You are spiritual and religious

Religion happens in communities; spirituality occurs in individuals.

Obnoxious speculation: There is no “spiritual, but not religious.” In such cases, the spiritual nonbeliever is simply unaware that they belong to a religious community, because the community anthropologically sees religion as the irrational faith systems that other people — uncivilized primitives and savages — believe.

Human beings cannot bear to be alone in their faith. We must share faith with others, or we suffer a kind of spiritual solitary confinement. Even the toughest individualist battle-hardened soldiers crack in solitary confinement.

Further that faith must invest existence with meaning. It must provide a sustaining why and life-shaping oughts, or indifference and depressed nihilism (as opposed to a nihilism of joyous destruction) will result.

The faith need not affirm any supernatural being to be a faith, if by “supernatural” we mean magical. But it must affirm reality beyond the individual’s comprehension* — it must have a transcendent vector, whether it is a transcendence of future knowledge, of experiences others have or will have that are inaccessible to us in this time, place or state, or of some Kantian/OOO in-itself noumena.

My assertion is that where our shared sense of transcendence is, there our religion is. We can call that transcendence God, or we can call it by some other name, Tao, Ein Sof, the Absolute, Ultimate Reality — but there must be some cleft between what we know and what really is on the other side of knowledge, lest we succumb to solipsism.**

The salient question is how effective the religion is in providing why and ought, not whether the religion exists or not. For most secular folks, scientific truths and future scientific discoveries perform the religious function — the foundational ethics and metaphysics upon which life is erected. Even when metaphysics are rejected in theory, in practice, physics still underpins and serves as the ground of all other truths. This is entirely legitimate, as is an unavoidable impulse to privilege this mode of description. I just happen to see this very privileging as religion caught in the act, not as any overcoming of religion. It is a good thing, made even better with self-awareness of itself.


  • Note: Ambiguity in our use of the concept of truth, might be a function of whether we treat the word truth as “truth as we know it now” or truth as the asymptotic ideal of knowledge as it conforms ever closer with to reality. Pragmatists reject not only the possibility of truth finally conforming to reality, but that there even is such a point of approach. The purpose of truth is not exclusively, and perhaps not even primarily, to mentally duplicate or model reality.

** Note: We should not, however, say with Bertrand Russell, “I have no need for that hypothesis.” It is a category mistake to call God a hypothesis. God is a designation for that which transcends but involves us, and unless one is a solipsist, this is no hypothesis, but a fundamental orientation. If I were not in a community of faith with my family within the Jewish tradition, I would choose a different word with fewer misleading connotations. But the name God links me to numerous people who share some, but not most of my basic conceptions. When I say “God” with them, and worship God with them, in the most important, most truth-transcending, ultimate sense, I mean exactly what they mean.

I share faith with many people with whom I share few beliefs.

6 thoughts on “You are spiritual and religious

  1. Lots of great provocations here.

    God is indeed not a hypothesis. God is an axiom: “a proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident”. We judge axioms by their fruitfulness.
    I think we need at least four distinctions: unspirituality, spirituality, religion, and clericalism (roughly organized religion). There are many people who explicitly religious but who do not participate in a clerical religion (one that was a special, usually paid, class of leaders). Perhaps we can agree that there can be spirituality and religion without clericalism. More importantly, there are many people who are unspiritual. They have no need, desire, or even interest in faith, transcendence, or even asking why. They just live their lives. A recent US poll put the number of unspiritual at 31%!

    I’m also tempted to claim that being philosophical is different from being religious, and perhaps different from being spiritual. Someone can embrace a metaphysical approach to ontology, without it necessarily being an onto-theology. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

    But my main reaction is, thank you for provoking my insight that all this is a sign of the weakening of faith, in the sense of Vattimo’s weak philosophy. The weakest form of spirituality is when someone simply feels there is some meaning to existence without caring what it is. Secular religion is an example of such weakening. So perhaps we need to distinguish weak spiritualism (vague, unconscious, non-explicit framework of beliefs) vs strong spiritualism (explicit belief system, eg astrology.

    I applaud this weakening because when large groups hold weak and vague beliefs about ontology and teleology, they’re less likely fight over doctrinal differences. There is a continuum of the weight of ritual and regulation: from virtually zero ritual and no regulation of behavior through very demanding ritual practice and severe regulation of behavior. I’m all in favor of the trend towards weaker end of the spectrum, even in mainstream religion!

