HAZARDS OF GOING "SPIRITUAL BUT NOT RELIGIOUS"
5 Unintended Consequences of Going Spiritually Rogue
There are hazards in going “Spiritual but Not Religious.”
Going spiritually rogue is on the rise.
Roughly a quarter of American adults have decided they’re better off as a “None,” an “Unaffiliated,” a cowboy/cowgirl of the soul, roaming the existential plains alone.
The reasons behind this aren’t mysterious. (Agent Courtney explored a few here.)
The imperfections in “organized religion” – especially when contrasted against the ambitions – make the entire effort a large and soft target for easy criticism.
But bolting from organized religion is one thing.
Hard atheism is another.
The idea that “There is no God! This is it! This is all there is!” doesn’t exactly send a thrill up the leg of billions of people, either.
While hard atheism doesn’t necessarily lead directly to soft nihilism, meaninglessness, angst, existential crisis, spiritual repression, and a lack of existential fitness in every instance, they also aren’t complete strangers. They’re close cousins, at least. For a lot of folks, hard atheism just doesn’t ring true, or explain life very well. Its answers to our existential riddles often seem like an inaccurate map of the landscape of life.
Pour this together, stir, and voilà: “Spiritual but not religious” can start looking pretty attractive.
These basic dynamics aren’t going anywhere. Which means the “spiritual but not religious” thing is probably here to stay.
But there’s another side to this story.
What about the potential hazards of this route?
The benefits of going rogue are often immediate and obvious. The costs, though, can be hidden, and they might not appear until much later.
Call it the “Home Alone” dynamic.
When the parents are suddenly gone, and you find yourself alone in the house (aka “The Death of God,” 90’s comedy version), it all seems great at first.
All the ice cream you want! Watch all the tv you want! Nobody tells you what to do! Enjoy yourself! What’s not to like?
Dostoyevsky said it well: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”
But after a few days, weeks, months of that, certain unglamorous realities set in. The nonstop diet of ice cream and television starts to take a toll. The newness of self-autocracy (“I do what I want, how I want, when I want”) wears off. Television starts seeming dumber and duller by the hour. Burglars (even inept Joe Peschi ones) might sense weakness and start circling. If it goes on for long enough, certain grownup concerns – paying electric bills or rent, for example – start demanding answers. As it turns out, you can only coast on the momentum of previous generations for so long before the situation starts to deteriorate.
All to say, there are unintended consequences in making this move.
These hazards rarely seem to get much publicity.
They haven’t been mapped all that well. But there are quite a few, it seems. They range from the mundane to the profound. No lightning bolts from the sky, just a natural chain reaction of dominos falling. They’re even surprisingly predictable. Still, we often wind up learning some of them the hard way.
Let’s look at just five of them.
It’s fairly easy to make friends when you’re young, suffering through school, and trying to survive alongside your fellow-captives trapped in the same predicament.
But after that – spoiler alert – making friends often gets tougher. Call it the Stand By Me factor: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.”
Religious institutions, for all their other flaws, actively work to counter that.
“Organized religion” has traditionally been successful at motivating very different individuals to gather and interact with each other about things that actually matter. These interactions sometimes consist of “The Lamentations of Jeremiah, the Long Version,” of course (Simpsons, anyone?). But loneliness can be worse.
Participation in religious institutions has been declining for several decades now.
An “epidemic of loneliness” has been on the rise for decades now.
The direction of these two trends probably isn’t coincidental.
But loneliness is just one piece of a bigger problem.
2) The ability to communicate about anything with any depth
If you successfully avoid the hazard of loneliness, another potential hazard shows up: the inability to talk about anything beyond the weather, sports, politics, and celebrity gossip.
Small talk is fine with strangers. But eventually, the conversational kiddie pool gets boring. If you have something going on, you’ll eventually want to wade into deeper waters.
But depth in conversation requires a common framework. Every group (eg academics) eventually develops a shared language of insider geek-speak that seems weird to outsiders.
From the outside, this can sound like annoying insider-jargon. But these frameworks can serve as portals for connection. They help us bypass the awkwardness, defensiveness, guesswork, and legal disclaimers that clog up conversation with strangers, and offer instead a shortcut to the good stuff. They’re verbal footholds that allow us to climb topics we’d otherwise never set foot on.
