It is easy to understand why someone would want to say they are “spiritual, but not religious.” The latter term makes us think of real, historical, cut-and-dried religions, like Christianity or Islam or Buddhism. Doesn’t all the attention to history and doctrine just get in the way of feeling the presence of Something Greater? Isn’t it easier, more fulfilling, more tolerant of others, to avoid the discussions of religious truths and practices that merely separate us one from another? We can understand the beauty of the religious feeling of Presence, of the Wonderful. and there is no reason to corrupt this freedom of spiritual experience with concerns over doctrine or the demands of moral and ritual behavior. It is, after all, a kind of freedom, and freedom is good.
Funny, though, how ideas intrude. For even in the claim only to be “spiritual,” there is something the spiritual person claims to know, namely that there is, there must be, that “Something Greater.” Let us not name It. Let us not call it ‘He’ or ‘She.” I understand. But the spiritual person has already said a great deal, something grand that inevitably contradicts the beliefs of others, the beliefs, at least, of the simple materialist — “materialist” both in the philosophical sense, referring to those who believe only in matter and not in anything spiritual, and in the ethical sense of those for whom acquisition of material goods seems to be the highest value in life. “I’m sorry,” the spiritual person is saying, however sotto voce, “but there is more to reality than you materialists know.” And the spiritual person is right. Note, too, that he/she is right in a philosophical sense (contra the first meaning of ‘materialism’) and in an ethical sense (contra the second meaning). At the very least, the spiritual person believes something like what William James says, namely, that there is more to reality than the mundane world, and that attention to this greater reality will make living in the mundane world better. And these two points, James claims, is the fundamental teaching of … religion.