A recent Pew study revealed that about 1/5th of Americans do not consider themselves religiously affiliated, yet more than 1/3rd of that group view themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Some may have too many barriers to engaging religious beliefs or may have been too turned off by past clergy and communities. It may unfortunately be that solitary or loosely bonded communal spirituality is as far as some can or want to go. Religion is the committed concretization of spiritualty for those willing to invest in spiritual community, shared language, traditional ritual, and ethical norms (common ethos, pathos, logos). It is how spirituality is sustained and is about the “we” and not just the “me.” It provides the continuity of text, tradition and rituals, which can be vehicles for new interpretations and experiences.
In Rev. Lillian Daniel’s book, “When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough,” she bemoaned the predictability that she found in the “spiritual but not religious.”
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Before you know it, “he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets.”
The “spiritual but not religious” most often engage in a type of spirituality built upon simplicity. We are all familiar with the practices: breathing, quiet meditation, watching a sunrise, and the like. It can be incredibly powerful. There is another type of spirituality, however, that goes less explored: spirituality based upon complexity. This is less about going in and more about going out, feeling interconnected with the masses of human beings (past, present, and future), with the cosmos, with profound ideas, and the like.
Consider an explanation of Rav Kook:
The ceaseless prayer of the soul continually strives to emerge from occultation to revelation, to extend over all the life-forces of every spirit and soul and all the energies of the body as a whole, and longs as well to reveal its essence and action over all surroundings, the whole world and life, and to that end we need the reckoning with the world that comes through Torah and wisdom (Siddur Olat Reiyah, Inyanei Tefilah 1:11).
Spirituality coupled with righteous work (e.g., promoting civil rights, helping persecuted Soviet Jews emigrate to Israel, volunteering in a soup kitchen, etc.) is indeed compelling. However, to some people, religion appears as a repressive and reactionary force. Words such as "crusade" and "jihad," for example, describe religious wars that have killed millions and still have the power to frighten people. Americans celebrate the Puritans for their resistance to the British monarchy, but they were also responsible for the 1692 Salem witch trials, where even religious conformity could not save the victims from hanging. Even in the present century, women, LGBT people, and others have felt unwelcome in many religious denominations. No wonder that many who may have had negative experiences, or nonconformists who fear peer pressure, may want to be seen as "spiritual" but not "religious." The American humorist (and religious skeptic) Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) expressed this sentiment about religion: "A man is accepted into a church for what he believes and he is turned out for what he knows." We would be wise to let our core beliefs lead us, yet not be so arrogant as to think that everything we say must be accepted on pain of expulsion.
There can be intellectual-spirituality (based upon engaging complex texts and ideas), justice-spirituality (based upon engaging the vulnerable), doubt-spirituality (based upon elevating one’s doubts in a holy manner), and paradox-spirituality (based upon elevated consciousness in states of confusion). Religion is not going anywhere and is only growing as a global force. We need changemakers to leave solitary spirituality and join religious communities to become agents of change helping to steer the religious train in the right direction.
There is a crucial role for simple-spirituality, but we should provide another entry point of complex-spirituality for those who connect more with that. Some can feel G-d’s presence and have no doubts. Others are full of doubts, questions, concerns, and barriers. We must honor that we are all made up differently.
Let us open our arms to others to create a wider tent for those who are simply-spiritually, those who are complexly-spiritual, and those who are not-yet-spiritual.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”