Spirituality without Religion, in a Post-Secular Age
Richard J. White
Philosophy, Creighton University
Abstract: The recent growth in the number of people who identify as spiritual but not religious illuminates some of the shortcomings of organized religion, as well as the limitations of traditional secularism as a philosophy to live by. It also reflects the emergence of a “post-secular” culture in which spirituality can be taken seriously for its own sake and not just as an adjunct to religion. This paper looks at theoretical views, including Hadot, Jung and Nietzsche, to clarify some of the most important aspects of spirituality in the contemporary post-secular world. Working within such a context, the paper examines the meaning of religion and spirituality and their relationship to each other. Finally, the paper considers the possibility of returning to the original impulse of philosophy as a spiritual guide to life.
spirituality, secularism, atheism, post-secular, Hadot, Nietzsche
The phrase “spiritual but not religious” seems paradoxical if we think of spirituality as an important dimension of religious life. But even so, “spiritual but not religious” has become a popular slogan that describes the sensibilities of a growing number of people. One can speculate on the reasons for this: Most organized religions offer their adherents a well-worn, circumscribed path that is supposed to be the way to salvation or enlightenment. But for many people this is too confining, it does not capture their spiritual imagination, or it goes against some of their own deeply held beliefs.
Likewise, it is certainly possible to have religion without spirituality — in the case of a fundamentalist faith that requires only unquestioning obedience — and this suggests that there can be spirituality without religion, in the case of those who want to live the best and most genuine lives possible, who care about others, including future generations who are still unborn, but who remain skeptical of traditional religious authorities and some of their claims about God, the afterlife or miracles. Those who are spiritual but not religious seek to accomplish their own spiritual quest as individual seekers, but without the constraint of any fixed ideas and dogmas, or the repressive values of an established church. Linda Mercadante writes about this growing tendency in Beliefs without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (2014). For Mercadante, one of the conclusions that emerge from the hundred or so interviews which form the basis of her book is that we are now living in a significant time of spiritual and religious transition:
“No matter how you evaluate it … we are in a time of widespread openness to spiritual things and a new willingness to sacrifice time, money, and effort to find a connection to something larger than ourselves. History shows that these openings come from time to time, sometimes engaging more people, and sometimes confined to a small minority … Although not every journey leads in a productive direction, it is important to stay attentive to the bubbling up of spirit in unexpected places.” (6-7).
Such findings are confirmed by a number of scholars who write on spirituality and religion, including Day (2011); Erlandson (2000); and Fuller (2001).
At the same time, traditional religion has been seriously challenged by secular values and the growth of scientific explanations, as Hitchens (2009) Harris (2014) Dawkins (2006) and other “new atheists” assert. At this point, people are generally more critical of religious dogmas, and the reactionary position of religious authorities on many social issues. Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury observes: “The traditional forms of religious affiliations … lose their integrity when they attempt to enforce their answers; and one of the most significant lessons to be learned from the great shift towards post-religious spiritual sensibility is how deeply the coercive and impersonal ethos of a good deal of traditional religion has alienated the culture at large” (Williams 2015). From the secular standpoint, with its roots in the rational Enlightenment, religion is to be regarded as a form of superstition, while spirituality is foolish or subjective. The problem is that traditional secularism is unable to offer us a truly meaningful life either, for with the triumph of instrumental reason we seem to be living in a “disenchanted” world that cannot respond to our spiritual needs. Writing in the middle of the twentieth century, Carl Jung was one of the first to reject this form of secularism as an impoverished view of life:
“As scientific understanding has grown, so our world has become dehumanised. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved with nature and has lost his emotional “unconscious identity” with natural phenomena. These have slowly lost their symbolic implications… No voices now speak to man from stones, plants and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear. His contact with nature has gone, and with it has gone the profound emotional energy that this symbolic connection supplied.” (Jung 1968, 85)
Jung was a dedicated scientist, but he also distrusted the narrow formulations of science, as he searched for a deeper spiritual vision. Here, he laments the disenchantment of the world, and the decline of myth and symbols that made life meaningful in the past. It can be argued, however, that since Jung wrote the passage above we have become a “post-secular” society, and one which could be described as more spiritual though not necessarily more religious.
Each of these terms — “secular,” “post-secular,” and even “pre-secular” — can be defined in different ways, and it would be helpful to summarize different approaches: For example, Clayton Crockett argues that: “Secularism is a specific deployment of the secular that relegates religion to a private sphere while reserving the public realm for a non-religious civil discourse” (Crockett 2015, 317). But as Crockett points out, it has finally proved impossible to keep religion and the secular completely separate from each other, so that post-secularism entails the return of religion and religious issues to the public space. José Casanova (1994) makes a similar point when he says that what we are now witnessing is basically the “de-privatization” of religion.
