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Because it is purposefully a vague term, it is difficult to get a good idea of exactly what spirituality may mean. It’s a term that has appeared in many cultures and eras, influencing and being influenced by a very diverse group of people. What all strains of spirituality share, though, is a rejection of institutional religion, while still retaining an interest and belief in the supernatural.
Spirituality can be used in some very positive ways. Certain movements, like transcendentalism and Unitarian Universalism, I have no problem with. They are more thoughtful and progressive than most other religious movements, allowing for the participation of people from a diverse range of viewpoints and backgrounds. They have their share of faults, but for the most part they genuinely encourage individualism and independent thought, things many religions tend to dislike.
However, something totally different comes to mind when one mentions spirituality today. The New Age movement has become the defining brand of spirituality in the modern Western world and it is very damaging. Though we like to think of spirituality as a peaceful belief system (albeit barraged by a crock-pot full of pseudosciences) much of it actively harms society, the most obvious being holistic medicine. When people are putting their trust in things like vibrating crystals instead of tried-and-true scientific methods, they are only hurting themselves.
What’s worse, many people end up pushing these beliefs on their kids, preferring chanting and meditation over professional expertise when their child’s life is in serious danger. Sometimes, I don’t even know who is more abhorrent: the New Age left or the religious right.
Saying you’re “spiritual-but-not-religious” can leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, as it may make you seem as if you’re rebelling against the norm just for the hell of it. Yet in many cases, spirituality is a step in the right direction. When you reject religious institutions and label yourself as “spiritual,” that at least means you went through a process of questioning and critical thinking — something I always encourage even if I do not ultimately agree with your conclusion.
In other cases, people just end up entangling themselves further in mysticism, buying DVD boxed sets and novels on a supposed spiritual “secret” that is nothing more than a shyster scam. Whatever updated form it comes in, one always has to be on the lookout for trickery.
Jay Grafft was tricked by a vibrating crystal once. Atheists never forget.
Spirituality kind of sounds like a loaded word, doesn’t it? Since religions are often associated with mystical things like souls and afterlives, the choice of word might make spirituality seem like it is just part of religion. However, it’s the relativity between those two that make the notion of ‘spirit’ at least preferable to the idea of faith.
Spirituality is essentially an individualized thing. While you would expect it to be similar to religion in the sense that it seeks to provide psychological reassurance and perhaps a moral compass, it doesn’t promote the notion of community in the same way. Religions provide a structure or set of rules and disapprove of anything to the contrary; in fact, they have to in order to justify their narratives, but spirituality is more directed at self-understanding. This pursuit is usually expressed in harmless and non-offensive practices, like meditation and yoga.
While religion isn’t necessarily divisive in its execution, it’s hard to say that something like spirituality ever could be. Most meditation techniques have themes of comprehensive connectedness, like a collective consciousness, which is certainly better than the categorical connections of religions. A religion is only positive in insular terms because it creates specific communities centered on ideological interests in lieu of embracing differences, which would be a more spiritual perspective.
The framing of this question as a comparison can create a bias that lauds the value of spirituality. In comparison to something more rule-based and commitment-heavy, spirituality is a hands-down favorite, but it’s not exactly for everybody. When people describe the process of ‘freeing themselves from labels’ and ‘being one with the universe’ with any profundity, it just doesn’t seem that novel to me. Spirituality is meant to be more of a journey than a destination, because if you’re starting with the answers as in institutionalized religion, there’s no need to go back and meditate on the questions for any length of time. Many people are intuitively introspective because they know it’s imperative to understanding how their life fits into the world around them; denying the commonality of that would be turning ‘spiritual’ into yet another useless label.
As a matter of consequence, spirituality does more good than harm. Some of spiritual people’s epiphanies might seem intuitive to you, but it’s your responsibility to take a page out of their book and embrace different approaches. That’s what makes it better than religion — it’s not about division.
Travis Vail: The journey is the destination.
A version of this article appeared on page 12 of the May 14, 2013 print edition of the Nexus.