If there are no verbal markers, trails, or signposts for discussing life in greater depth, it’s often impossible to hit escape velocity and liftoff beyond small talk. We can’t swim past the surf. The depths are roped off, outside of the “safe zone.” And so, we never make it beyond the breaking waves that keep dragging us back to the shores of the mundane.
And even if you do manage to stray beyond the safe zones, it can mean finding yourself snow-blind, nonverbal and wandering in a thick fog bank of confusion and misunderstanding. It’s uncharted existential terrain.
Much easier to just stick to celebrities, sports, politics, and weather.
Living through The Death of God has made this even harder. When you have no clue what the worldview is of the person you’re talking to – whether they’re an atheist, Wiccan, Wokeist, fundamentalist Taoist, or something not even on your map – well, it can be a lot easier to just chitchat about what celebrity is doing what to who. This leaves potentially life-changing conversations unspoken.
The risk here is spiritual illiteracy, or life in the shallows.
“Life in the shallows” brings up a third hazard.
3) "Spiritual Repression"
Sexual repression has been blamed more than a few times as the primary suspect in psychological dysfunction. It was Freud’s unsacred cow, and generally speaking, convincing folks to have more sex isn’t exactly a tough sell.
But if we’re strictly talking about Freud’s idea of sexual repression as the driving force behind psychological dysfunction, that was quite a while ago. At this point, we can say, with a bit of certainty, that he wandered way off the prairie on that one. If the opposite of sexual repression was the key to psychological health, the modern Western world would be a beacon of sanity. (We can leave this there.)
So, if Freud stepped up to the plate and totally whiffed on that one, what’s the better answer?
Here’s one: spiritual repression.
“Spiritual repression” can be defined as what happens if there actually is a spiritual component of human nature, but it’s given no expression or outlet.
One symptom of it is to perceive certain things as being more important than they actually are. Shows such as Big Little Lies, Succession, Mad Men, and others could be seen as case studies in this, where life seems wildly successful on the outside (by material measures), yet barely under the surface, everyone is eating each other alive.
Never venturing beyond the city gates of small talk (see #2 above) means shutting out – how do you say this? – the rest of the universe. This means more than just missing out on interesting (and potentially fulfilling) stuff, or attention being chained to trivia-only. With no higher perspective, the world can become a meaningless blur of random facts and events.
And when this happens, a certain kind of pressure can start to build.
And some weird and surprising stuff can start happening.
When there’s no legitimate outlet for a person to safely explore any kind of deeper spiritual or existential issues, other things – work, kids, politics, status games, and so on – can become, in effect, a substitute religion.
To be clear on the definition of the word “religion” here doesn’t mean “worship of a deity.” It’s whatever you give your life to. It defines your answers to the core existential riddles of life. (Which means, yes: in this sense, everyone is “religious," including atheists,” whether they describe it that way or not.)
One writer who recently described himself as spiritual-but-not-religious was explicit about it:
“Those, like me, who have largely rejected this package deal, often find themselves shopping à la carte for meaning, community, and routine to fill a faith-shaped void. Their politics is a religion. Their work is a religion. Their spin class is a church. And not looking at their phone for several consecutive hours is a Sabbath.”
The question here is a matter of human nature. It’s not whether a person is “religious,” but how a person is religious.
After all, we have to give our lives to something.
And since we typically care quite a bit about our lives, this means infusing (insert-substitute-here) with a significant and sometimes undue degree of importance.
This leads certain things serving as religions that were never meant to be religions, and frankly, aren’t good at it.
It can mean trying to take a Volkswagen to the moon, or trying to win a horserace on a tricycle. It can become the existential equivalent of using a sledgehammer in a swordfight: it might work for a while, but at the end of the day, something is doing a job it wasn’t built to do.
This gives that certain something a voltage they otherwise might not have.
And this can lead to weird stuff.
Parents fist-fighting referees over kids soccer games is one example. Parents bullying teachers over grades. Murder over a pair of sneakers. It makes perfect sense when it’s understood properly: when “the ultimate end of life” becomes status, professional success, or the achievement of these things by your kids – and that’s all there is, that’s the only yardstick – then these things can take on an air of undue importance.