According to Paul Cliteur (2010) one view of secularism holds that it is inherently a-theistic in character; and this suggests hostility or at best indifference to religious or spiritual concerns. But against this view, Lloyd Geering (2001) points out that the term “secular” is derived from the Latin “saeculum” which refers to a span of time or an era (as opposed to eternity). From this it follows that: “Secularization may be legitimately and profitably defined as that process of cultural change which consists of an increase of this-worldliness. In other words, it is the process by which humankind focuses attention increasingly on this world and decreasingly on an imagined or postulated other-world” (183). Geering goes on to argue that this makes it possible to discuss the impact of secularization on religion, which implies that the one is not necessarily opposed to the other.
John Milbank (2006) and other proponents of the Radical Orthodoxy school of theology view “post-secularism” as an appropriate term to describe the failure of secularism, and the return of theism as metaphysically foundational. But such a usage seems narrow and misleading: If we have now gone beyond secularism it does not mean that we have just reverted to a pre-secular phase of religion. Instead, the “post-secular” may be understood more positively as the point at which secularism recovers what it has repressed — including spirituality and the meaningful possibility of religion in general — and affirms it as an important perspective on the world. Certainly, this is what Habermas claims in his debates with the Catholic Church. In a recent discussion, Habermas argues that religion can awaken “in the minds of secular subjects an awareness of the violations of solidarity throughout the world, an awareness of what is missing, of what cries out to heaven” (Habermas 2010, 19).
In what follows, I will argue that post-secularism involves the possibility of an ongoing dialogue between secularism and religion, as well as a much more open attitude towards spirituality, which is often condemned by more traditional secular thinkers as purely subjective or emotional. There is in fact a limited tradition of secular spirituality which has been slowly accumulating over the past few years, which includes the work of André Comte-Sponville (2008) Robert Solomon (2005) Peter van Ness (1996) and the scholarly writings of Pierre Hadot (1995, 2002). The latter has been influential in the field of ancient philosophy, but his work has become well-known, and increasingly influential on the project of philosophy itself. This tradition of secular spirituality is bound to grow as we become a more post-secular society in which we accept the return of spirituality as a significant player in the debates concerning ultimate meaning and truth. For in a sense that will be discussed, I take it that we seek spiritual fulfillment along with physical, emotional and intellectual fulfillment in order to live more meaningful lives.
This essay focuses on three perspectives — religion, spirituality, and philosophy — and argues in defense of the basic claim that we are caught between traditional religion and traditional secularism as two unsatisfactory views. Of course, talking about “spirituality” or “religion” in general is inherently problematic and there is a real danger in making broad claims that ignore the many counter tendencies that have emerged, including feminist theology and queer spirituality etc. The range of this paper is also limited to what we commonly refer to as “the West,” including the United States and Western Europe. From a global perspective, things are definitely more complicated, and the rise of religion in the world — not just fundamentalism — cannot be denied. In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong argues: “Contrary to the confident secularist predictions of the mid twentieth century, religion is not going to disappear” (Armstrong 2009, xviii). I will neither celebrate this possibility nor lament it, but I think it will be difficult to understand the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” if we do not discuss some of the reasons why established religions are currently under threat in the modern Western world. In the final part of this paper, I will suggest that some recurrent themes in contemporary philosophy can help us to understand the idea of philosophy as a spiritual practice that is unencumbered by religious beliefs and doctrines.
The Problems of Religion
According to Charles Taylor (2007) and other commentators Western society has become increasingly secular in nature, where secularization is associated with the decline of established religion, and traditional religious explanations. By most objective measures, we are now living in a less religious age. Religious belief has declined, church attendance is down, and religious authorities no longer seem to have such an important voice in current affairs. The United States is often considered to be one of the most religious nations, but even here the evidence suggests that a growing number of people now think of themselves as spiritual but not religious. Admittedly this is just a snapshot, and the argument should not hang on this survey alone; but here are some recent statistics:
About a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 25 and June 4 of this year . This growth has been broad-based: It has occurred among men and women; whites, blacks and Hispanics; people of many different ages and education levels; and among Republicans and Democrats… To be clear, the survey did not directly ask respondents whether the label “spiritual but not religious” describes them. Instead, it asked two separate questions: “Do you think of yourself as a religious person, or not?” and “Do you think of yourself as a spiritual person, or not?” The results presented are the product of combining responses to those two questions. (Pew Research Center, 2017. This study is the most recent survey that I can find concerning the spiritual but not religious. But see Mercadante (2014), 1-19, for her general comments on this growing phenomenon, and the status of surveys that have been taken in recent years.)
