Seeking A Life That Is Spiritual But Not Religious

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


| September 2014



Buddhist prayer flags

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

Photo by Fotolia/byheaven

“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.