Of ultimate importance.
For example: if politics becomes religion, then attaining power becomes the sole road to salvation. This can easily turn into people wanting to pitchfork each other over tax rates and redistricting lines.
The idea of people killing each other over the Protestant-verses-Catholic divide seems ludicrous to most of us today. But pitchforking each other in the streets over arcane political topics might seem, to future generations, even dumber.
Being spiritually repressed might not be nearly as fun as it seems.
With no credible outlet where a soul can breathe and express itself beyond the cramped story of a mundane rat-race with a terrible ending, the result is a case of existential claustrophobia.
Which brings us to a fourth hazard.
4) A lack of feedback on your thinking
A key ingredient in becoming halfway decent at anything involves getting accurate feedback. Flying an airplane. Throwing a football. Playing the tuba.
This includes life. And making major life decisions. And building a halfway sturdy life philosophy that won’t collapse when the wind blows.
In Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else, Geoff Colvin argues that the key difference between excellence and incompetent buffoonery (our nutshell, not his) is deliberate, purposeful practice. Not mere hours quantity of spent doing something, but an active and engaged back-and-forth dynamic where one is constantly thinking, readjusting, learning where they’re going off-course and correcting.
The best athletes, artists, parents and businesspeople of all kinds often had great coaches.
Great coaches don’t always flatter and coddle.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
They focus on results, not feelings; truth, not inoffensiveness; excellence, not self-esteem.
This same dynamic might apply in other dimensions: intellectual, moral, existential, emotional, and yes, “spiritual.”
These are realms where “learning the hard way” can be expensive, destructive, and painful.
Yet it’s practically the norm in these areas to reinvent wheels. We constantly suffer through excruciating experiences only to re-discover lessons someone already knew and tried to warn us about thousands of years ago.
Yet the art of dodging the wasted efforts of reinventing wheels is an unappreciated art form. When it’s done well, it’s all-too-easy to never even realize what bullets we’ve dodged, or that we’ve dodged them at all.
All of this, ironically, makes it seem easier to devalue and even forget about passing lessons about that “art” on to others. Which leads to more reinventing wheels.
But what’s the alternative?
What if there was a storehouse of “life lessons”?
What if we collected all the hard-earned life experiences of as many individuals as possible into one central place, and then worked to make it as easy as possible to pass on to others so they wouldn’t have to learn it all the hard way?
Well, in their better moments, that might be exactly what organized religions have been trying to do.
This isn’t to say they always succeed, obviously. Religions, in general, can become vehicles for both pancake breakfasts and bad ideas.
But in their defense, let’s be honest: it’s not an easy gig. These can be hard things to communicate. Maybe it’s a job that’s so difficult that it’s practically impossible not to fail, at least in some ways. At their best, they’re trying to turn potential slackers, savages, and murderers into human beings, and human beings into saints. They’re trying to “evolve humanity.”
Maybe, when they’re working, they’re like the reinforced walls inside a nuclear reactor that contain and channel the energy from the radioactive fuel rods at the core of human nature.
And if those walls are removed or partially melt down, well, life doesn’t necessarily become a magical, fun-filled playground where fountains of joyful rationality flow endlessly. Things might, in fact, get worse. It might looks less like the universe-as-Disneyland, more like an existential Chernobyl.
So, how might this dynamic actually play out?
There’s an old saying: “There are only two people who can tell you the truth about yourself – an enemy who has lost his temper and a friend who loves you dearly.” (Antisthenes)
If this is anywhere close to the mark, it means almost everyone else probably isn’t telling you the whole truth about yourself. (That politicians, celebrities, and faceless multinational corporations might not always have your best interests at heart might seem obvious to some. But apparently, it isn’t to everyone.)
Maybe they aren’t all “lying,” exactly. Maybe they’re just minding their own business and being polite. But it means selective narratives, flattery, self-serving advice, or even just good old-fashioned telling people what they what you want to hear, for example, are often standard fare.
In this vein, for better or worse, religions have traditionally taken on the thankless task of telling us what we don’t want to hear.
It’s a job somebody has to do.
Again, it hasn’t always done the job perfectly, or even all that well. But in stepping up to this dirty job, they provide a feedback mechanism for our thinking, like those coaches tasked with trying to turn us into champions.