A similar survey by the Pew Research Center in 15 Western European countries shows that fewer people there (11%) would actually call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (Pew Research Center, 2018). However, since all the categories in the Pew reports are self-reported, it is entirely possible that the term “spiritual” has different connotations in Europe as opposed to the United States. For example, the Green movement in Germany is particularly strong and this would count as a spiritual movement in the sense that I will argue for in this paper; also, the Pew study reports that in Europe a significant number of people believe in “spiritual” phenomena such as fate (34%); astrology (23%); reincarnation (20%) and tarot or horoscope reading (13%).
I think it is important to make a distinction between spirituality and spiritualism, for while the two are loosely related to each other, the survey ignores the difference between them, and this is problematic: As David Tacey notes, “spiritualism” usually evokes supernaturalism of some kind, while focusing on “spirituality” suggests a desire to live more authentically in this world here and now (Tacey 2013, 20-22). People are generally less religious in Europe than they are in the United States: 15% of those surveyed in Western Europe “believed in God with absolute certainty” (compared to 63% in the United States); and only 11% of those surveyed in Western Europe said that religion was very important in their lives (compared to 53% in the United States). Likewise, religious attendance and religious belief have been minority positions for many years in England, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany etc. From all of this, it may be argued that Western Europe has seen a decline in religion; but spiritual beliefs are not necessarily linked to religious ones, and a lot depends upon the meaning of the word spiritual — but see Murphy (2017) for a review of several recent studies on this theme.
If we briefly step outside Western culture, the situation is of course more complicated. For in spite of modernization, globalization, and the Internet, traditional religious practices still prevail, while some parts of the world have become entrenched in fundamentalism. On the one hand, we should seriously consider the view that fundamentalism and the return of tribal practices such as female circumcision are a response to the growing homogenization of the world that threatens local cultures. As Benjamin Barber (1996) puts it in the title of his seminal work, we are now living in the age of “Jihad versus McWorld,” and we can expect a reactionary response to the homogenizing tendency of late capitalism. On the other hand, with the rise of globalization, there is a sense in which the world is becoming much smaller, and whatever happens in Los Angeles, London, Paris, or Berlin may presage the future for the rest of the world. And such a future would include the decline of traditional religious forms.
So what exactly is religion? Without question, religion is an essentially contested concept, but historically religion seems to begin with worship and ritual devotion within the framework of fixed beliefs — this god must be praised, these words must be spoken, and this sacrifice must be made. As Freud (1989), Don Cupitt (1997), and Reza Aslan (2017) have all pointed out, each archaic community has its own gods, and the most urgent goal is to propitiate these higher powers and affirm our connection to them so that the community can be strengthened and protected. From this starting-point, different doctrines and dogmas may eventually emerge which everyone is required to affirm under the threat of punishment or exclusion. Much later, more emphasis is placed on religious experience, or a sense of the sacred, as the subjective side of religion which can become quite as important as its communal aspect. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes the personal aspect of religion primary when he notes that: “Religion … shall mean for us the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow” (James 1990, 36).
Now it is probably a mistake to separate the “objective” and “subjective” aspects of religion since these are completely bound up with each other, and they can be mutually illuminating. At the same time, the personal dimension of religious experience can sometimes be in tension with the communal aspect of devotion, the required dogmas and beliefs, and the ecclesiastical organization that characterizes most religions. And so a distinction between the “spiritual” and the “religious” begins to emerge where the one may be viewed as an outgrowth of the other. As Pierre Hadot notes, religion does not require spirituality for the earliest religions focused on the details of worship and ceremony (Hadot 2002, 272). Similarly, while spirituality can exist with religion or without it, traditional religion is frequently at odds with modern values, and so it is challenged by the secular viewpoint that we inherit from the world that we live in. Listed below are some of the most common objections that are typically made against religion. The list comes out of my own experience, teaching a class on “Ultimate Questions” to multiple students over the course of several years. The students may or may not be “typical,” but these are the things they find most problematic about religion, and such concerns are very widespread. I am not assuming that these charges are unanswerable, but the decline in religious belief and religious observance is something that needs to be explained.
First, there is the conflict between religion and science. On the whole, people are more educated than they ever have been before, and a growing number of young adults will spend at least three or four years at a university. And while they may not be required to take classes in philosophy or critical thinking, they probably will take science classes in which they are taught the scientific method and the materialist explanation of the world. This makes it much harder to accept religious dogmas such as the resurrection, the Virgin birth, or any kind of miracle, like walking on water. A 2009 Pew survey shows that scientists in the United States are roughly half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher power. It seems that those who embrace the scientific world picture find it more difficult to accept the dictates of religion, although they may view religion in metaphorical terms as a kind of spiritual guide.