    I think it is a form of progress that most people have only some vague notion of what is beyond us, so vague that when someone describes the concepts of Tao, Ein Sof, the Absolute, Ultimate Reality, etc. to them, they say, “Yeah, those seem kind of like what I believe,” and then get back to some activity more meaningful to them.

    In a way, a world where the vast majority of people live fulfilling but completely unreflective lives, where their faith/religiosity/spirituality is so low key as to be almost non-existent, would be a utopian fulfillment of your goal of making philosophy second nature. We only think consciously about a tool (our religion/philosophy) when it fails to work in some way, when there is some kind of conflict. The vaguer the faith, the more it feels like just an intuition, and the less conflict amongst the faithful.

    Here’s to ever weakening faith!

    Oh, and I found this Wikipedia entry enlightening: Spiritual but not religious.

    1. So much here!

      Of course, being a quarrelsome person, you know I have to make a beeline for where I disagree! “there are many people who are unspiritual. They have no need, desire, or even interest in faith, transcendence, or even asking why. They just live their lives. A recent US poll put the number of unspiritual at 31%!”

      I think these folks are making the anthropologist’s error: “Those people are spiritual. They think there is some mythical woo-woo force out there in the cosmos, invisibly judging and manipulating things behind the scenes. I, on the other hand believe in science and reason.”

      But how do they use all this science and reason? What function does it perform? Does evolutionary psychology make them any less moralistic, any less passionate about morality? Nope, it just explains the impulses and gives them permission to indulge them, by making them play nice with their scientistic metaphysics. And all this scientific knowledge? Do they apply it technologically to accomplish things? No, it truly is little more than a way to link their material metaphysics to the magical devices they enjoy. It might as well be alchemy making their iPhones work. What their belief amounts to is faith in the scientistic priest-class, the scientists, and when the scientists say something is true, these believers “follow the science.”

      It is all about sharing the same mythical accounts of our shared experiences and our shared value within a community of faith, who believes pretty much the same way any other community believes. It isn’t even terribly anti-clerical, or terribly un-organized. It is just part of its own account of itself against “those others” — exceptionalizing itself (as all religions do), privileging its own beliefs as truth itself (that scientific method is the best a person can do, truthwise) — where everyone else just holds ignorant superstitious opinions.

      Of course, science is a crucial part of my religious outlook, and I (axiomatically) see religion as an unavoidable implicit axiom in any cohesive and sane worldview, so feel free to take this as offered: redescription to entertain, in every sense of the word.

      1. What makes science (as activity) different from scientism (as religion, meant non-pejoratively) is its minute concern for material interactions and systematic integration of these interactions into a theoretical framework meant to make sense of them. My belief is that even scientists with expertise in their own field, still “feather” out into scientism as they accept the work of other scientists in producing, evaluating, challenging, accepting findings in their respective fields, and they all — if they don’t have competing traditional religions displacing them — hold some kind of metaphysical idea in their heads regarding the ultimate nature of reality. And their personal ethics are shaped (as ours are) by their reasonable interactions with their fellows and with materials, and their own personal experiences of these interactions.

  2. This is comforting, supportive, transcendent and lovely. We need to be challenged to explore our belief systems, our conclusions, our methodology that can direct us toward our personal peace and joy, but also our judgments of the other and ourselves.

  3. I’m new to your website, as I was surfing to get a feeling for Ernst Cassirer. I am not a philosopher, so I only have a vague idea what Kantian and Neo-Kantian mean. I like their ideas on the “history of philosophy” or as I would call it, intellectual history. I think it’s useful to always consider historical context, but also as you seem to be saying “the individual” and that person’s unique journey. We can’t be reduced to an algorithm or a zipcode, but maybe that is what totalitarian societies do–like “get back in your algorithm, will ya, or I’ll digitally delete you” or something like that. I like particularly what you had to say about sharing a faith but not belief–that’s right. In the ritual based religions of the Bronze Age, there was some text, not much, but truth and falsehood played less of a role than our religions. Everyone had a version of more or less the same deities, the goal was cosmic harmony through ritual, etc. Of course, again context forms a wall–we can’t be them because we are not. But, in a modified way we do engage in shared faiths that are not necessarily beliefs. Anyway, I enjoy reading, although I can’t say I understand half of it.

    1. Hello, Kathy. Thanks for reading my weird little blog and actually responding! Not too many people out there (philosophers or not) set out to understand Cassirer. I’m curious about your background, and what got you interested in him.

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