Seeking A Life That Is Spiritual But Not Religious

Secular spirituality is a way to steer a path between atheism and religion.

Buddhist prayer flags

The tenets of Tibetan Buddhism are frequently incorporated into secular spirituality despite the traditional secrecy of the religion.

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“Faith,” writes bestselling author Roger Housden in Keeping the Faith Without a Religion (Sounds True, 2014), “implies a basic trust in the way life weaves its patterns — an awareness that is not passive or fatalistic, but actively engaged with and accepting all of life’s twists and turns.” Housden considers faith as an aspect of personal spirituality, built through experience rather than through subscription to a particular religious tradition, and in a series of essays presents the basic tenets of a life that is spiritual but not religious. This excerpt from the introduction discusses the nature of spirituality without religion.

Just sixty years ago, Tibetan Buddhism was the most secretive religious tradition in the world. It reserved its initiations exclusively for monastics, who had to prove themselves worthy of higher teachings with decades of intensive practice locked away behind the world’s highest mountains. Now you can sign up in any small Western city for a weekend workshop that will offer you those same practices for the price of admission. And you may combine those Tibetan practices with your yoga, with your faith in Christ, with a little Zen, or with some personal combination of everything.

Old traditions have broken down everywhere and especially in the realm of religion. A 2009 Newsweek poll found that one third of respondents said they were spiritual but not religious, up from 24 percent in 2005. In April 2010, the front page of USA Today said that 72 percent of Generation Y (those born in the late 1970s through the early 1990s) considered themselves more spiritual than religious.

These numbers are growing every day, as people continue to leave conventional religion in droves. The reasons for the desertions are multiple: sex scandals, power scandals, the inability of traditional religion to come to terms with contemporary culture and its evolving moral values, personal experience being given increasing priority over religious dogma, the development of a spiritual supermarket offering views and practices from all over the world, and both people within religious traditions and people with none swapping notes and making their own selections from the myriad spiritual options now available. Some people choose to stay within their religious tradition, but incorporate the wisdom and practices of other traditions into an understanding of their own.

Meanwhile, the sharing of therapeutic and psychological methods has become a mainstream activity, aided, for better and for worse, by media celebrities like Oprah and the dozens of yoga and meditation shows on television. The result of all of these changes is a spiritual supermarket, and shopping at it is the movement of the times.

You may rail at what you perceive to be the commercialization of religious practices and of personal stories, but it’s happening. And while many may trivialize what they learn into yet another easy belief system or the development of a “spiritual ego” that has suddenly seen the light, others are being spurred to ask questions that they may never have addressed on their own. They are drawn to take the journey inside, and for many, that journey is not just a progression toward a healthy ego — invaluable as that is in itself — but also an opening to the transcendent dimensions of human experience.

Spiritual But Not Religious

More than ever in human history, people everywhere are on a rising curve of individuation, developing a conscious wish to deepen their relationship with their inner core. Individuation is not individualism. The latter is the pursuit of my happiness regardless of yours, and it has been on an upward trajectory ever since the old allegiances of family and tribe began to be chipped away in earnest by the Industrial Revolution. America, the land whose original inhabitants left the old allegiances behind, is the symbol of individualism the world over. Individuation, however, is a maturing authenticity that enables you to feel not separate from, but intimately connected to others and the collective good. Individuation requires us to ask questions of ourselves rather than be content with easy answers — questions not just about our personal lives, but the larger, existential questions too, about our values, our purpose, our meaning. America is also an engine of individuation.

Those who are on the path of individuation are the most likely members of the “spiritual, not religious” sector of the population. These are the people for whom faith tends to be more central than belief; for whom religion has become a personal spiritual affair instead of an institution whose belief system you sign up for. People like this are not so concerned with what they believe or don’t believe; they want to know how rather than what — how they can connect to a world beyond their own ego, a world of meaning and value that they intuit to be present, and yet are not always in touch with. And they are willing to use whatever works, whatever psychological or spiritual tradition it may come from, to develop what Parker J. Palmer, the Christian writer, calls “habits of the heart” to form that connection.

Another sign of the times is that, while traditional religions are on the wane in the West, atheism is seeing one of its periodic revivals. Its high priests are bestselling writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The physical universe is all there is, they say, and if there are mysteries in its workings that we do not yet understand, science will eventually unlock them with the rational application of the scientific method. Three pounds of gray matter is the source of all wonders. In refuting the supernatural in any shape or form, a rational understanding of the world also necessarily seems to eliminate the question of faith.

Yet in a debate with Hitchens a few years ago, the journalist Chris Hedges made the point that Hitchens fulminated against the irrational without admitting the existence of the nonrational. Faith, Hedges said, does not necessarily need a church, a mosque, or a synagogue. It does not need to be a faith in something or someone. Faith is a nonrational intuition of the truth, goodness, and beauty that are intrinsic to life and that lie alongside the darkness in any human heart. It is a quality of knowing that recognizes the presence of realities we may have no words for, an intuition that can spur us to actions that transcend our drive for personal gain and even survival.

What is Secular Spirituality?

More than a hundred years ago, William James noted:

"[Rationalism] will fail to convince or convert you…, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level that rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk…"

The knowing faith that James refers to is the basis of what I mean by secular spirituality. For those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, secular spirituality is a way of living in the world according to the promptings that they hear in their hearts. For them, this knowing will take precedent over theory or dogma.