Second, religion is often associated with reactionary ways of thinking. Many religions are patriarchal in character, and the Divine principle is typically viewed as masculine, which makes it harder for women to relate to. Gays and lesbians have not always been tolerated, and many churches remain completely opposed to gay marriage. The idea of hell is still celebrated in many religious communities as the final destination for all those who flaunt the church’s teachings in one way or another. This negative view of religion may be challenged in light of the civil rights movement which was both progressive and religious, or by the example of selfless exponents of religion including Mother Theresa. Even so, established religions seem more likely to be associated with reactionary positions — some will object that this is a very unfair characterization, but in this case the perception becomes a part of the reality itself.
Third, religion does not usually encourage critical thinking or thinking for oneself. It requires belief, but historically it has not been comfortable with criticism that seems to challenge the community of worshippers. Proponents of contemporary spirituality have emphasized the importance of finding one’s own spiritual path, and yet many religions seem to insist that one size fits all. Perhaps this is especially difficult to accept at a time when we are encouraged to think of ourselves as unique individuals, each of whom has their own particular destiny to fulfill. Of course, there are always exceptions, and in Aquinas, for example, there is a strong emphasis on the cultivation of personal conscience; but this is counter-balanced in the religious tradition by the emphasis on dogma and required beliefs, the insistence on “infallibility” in some contexts, and the use of excommunication and other measures against so-called “heretics.” Overall, organized religions cannot always inspire individuals who seek to discover ultimate truth for themselves.
Fourth, religion seems to be stuck in the past (although some would complain that it is preoccupied with the future possibilities of heaven and an afterlife). But in either case, religion does not seem to move with the times, and in this respect it appears to be less relevant, especially for those who are impatient for social change. Whatever one thinks about the recent emergence of the New Age spiritual movement, its popularity suggests that spirituality — of one kind or another — is something that people are hungry for. This is because it has a living spirit, and people respond to it with real interest, in the same way that they respond to the Dalai Lama, Thomas Merton or Thich Nhat Hanh, each of whom has sought a basis of genuine spirituality in the heart of everyday life. But the response of many churches has been negative and disdainful. (Witness, for example, the policy document published by the Pontifical Council in 2003, “Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age’.” See Tacey 2013, 82-85).
Fifth, religion in general has a tendency to suppress or vilify the body; it has promoted a negative attitude towards sex; and sometimes it affirms the idea that all of us are born in sin. It has celebrated heaven and the hereafter, but it has not placed much value on nature as something to be cherished apart from its utility, or as a means to an end. And this is in part because God is usually held to be outside of nature rather than a part of nature itself. For many in this age of environmental crisis nature is to be viewed as sacred and inviolable, and not just as a means to an end which God created for our own benefit.
Overall, I think that people are increasingly aware of such perceived deficiencies in religion, which should be a moral guide and a source of spiritual inspiration, although it has often been repressive. Spirituality and religion are clearly related to each other. But today, many are passionately involved in spiritual matters — including the celebration of nature, the cultivation of compassion, and the exploration of spiritual healing etc. — while at the same time they reject some of the more exclusive claims of religion that require a faith commitment. For many people, spirituality is deeply personal, and it is often able to dig deeper into the soul than traditional religion which emphasizes communal aspects. Hence, spirituality must now be distinguished from religion.
The Meaning of Spirituality
What is spirituality? Once again, this is a difficult question to answer because everyone seems to use the term differently, and there are no objective measures of spiritual achievement. However, this does not mean that everything about spirituality is just subjective or emotional, and here we consider some ideas that can bring it into focus. First, it is helpful to remember that the word “spiritual” is derived from the Latin spirare, meaning to breathe. This implies the very basic character of spirituality, as fundamental as breathing; and that to be truly alive is to be living in a spiritual way. More recently, a spiritual life is said to involve cultivating our relationship to the sacred, or as Otto (1958) calls it, the “numinous,” which suggests more exalted possibilities of existence in this world here and now. But if we define spirituality in terms of “the sacred” then we are just replacing one indefinable term with another. Earlier, I suggested that it would be helpful to separate spirituality from “spiritualism” — the latter includes ghosts, poltergeists, ESP, and astral projection, and this is not what we are interested in here. In fact, spirituality is only distantly related to supernaturalism. In certain religions there is the sense that the “sacred” belongs to heaven; and this world, by comparison, is a realm of sin, and a vale of tears that is meant to test us. But for those who are spiritual but not religious, this world is sacred and it is entirely possible to have meaningful spiritual experiences in this life, in the absence of any religious framework whatsoever. Once again, this is something that comes through very clearly in some of the personal interviews that Mercadante describes in Beliefs without Borders.