The alternative can be navigating our ship through the storms of life while staring into a mirror, admiring ourselves (or trying to.) No compass, map, or fuel gauges needed. After all, who’s to say what’s north or south, up or down? I create my own reality, umm, right?
Imagine someone deciding that heroin is the key to happiness. Or that they’d like to donate their life savings to some great new cult they’ve just discovered. Or that “following your bliss” means dating a musician.
None of these folks are likely to logically reason their way out of that predicament by themselves. Their own thinking is part of the problem.
It’s hard enough to do it when you have others who genuinely care about you, and who are trying to talk some sense into you.
We all occasionally need somebody to tell us that our thinking is off.
Our coworkers, drinking buddies or Facebook friends won’t often take on that thankless, unpleasant, sometimes dangerous task. Hitting a “Like” button is way easier.
But ideally, good feedback mechanisms go even further. They prevent avoidable suffering from ever arising in the first place.
Removing the feedback mechanism on personal matters means bad ideas run unchecked. They operate in our own blind spots, even while they’re obvious to everyone but us. Removing the guard rails here could easily result in someone suddenly deciding that they’re fully enlightened, for example. Or the opposite: life is a huge mistake and humans are the cancer of the universe. And everything in between. We can go to either extreme, and we do. When there are no rules, well, there are no rules. If we’re living through The Death of God, anything goes.
Which can seem like a blast, until that ship crashes into the rocks, and it’s made abundantly clear that we don’t completely “create our own reality.” (“Hey, who created those rocks?”)
All of this together can become amplified, and go exponential. A lack of community, lack of a communication framework, a large dose of spiritual repression, and a missing feedback mechanism can all have a compounding effect. Each element can feed on and multiply the others. If things run unchecked, worst-case scenario, it can be a recipe for a first-world, wealth-infused, widescale descent into a Lord of the Flies for grownups.
Which brings us to yet another hazard:
5) Channeling righteousness.
Things can get even weirder when we dig down to very basic and elemental questions of “how to act.”
Religions, for better or worse, offer clear, unambiguous answers to fundamental questions of morality. They act as referees to say “do this, don’t do that.” (Whether we listen or not is another matter.) Among other things, they offer crowd control.
Referees can, of course, sometimes be wrong. But even then, the basic idea is that, at their best, they play an important role. They offer clear, objective, mutually-agreed-upon directives that everyone generally understands and at least tries to respect. At a minimum, they paint lines in the road: “I’ll stay on this side, and you stay on that side, so we aren’t always colliding with each other.”
We often think of “morality” as simply a set of directives against murder, stealing, orgies and so on.
But maybe there’s another, less obvious but equally crucial role it might play.
It channels righteousness.
Until fairly recently, for better or worse, you pretty much knew, more or less, which morality you were going to get hit over the head with.
Nowadays, it can be harder to predict what you’re going to be guilted or shamed or praised and applauded for. Sometimes we’re just making it up as we go along.
But again, this shouldn’t be entirely surprising: when everyone gets to make up their own morality, (one of the bugs/features of living through The Death of God), every single individual starts creating their own unique, custom-designed moral code. “Right and wrong,” to the degree that it exists at all, can become a function of “how I feel” about this or that. And “how I feel right now” is based on whatever story I’m telling myself at the moment.
And that is often based on whatever story I just heard.
And that, these days, often comes from Facebook, or Google, or some news anchor with concrete hair reading a prompter.
The folks scripting those prompters, then, can become arbiters of reality and brokers of righteousness. Combine this with a splash of spiritual repression and a few questionable motives, and well, we might be in a bit of trouble.
The flow and direction of righteous indignation in all this can start to depend on whatever narrative is playing out in the imagination inside the skull of each of us. And unless we all magically become mind-readers, it’s easy for us to wind up pitchforking each other for imagined offenses without anyone having even clearly articulated what exactly those offenses are.
It’s possible that nobody involved even fully understands what’s actually going on in these scenarios. But it feels like some mysterious forces are getting raised to a fever-pitch.
When it gets to that point, our baked-in moral sense can get hijacked and steered into a flow of outrage that’s unmapped, unpredictable, and subject to manipulation. If we all typically have a sense of right and wrong, but it’s not always anchored in something fundamental, then it can be steered in some bad directions. And it can be steered by those don’t have our best interests at heart.