Unlike religion and atheism, the faith that lives in the heart transcends our mania for conclusions. Religion is full of definitive answers about the meaning and purpose of life meant to guide you safely from the cradle to the grave. Atheism is equally conclusive in insisting that there is no meaning or purpose to life at all and that what we see is all we get. Spirituality without religion, on the other hand, allows us to live with uncertainty, change, and ultimately, death, not because we believe that a better place awaits us, but because we intuitively sense that there is an intelligence, an inherent rightness, in the way life presents itself moment by moment. We have faith that life has its own Logos beyond all physical appearances — that life is deeper than our minds can ever know.

Secular spirituality steers a path not only between atheism and religion, but also between science and religion. These days, science generates more wonder than religion. Scientific research has endowed humanity with remarkable achievements and given us a quality of life, not to mention life expectancy, that was unimaginable even fifty years ago. It has also taken up the gauntlet of the big questions — Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? — that philosophy gave up on long ago. Because every religion has a different creation story, all of them necessarily based on ignorance of what really happened in the past, it has fallen to science to begin to piece together a viable story about the actual origins of the universe. And such a story is indeed emerging.

However, as yet, science is not even close to telling us what a thought is, not to mention what consciousness is, even as it points to the activity that lights up a thought’s passage through the brain. Science is able now to tell us a great deal about what we are and an increasing amount about where we came from, but little if anything about who we are. For many neuroscientists, consciousness research is becoming the holy grail, the great undiscovered continent.

Religions, on the other hand, affirm the reality of the individual and tell us a great deal about who we are. After all, there would be no point in a religion if there was no one to save or no original spark that was able to become enlightened through the discipline of spiritual practices. Even Buddhism, while it denies the reality of an individual self, affirms that there is something in us that reincarnates from life to life. Depending on which religious story you choose, we are either sinners or the elected children of God, drops in the endless ocean of awareness or souls moving endlessly from one life to another.

Religion is fundamentally human, created by humans for human consumption. And like humanity, it is both a glory and a scandal, inspired and silly, full of compassion and full of cruelty. Just like us. But it is not, as Hitchens and Dawkins and company would have it, the source of all evil. Committed atheists, like their fundamentalist religious counterparts, live in a world of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. To the mind of Hitchens, anything that was not rational was not only wrong, but also stupid. Evil and idiocy were always out there — in someone else. Yet as long as we continue to project evil out there, onto some other tribe, nation, or belief system, we fail to see that evil is a product — not of any religion or people in particular, but of the human heart. That is where the danger to civilization lies: as close to us as our own jugular vein.

If all religions were banished, evil would still exist, though perhaps by another name. The Hindus, for example, prefer to call it ignorance, by which they mean not the absence of rational knowledge, but the darkness of a mind that is absent the wisdom and insight that is available when we transcend our own self-importance.

Spirituality Without Religion

And if all religions were banished, the religious sensibility would still exist. With or without either scientific or religious explanations, we can sense that life is an unfathomable mystery. Its beauty and sublimity inspire in us reverence and wonder, and we can intuit that nothing, but nothing, including ourselves and our own little life, is outside of or exempt from an inherently intelligent, perpetual unfolding, in the present moment. We can recognize that despite our loneliness and feelings of separateness, all of us are intimately joined in one great unity of life, seen and unseen, spiritual and material.

A sensibility like this makes us prone to wonder, to pondering questions rather than wanting comforting answers. It makes us prone to beauty, to experiences of being lifted beyond our usual sense of who we are into a larger, more inclusive life, which leads to love. It makes us prone to joy and to feeling sorrow for the tribulations of others and for the suffering inherent in living. All of these feelings and responses to life are inherent in any religious tradition, for they are all expressions of transcendence, and yet they themselves are not dependent on religion. The experience of transcendence is intrinsic to being human.

Sometimes, whether through meditation, a walk in the woods, being in love, contemplating a great work of art, or any number of catalysts, our familiar sense of incompleteness and separateness falls away, and we feel like we’re less ourselves than we’re a silent awareness, both personal and impersonal at the same time. We can feel ourselves to be part of a life that includes all things, a life both larger and more knowing than ourselves alone. I say “more knowing,” because in those moments we feel ourselves to be a filament in the endless web of life and yet joined even to the intelligence of the wheeling stars. We see ourselves as part of a life that is more knowing, yet ever a mystery to our ordinary mind — a mystery with horizons that stretch away the more we gaze into it.

I don’t know what this mystery we call life is, but to reduce it either to the observable universe of science on the one hand or to some external religious code of belief on the other would not allow for my own subjective experience, however unreliable it may be, or that of countless others throughout history. An anonymous English writer in the fourteenth century wrote a book about it called The Cloud of Unknowing. Rumi and Hafez, the two great Persian poets of Sufism, couched the experience in the language of lover and beloved. So too did Christian writers like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Hindus like Ramakrishna and Tagore, and countless others.

While religions encourage transcendent qualities and perspectives — with their music, their art and architecture, and their practices — you don’t have to be religious to experience transcendence, to experience “the Mystery.” You just have to be human. If you are human, you can’t help but wonder.


Roger Housden is the author of 20 books, including the New York Times bestseller Ten Poems to Change Your Life (Crown, 2001). Housden’s work has been featured in O: The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Huffington Post. He lives in Sausalito, CA. For more, visit rogerhousden.com.


Adapted from Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden. Copyright © 2014 by Roger Housden. Published by Sounds True.