More positively, then, and as a guiding definition which still allows for other perspectives, I will suggest that spirituality — like religion — involves the sense of being connected to a greater power or meaning, and the need to affirm that connection, because it seems to inspire the highest part of who we are. From this it follows that it is entirely possible to have spirituality without religion, because it is possible to feel a strong connection to nature, the cosmos, humankind or even “truth” itself (as in the case of Socrates or Gandhi). We may have reverence for all of these higher things and through them we can experience a sense of the “sacred.” And so, for instance, when nature is threatened by pollution, pipelines, or overdevelopment etc., there are people who will do whatever they can to turn the tide. For in this respect, they are devoted to nature, and the environmental (or Green) movement that they belong to is powerful precisely because it is a spiritual movement, as well as an ethical concern.
Now in order to strengthen our connection to this higher or greater reality — regardless of whether this is viewed as nature, the sacred, truth, humankind or a combination of these things — certain practices are enjoined such as meditation, prayer, the setting of individual intentions or communal devotion. And in this respect, as we will see, philosophy can be a kind of spiritual practice. Likewise, there are certain responses which show that someone values spiritual life because they indicate a desire to move beyond the selfish concerns of the ego, and be directed by a higher good. As the specific forms of such self-overcoming, compassion, forgiveness, mindfulness, wonder, generosity, and reverence etc. are all spiritual attitudes or spiritual virtues even if in other contexts they are also ethical virtues. But we can make a distinction between the spiritual and the ethical as the following example implies: For many would deny that we have an ethical duty to forgive someone who has killed a friend or a family member; and in such a situation it would be wrong to press someone to forgive if they really were not ready to do so. But as Derrida notes in his discussion of forgiveness (2002), it is still possible to forgive the unforgiveable, including the most terrible acts such as murder. And such an extreme act of generosity would be a spiritual achievement, especially if it is not done for one’s own sake (to relieve anger) but for the sake of the other person, or to bring peace into the world.
All of which returns us to the idea that the spiritual and the religious do not entirely coincide either, and just as we can be spiritual but not religious it is also possible to be religious without being spiritual, especially if one has fallen into a thoughtless religious routine. In particular, there is a difference in emphasis between spirituality and religion, for religion is typically associated with fixed beliefs about god and the afterlife which adherents are required to affirm. By contrast, spirituality emphasizes the personal quest for spiritual truth as a process of self-transformation; but it seems to cultivate more agnostic attitudes towards faith beliefs and the nature of “the absolute.” In this respect, it seems that a religious experience just is a spiritual experience which is mediated by religious beliefs; and this suggests that the spiritual is the heart of religion. In another context, Jeremiah Carey notes that: “[Pierre Hadot] rightly singles out Christianity’s distinctness from other ancient Greco-Roman religions of the time in that it combined religious rites with an all-encompassing spirituality and philosophy of life” (Carey 2018, 267). But once more, this implies that the most singular aspect of early Christianity may actually be its spiritual dimension and “philosophy of life” as opposed to its basic creed.
Even so, it has been argued that religion is essential to spiritual life insofar as it provides a community of worship which strengthens individuals in their resolve to tie themselves fast — re-ligare — to the sacred. But while this can be true, it is not true by definition, and there are certainly communities of spiritual seekers. In fact, one of Mercadante’s most significant findings is that many of those who consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious” also belong to spiritual communities of like-minded people (Mercadante 2014, 155-192). Again, it is sometimes held that religion can fall back on a long tradition of spiritual insight that has accumulated over the course of centuries, while spirituality that is not associated with religion is weak by comparison. But this is also debatable: With regard to Christianity, for example, it may be questioned whether the original followers of Jesus had much “Christian theology” to fall back on; but it does not follow that their spiritual life was limited or impoverished. In fact, it seems reasonable to say that the early Christians had enthusiasm and devotion; while Kierkegaard laments that in his own time, organized Christianity was devout but uninspired:
“The spiritual man differs from us men in being able to endure isolation, his rank as a spiritual man is proportionate to his strength for enduring isolation, whereas we men are constantly in need of ‘the others’, the crowd; we die, or despair, if we are not reassured by being in the crowd, or in the same opinion as the crowd, etc. But the Christianity of the New Testament is precisely reckoned upon and related to this isolation of the spiritual man. Christianity in the New Testament consists in loving God, in hatred to man … the strongest expression for the most agonizing isolation.” (Kierkegaard 1944, 163)
As a defender of religion, Kierkegaard would have us return to such inwardness as the only proper basis of religious life. For it seems that regardless of whether we are talking about spirituality or religion, the spiritual journey of the individual is really the most important thing.
