of religious history begun around 500 B.C.E. but which has been unraveling over the last 60 years in the West. Rather than being the disaster that some within traditional religious communities are suggesting, this may be a positive refocusing of spirituality away from what seem arbitrary belief systems which yield wildly different views of reality towards shared images of the divine. For the spiritual but not religious that shift is healthy even if the variety of spiritual movements and practices that it throws up can sometimes be a bit confusing.
There has been a variety of responses to the demise of the traditional myths and the belief systems built on them. There has been an almost outright rejection of the life of faith by the new atheists. Others have tried to keep the moral values that were intertwined with the myths but have discovered that this can reduce spirituality to do-gooding built on the shifting sands of changing moral values. Others look to keep faiths as wisdom literature from the past or as a series of methodologies for self-development or personal healing.
I have found one of the most helpful ways forward has been to focus on the archetypal power of religion. This path retains the numinous power of the great father, of the divine creative mother, of the lover and warrior, of the divine human whose path we are called to imitate. We can explore these through one of the many human religious archetypes of the monk, the disciple or the prophet. The desire to be spiritual without being religious may well be a search for a way of retaining the spiritual energy and openness of archetypal spirituality without getting caught up in divisive and sometimes violent arguments about beliefs, who is right or wrong and who is in or who is out. If it is, then my experience is that it will be a rich and rewarding path indeed.