Spirituality without religion?

When I was religious, I thought ill of the expression “I’m spiritual but not religious”. It seemed to me a wishful way of thinking you could have personal and social transformation without concrete material institutions. The point of the Christian Church, I thought, was to keep Christian spirituality grounded in real life. And I still think there’s something to that insight. But I’m not a big fan of the Church anymore, as you already know. The religious institution that is the Christian Church perpetuates the notion, the impression, of special revelation. The Catholic Church, for instance, postures as a moral authority, in spite of its chronic moral failings.

But enough of religion. What of spirituality? If by “spirituality” one means something having to do with occult spirits, forces, or whatever, no naturalist or humanist worth her salt can be on board. But there’s a less metaphysical notion of spirituality that I think is well worth embracing.

Consider human acquisitiveness. We hunger for status, and we purchase items we take to confer status. Nice clothes, cars, furniture, etc. Or, if we can’t afford to purchase those items, we envy those who can. But research shows, as the world’s philosophical and spiritual traditions have always said, that such purchased items do very little in terms of bringing long-term joy into our lives. What does bring joy is human connectedness (friendships, family) and simple material security: having a roof over your head, clothes to keep you warm, and food in your belly. Meaningful work, some leisure, some creativity, and a measure of physical ability all add to these fundamentals. This is the stuff of a happy human life.

But becoming the kind of person who is oriented towards these things, rather than towards the trinkets of materialist culture, is hard work. It takes focus. And it takes social support. This is the stuff of spirituality (and of progressive politics). Finding contentment in relationships. Becoming a skilled, empathetic and imaginative conversationalist. Steering clear of materialistic desire.

There are simple steps one can take to move in this direction. It is the direction of greater happiness.

Obviously, our human cultures need institutions to encourage us to take on the challenge of genuine happiness. But I don’t think we need anything like a unified religion. We don’t need a humanist Pope. We need what we already have: blogs, Facebook, YouTube. Books, libraries, honest conversations. The contagiousness of simplicity, of joy, of activity, and activism. The infrastructure is already in place. We need to use it.

So I’m not religious, but I want to be spiritual. I want to work on my mind–on my beliefs, on my desires–and find unity of mind, unity of purpose, unity of will.

Cue “Imagine”.