The things that we call “spiritual” today exist on a wide spectrum from traditional forms of monastic life and spiritual formation, to Non-Western wisdom, including Daoism and the teachings of the Dalai Lama, and the mindfulness work of Thich Nhat Hanh, all of which originate from very different cultural contexts. There are also spiritual practices such as holistic medicine, yoga, ritual chanting, and the divinatory use of the Tarot; while at the New Age end of the spectrum there are popular books such as Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements (1997), and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now (2004). Clearly, spirituality in the contemporary context is diverse and wide-ranging, and this suggests that there is a real need for different spiritual forms which has not been addressed by traditional religion.
Of course, it can be argued that some forms of contemporary spirituality reflect narcissism and self-involvement instead of self-overcoming, and so they enhance the ego instead of the soul. Going further, some writers, such as Žižek (2001), have argued that the growth of contemporary spirituality is just a function of late capitalism, which puts spiritual consumers in the spiritual marketplace. I think this is a reasonable critique, and it must be taken seriously, since spirituality is a big business. But it would be unfair to reject spirituality as such just because some spiritual forms have been appropriated by commercial society. My own view is that compassion, generosity, forgiveness, mindfulness, wonder and other spiritual attitudes reflect a basic spiritual understanding that can be affirmed even in the absence of an explicitly religious foundation. Spiritual themes such as these form the core of spiritual life. They are essential to human flourishing, and so they should be explored by philosophy and other forms of inquiry.
It is still a fact, however, that many people are drawn to phenomena such as the occult, parapsychology, and theosophy etc.; but according to Jung the reason is clear: “The passionate interest in these movements undoubtedly arises from psychic energy which can no longer be invested in obsolete religious forms. For this reason such movements have a genuinely religious character, even when they pretend to be scientific” (Jung 1933, 207). But another reason for their popularity is that secularism favors reductive scientific materialism, and this calls into question the reality of whatever is “invisible,” or which cannot be measured. Life seems impoverished; what Nietzsche calls the “rich ambiguity” of existence is denied (1973, s.373); and so we look for more exciting possibilities in the “spiritual” realm which has been ignored for too long. As we have seen, Carl Jung lived through the gap between two world wars, when the absolute belief in reason and progress was still strong in spite of everything. But he sensed the precariousness of rational optimism, and in the following passage he describes a situation that seems to parallel our own:
“Along the great highroads of the world everything seems desolate and outworn. Instinctively the modern man leaves the trodden ways to explore the by-paths and lanes, just as the man of the Graeco-Roman world cast off his defunct Olympian gods and turned to the mystery cults of Asia. The force within us that impels us to the search, turning outward, annexes Eastern Theosophy and magic; but it also turns inward and leads us to give our thoughtful attention to the unconscious psyche. It inspires in us the self-same skepticism and relentlessness with which a Buddha swept aside his two million gods that he might come to the pristine experience which alone is convincing.” (Jung 1933, 218)
I would argue that the “pristine experience” that Jung describes is spirituality, and this can be separated from every religious interpretation. The defenders of traditional secularism assume that reason is a sufficient guide to life, but they are mistaken, because our lives are not completely rational, and we can experience a sense of connection to a higher or a greater reality that we must defer to. We call this “spiritual life” and we find ourselves drawn to cultivate our own relationship to it. We may neglect the best part of ourselves if we consign it to oblivion.
A Return to Philosophy?
How can we explore spiritual themes and the nature of our spiritual experience? How can spirituality be cultivated apart from the traditional religious format? One intriguing possibility is through philosophy, which according to Pierre Hadot first originated as a kind of spiritual practice. For Hadot (1995), the first philosophers were spiritual thinkers who used philosophy as a way of coming to terms with all the vicissitudes of life including sickness, poverty, death, and our alienation from nature. The first philosophers — Socrates, the Stoics, Pythagoreans, and Epicureans etc. — taught people how to be at one with the world, and to this end they created various techniques of spiritual enhancement, including meditation, creative visualization, thought experiments, the setting of intentions at the beginning of each day, and reflection at the end of the day. So in this respect, philosophy begins as a kind of spiritual practice in so far as it illuminates spiritual themes, and teaches us how to live. As Hadot puts it: “Philosophy was a method of spiritual progress which demanded a radical conversion and transformation of the individual’s way of being.” (Hadot 1995, 265). And on the same page, he adds: “Wisdom, then, was a way of life which brought peace of mind (ataraxia), inner freedom (autarkeia), and a cosmic consciousness. First and foremost, philosophy presented itself as a therapeutic, intended to cure mankind’s anguish.”