A potential outcome, then, looks less like “freedom” and more like “anarchy.”
We can start out hoping for freedom, peace and harmony, but wind up – ironically enough – with paralyzing, endless conflict.
Certain games in life are hard enough to play, even when the rules are basically clear and mutually agreed upon. Throwing out the NFL rulebook and deciding to “create your own reality” on the football field isn’t a recipe for great football that anyone enjoys playing or even watching. It’s a recipe for widespread friction, relentless strife, and perpetual haggling.
Life is a lot harder to figure out life than football. Going Spiritual But Not Religious can mean, sometimes, throwing out the NFL rulebook of life.
So, there are five hazards of going Spiritual But Not Religious.
Here are two bonus features, at no extra change. They might be the biggest of the bunch. And one is as old-school as it gets.
It’s “fooling yourself.”
In fancy medical jargon, we could call it “tricking yourself” or even “self-deception.”
This is sensitive territory. After all, who is anyone to say when I’m fooling myself? Am I not the authority here, of all places?” Even the very idea that we can “fool ourselves” can be pretty disconcerting. If I can’t trust my self (or “follow my own heart”), well, who can I trust?
To say “we’re our own worst enemies” is so common that it’s a cliché.
But it’s a cliché for a reason. After all, this seems obvious to most of us: anyone, anywhere, anytime, can potentially fool themselves on just about anything. (It’s just everyone else doing it. Not me.)
The trick is figuring out what to do about it.
There’s a cumulative effect at work here: loneliness, an inability to communicate with much depth about anything, becoming spiritually repressed, getting no feedback on your thinking, and having less-than-clear channels for righteousness can make incredibly fertile ground for “fooling yourself.”
There’s just more risk of heading down some existential rabbit hole, without ever knowing it, never knowing you’ve gone down it, and never coming back out. (Although it’s always possible to come out. But that means first realizing where you are.)
And finally, one last hazard.
The other hazard is nihilism.
(Or, more commonly, soft nihilism, or the “Existential No-Man’s Land.”)
With enough spiritual tourism, things can get blurry.
Drinking from a firehouse of a random hodgepodge of beliefs and practices (otherwise known as “life today”) can result in spiritual indigestion.
The result of this can be a kind of philosophical Frankenstein’s monster. Disjointed fragments of spiritual systems, various odd insights and scattered parts of this and that – each meaningful within a coherent whole of their original contexts, but now uprooted, isolated, and consumed in fragments – can easily get sewn together into something less than coherent.
Sometimes the pieces just don’t fit together. Sometimes it’s a giant, lumbering, uncoordinated mess that making noises like “create your own reality!” and “Mmmeeeaaaagghhh!”
When this happens, the process of searching through all this can simply become overwhelming. The whole endeavor can just become too much.
At this point, the entire effort can get tossed overboard.
It can be a lot easier to surf a couch and chain-smoke entire seasons of an unending supply of shows than figure all this out on our own. It can lead to a sticky puddle where nobody knows anything and nothing matters. It’s all a confusing blur, it seems, so it’s much better to just stick to life in the shallows. Abandon the search for enlightenment, and settle for a comfortable illusion. Pick a platitude or bumper sticker slogan to throw over the whole mess, and just pull that out when you have to.
In other words, soft nihilism.
But when the bumps, jabs and roundhouse kicks of life start landing on our homemade, hand-sewn philosophical Frankenstein parts, well, the whole thing can start unraveling pretty quickly.
A handy platitude can be a thin blanket over soft nihilism. And when life comes to inspect the scene, like a grumpy drill sergeant with a clueless new recruit, it isn’t always easy to fool.
When a mirage is seen for what it is, it can lead to some form of existential crisis.
At those times, we often want to call in the cavalry. But there is no cavalry. That whole group got laid off a while ago – remember? There’s not even a posse to round up. They’re all somewhere else, and too busy tweeting and Pokemoning. We’re on our own now.
In times like this, suddenly, platitudes suddenly don’t seem quite as cute as they once did. They can lose the power they had in the first moments we discovered them. They’re the shell of something they once were, and they don’t do the job anymore.