From our own historical perspective, we can now discern a spiritual tradition within philosophy, not only among ancient philosophers, but also among modern philosophers, including Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Irigaray, Foucault and Derrida etc. whose work clarifies spiritual themes — including compassion, generosity, love, the care of the self, and mourning — but in the absence of any religious framework. In this respect, it seems that philosophy can recover its spiritual mission, and it can serve as a way into spiritual life. To clarify these ideas, and to conclude this paper, let us now think about two very different philosophers, David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche. They are both atheists, and as far as I know, neither of them had anything good to say about traditional religion. But there is a big difference between them, and this is important for the thesis of this paper.
In his essay “Of Miracles” Hume (2007) points out that surprise and wonder are agreeable emotions, and this is why we are so ready to believe miraculous stories — such as the resurrection — which form the basis of religion. Hume also argues that we should never believe in miracles, just because a natural explanation, no matter how unlikely, is always going to be more probable than a supernatural explanation — for the whole idea of evidence derives from that which happens in the course of nature, while a miracle is defined as a violation of the laws of nature. Hume is completely rational and prosaic, and he has no sense of “mystery” because he is a strict enlightenment thinker who remains convinced of the power of reason to solve most human problems. He believes that religion is neither more nor less than superstition, and presumably he would reject every aspect of spirituality because there is nothing that could count as “evidence” for it; and he says that once we leave “common life,” we leave our reason behind us. Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists” follow in the same tradition, which makes this world a thoroughly “disenchanted” place.
On the other hand, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. And he argues that traditional religion is objectionable because it deprives this world of its sacred character by projecting the highest values onto another realm of being which is heaven or the hereafter. In Nietzsche’s famous proclamation, the madman says that God is dead, but he also says that “we have killed him,” and now we must become worthy of this deed: “For we have killed God and we are God’s murderers” (Nietzsche 1974, s.125). This is a difficult teaching, presented in a strange parabolic form. To say that we have killed God is to suggest that we have made God into an impossible being, and now the scientific hypothesis rejects such a being on the basis of the same will to truth that we have been taught to revere — because “the truth” is supposed to be divine. This is a different kind of atheism than the one that is associated with David Hume; for even though he denies traditional theism, Nietzsche is still a very spiritual thinker with a strong sense of the sacred character of this world. In this respect, Nietzsche’s philosophy would certainly be of interest to a secular spirituality which promotes the affirmation of life.
Nietzsche’s masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, contains stories, dreams, parables, visions and riddles. And at various points he celebrates existence here and now, both in poetry and prophecy. For as he says:
The world is deep,
Deeper than day had been aware.
Deep is its woe;
Joy — deeper yet than agony:
Woe implores: Go!
But all joy wants eternity —
Wants deep, wants deep eternity. (Nietzsche 1971, 436)
There are other spiritual themes in Nietzsche’s work: the eternal recurrence measures our spiritual attunement with the world; and in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche reflects on the importance of myth as an essential horizon that binds the society together: “Without myth, every culture loses the healthy natural power of its creativity … only a horizon defined by myths completes and unifies a whole cultural movement” (Nietzsche 1967, 135) According to Nietzsche, we are the heirs of Socrates, and his narrow sense of “reason” which destroys tragic wisdom. This finally plays out with the death of God, and the urgent challenge that now arises “to make ourselves worthy of this deed” (Nietzsche 1974, s.125). It is not completely clear what Nietzsche envisaged here, but the creation of great art and poetry, the contemplation of nature, and the deepening of human relationships are perhaps some of the ways in which we can rekindle our connection to the sacred powers of life. The point is that Nietzsche is spiritual but not religious whereas Hume is neither spiritual nor religious, and I would argue that Hume’s thought is not so compelling because it disdains the need for meaning and belonging that characterizes the human condition.
Like Nietzsche, Hume is an important philosopher, but for reasons given in this paper he does not resonate with the spirit of our time. Hume makes his appeal to a more secular mentality, and anyone in the new atheist tradition would appreciate his work. But the point is that we have now become a post-secular society in which both traditional religion and the traditional secular outlook are viewed as impoverished. We really do not know whether religion will reassert itself in the West; or whether the post-secular world will flourish. But all things being equal, I think that spirituality without religion will continue to grow: First, because it seems that traditional religion is at odds with modern science and out of step with modern life and modern values — although this may be a more contentious claim (see Jones, Kaden and Catto: 2019); and second, because we are spiritual beings, in the sense that we definitely need a sense of belonging to something that is higher or greater than we are — and traditional secularism cannot give us what we need.