Sometimes "the night is cold, and truth is a thin blanket." (Richard Rose.) Especially if that “truth” is really just a slogan.
So, last these two hazards are big ones.
There are fixes for these, but we won’t solve them here and now. (In some ways, fixing those is a big part of the focus of this entire site.)
But these hazards deserve at least a mention. They shouldn’t be underestimated.
Of course, there aren’t many folks who seem to be too worried about all this. Few seem worried about the risk of either fooling themselves or falling into nihilism, soft or otherwise.
But that’s just the trick: the biggest gotchas are the ones we never see coming. If you’re sure you aren’t fooling yourself, well, maybe that’s your way of fooling yourself.
So, that’s a quick roundup of just a few potential hazards.
This isn’t the stuff of knee-slapping, party-starting, and roof-raising. It’s grimy work. It’s risk-management and laying out a few worst-case-scenarios. Some of the more hairy effects we’ve outlined here might take decades to fully manifest, in individuals and societies-at-large.
In the meantime, some folks are going spiritual-not-religious, and seem to be enjoying it just fine at the moment. Maybe they’re still in the fun part of the “Home Alone” stage. Time will tell.
With that in mind, all of this reflects a much bigger challenge.
Confronting “The Big Questions” of life is hard.
This contradicts a lot of the messaging out there that says everything out there is easy, shrink-wrapped, and available now at a specially discounted price.
When we go spiritually rogue, we might know exactly what we’re getting into.
Or, we might not.
Either way, let’s be extremely explicit about what precisely we’re doing with this move:
We’re taking on the task of confronting life’s toughest existential riddles by ourselves.
This might seem great at first.
Again, we can reference the existential “Home Alone” mentioned above, where our cosmic parents are gone and we’re on our own. It’s “The Death of God” on a personal level.
But we could also reference a source that’s even more credible: South Park.
In “The Wacky Molestation Adventure,” (S4, Ep 16) the kids figure out that they can get rid of their parents by telling police that they’ve been “molestering” them.
It works like a charm. The police take the grownups away. More kids learn the trick, and soon, all the grownups are gone. The kids are on their own, completely in charge.
The result, as you might guess, isn’t permanent Disneyland, all day, every day.
It’s “Children of the Corn.”
Things got weird. Once again, it’s “The Death of God.” If the parents of South Park represent tradition, and the kids abolish all tradition, the result isn’t a new Renaissance. It’s closer to Mad Max.
In the end (spoiler alert), the kids realize that grown-ups maybe weren’t as mean and dumb as they thought.
Plenty of folks might think they’re smarter than Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Jesus, Moses, Socrates and so on.
But it’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of the task. Solving our existential riddles entirely on our own isn’t easy.
It’s like the difference is between reading a clock and building a clock.
Religions, at their best, offer us a clock to read. Going spiritual-not-religious means, to some degree, building your own clock for yourself.
It can be like the difference between driving a car and building a car, or using a computer verses building your own motherboard and programming your own operating system from scratch.
Some rise to the occasion, of course, and actually build clocks and cars and operating systems. Some in the spiritual-not-religious camp actually put in the work, and thrive.
But it takes work.
This stuff is hard.
The idea is that “religions screwed it up, but I can do it better” amounts to saying that “everyone else has failed at this, but I’ll succeed.”
Optimism and bravado have their uses. But we can’t be naïve. It’s no small task we’re taking on. It’s one thing to embark on a quest for answers. It’s another for someone to have no idea what they’re getting themselves into.
The mountain we’re talking about climbing here consists of the fundamental questions of life:
What’s it all about? Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What’s the point? How should I live? What the heck is going on?
We all face these questions. We can’t not face them.
And these aren’t bull-session fluff bunnies.
They’re existential monsters.
They get us hammering on, tinkering with, and sometimes remodeling the foundation that lies at the base of the building we’re living in.
Many of us today are battling these monsters armed only with a head full of celebrity gossip and a plastic spork. It isn’t a fair fight. It can even get ugly.
To really fight this battle, and be victorious, we need stronger stuff. It might mean getting reinforcements. Or training enough to get to the point where we can make it on our own.
Either way, it means knowing what we’re up against.
Once we have a clear view of this existential terrain, we can better map our course, and know where to ride.