In a post-secular world, however, spirituality can be affirmed, especially when it is not encumbered with doctrines and dogmas that run counter to common sense. Likewise, as we have seen, there exists a profound spiritual tradition in philosophy which resonates with many people, and which includes both ancient and modern philosophical writers. We will always need spiritual philosophers along the lines of Plato, Pythagoras, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, as well as more contemporary thinkers such as Derrida, Hadot, Comte-Sponville, and Irigaray to guide us through spiritual themes. And a more focused reflection on this spiritual-philosophical tradition reaffirms spirituality and spiritual themes as fundamental aspects of this life which are not necessarily tied to religion.
Armstrong, Karen. 2009. The Case for God. New York: Anchor.
Aslan, Reza. 2017. God: A Human History. New York; Random House.
Barber, Benjamin.1996. Jihad vs. McWorld. New York: Ballantine.
Carey, Jeremiah. 2018. “Spiritual but not Religious?: On the Nature of Spirituality and its Relation to Religion.” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, vol.83: 261-269.
Casanova, José. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cliteur, Paul. 2010. The Secular Outlook: in Defense of Moral and Political Secularism. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell.
Comte-Sponville, André. 2008. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Translated by Nancy Huston. New York: Penguin.
Crockett, Clayton. 2015. “Post-Secularism, Secular Theology, and the Names of the Real.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology, vol.54 no.4.
Cupitt, Don.1997. After God: The Future of Religion. New York: Harper.
Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. London: Bantam.
Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 2002. On Forgiveness and Cosmopolitanism. London: Routledge..
Erlandson, Sven. 2000. Spiritual but not Religious: a Call to Religious Revolution in America. San Jose: Iuniverse.
Freud, Sigmund.1989. The Future of an Illusion. New York: Norton.
Fuller, Robert C. 2001. Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Geering, Lloyd. 2001. Christian Faith at the Crossroads: A Map of Modern Religious History. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.
Habermas, Juergen et al. 2010. An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Translated by Ciaran Cronin. Cambridge: Polity
Hadot, Pierre. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Translated by Arnold Davidson. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hadot, Pierre. 2002. What is Ancient Philosophy? Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Harris, Sam. 2014. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Hitchens, Christopher. 2009. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Grand Central.
Hume, David. 2007. “Of Miracles.” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. New York: Oxford University Press: 79-95.
James, William.1990. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Vintage.
Jones, Stephen, Tom Kaden and Rebecca Catto (eds.). 2019. Science, Belief and Society: International Perspectives on Religion, Non-Religion and the Public Understanding of Science. Bristol: Bristol University Press.
Jung, Carl et al. 1968. “Approaching the Unconscious” in Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell.
Jung, Carl. 1933. “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man” in Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Translated by W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Kierkegaard.1944. Attack Upon Christendom. Translated by Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mercadante, Linda. 2014. Beliefs Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual But Not Religious. New York: Oxford University Press.
Milbank, John. 2006. Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason 2nd edition. Oxford: Wiley.
Murphy, James. 2017. “Beyond “religion” and “spirituality”: Extending a “meaning systems” approach to explore lived religion” Archive for the Psychology of Religion 39, 1-26.
Nietzsche. 1967. The Birth of Tragedy. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage.
Nietzsche. 1971. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann New York: Vintage.
Nietzsche. 1974. Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche. Translated by Walter Kaufmann New York: Vintage.
Otto, Rudolf. 1958. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pew Research Center. 2009. Accessed January 12 2019. http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/.
Pew Research Center. 2017. Accessed January 12 2019. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/.
Pew Research Center. 2018. Accessed January 12 2019. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/29/10-key-findings-about-religion-in-western-europe/.
Pontifical Council. 2003. Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life — A Christian Reflection on the “New Age”. Boston: Pauline Books and Media.
Ruiz, Miguel.1997. The Four Agreements. San Rafael: Amber-Allen.
Solomon, Robert. 2005. Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tacey, David. 2001. Jung and the New Age. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.
Tacey, David. 2013. The Darkening Spirit: Jung, Spirituality, Religion. New York: Routledge.
Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Tolle, Eckhart. 2004. The Power of Now. Novato: New World Library.
Van Ness, Peter (ed.). 1996. Spirituality and the Secular Quest. New York: Crossroad.
Williams, Rowan. 2015. Faith in the Public Square. London: Bloomsbury.
Žižek, Slavoj. 2001. On Belief. London: Routledge.