California Forum

Spiritual but not religious

Special to The Bee

I recently asked a roomful of medical students what they would do if, some lonely night, a dying person asked, “Doc, would you pray with me?”

One student immediately replied, “That’s not my job.” Another said, “I’d call the hospital chaplain.” A third said, “I’d offer to sit with her in silence.” Other suggestions emerged: Find out the patient’s tradition. Say the Lord’s Prayer. Repeat an affirmation like “You are safe and loved.”

The point of the question was to remind the students there would be moments when a patient’s spirituality and their own, would matter. They would be dealing with people’s fears, their pain, their need for comfort, their God-language or their inexplicable healing.

These students are compassionate people. They volunteer at clinics. They travel to places of rural poverty. Some take an hour each week to reflect on clinical encounters or poetry and stories about suffering. Most would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

The distinction serves various purposes. It allows one to distance oneself from stereotypes associated with organized religion. (“I was baptized Catholic, but I love my LGBT friends and I don’t think there’s a hell.”) It allows one to explore practices and texts from other traditions. (“I attend services on Yom Kippur; I also go to Dharma talks at the Zen center.”) “Spiritual but not religious” offers a happy compromise to “lapsed” members of a faith community who are still drawn to its promises and practices. (“I love the holidays and the sense of going home, but I don’t want to be pressured to believe things I don’t believe.”)

“Spiritual but not religious” is not just a pragmatic, or even a recent distinction. It has roots in 19th-century Romanticism, a movement that questioned Enlightenment rationalism and religious dogma. The Romantics celebrated dreams, feelings, mystical experience and whatever lay just beyond the borders of rationality and regulation.

They sought divine secrets in the natural world. They regarded language itself as rich with hidden meaning. They believed a defining condition of human life was “infinite longing” for what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “The Over-Soul” and what Dylan Thomas later called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” (May that force be with us.)

Romantics writers like the Brontë sisters and Nathaniel Hawthorne were attracted to the aesthetics of Catholicism if not to its theology. Their novels summon young readers into the “moral wilderness” of unorthodoxy where thickets and swamps await them as well as the occasional mountaintop.

Those young readers were subjects of a 2004 study by the UCLA Higher Educational Research Institute entitled “The Spiritual Life of College Students.” Most students reported having had a spiritual experience in response to nature or music. Most were committed to social justice and to volunteer work. Four out of five believed in “the sacredness of life” and regarded spirituality as “a source of joy.”

Forty percent claimed religious affiliation, felt loved by God and felt it was important to follow the teachings of their tradition. About 66 percent prayed regularly. Among those with ties to organized religion, 83 percent agreed that “nonreligious people can lead lives that are just as moral as those of religious believers,” and 63 percent disagreed with the notion that nonbelievers would be punished.

These percentages suggest that belief in some version of God – Spirit, Force, Presence, Guide – remains widespread, and that members of religious institutions are more inclined than they might have been a generation ago to suspend judgment about others’ practices. The health of this stance lies in its humility and generosity. Its danger lies in mistaking ignorance of one’s tradition for open-mindedness.

My own experience in working with students of faith (mostly Christian) is that their devotion is often not matched by a grasp of the literary complexities of their own sacred texts.

Those who don’t understand that each genre represented in the Bible – poetry, law, parable, prophecy, biography, personal letters – requires a different kind of reading, may fall into simplistic literalism. And literalism tends toward rigidity. A former president of Princeton Seminary, asked what he would name as a major problem facing the church in North America, answered with one word: “Literalism.”

I’m inclined to agree. Text-based faith depends on agile reading, and is best done, as Talmudic scholars have always known, in interpretive communities.

The landscape of faith reflected in the UCLA study has been surveyed more recently in a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, which tells us that about a quarter of Californians don’t claim a particular faith. What the numbers mean depends on how one understands key terms – spirituality, religion, faith, community, tradition, practice, belief.

The words matter. “Religion” – whose Latin root means “to bind” – suggests obligation and law – two aspects of religion, though not what lies at the heart of faith. Religious traditions are transmitted by stories – loose, hospitable structures of meaning that invite reflection, imagination and speculation, and resist simplistic dogmatism.

Religions make claims of truth supported by theologians who provide reasons for those claims. Religious communities offer refuge, comfort, counsel, teaching, art and music, and places where encounters with the divine are fostered and respected.

The claims of “spirituality” are more subjective, eclectic and resistant to regulation. They borrow from saints’ writings, elders’ teachings, parables, tribal tales and testimonies of those who have seen angels or had a near-death experience or entered altered states in meditation.

The language of spirituality provides a spaciousness many seekers need in order to revisit faith in new terms. A God who can be understood as the Light, or named simply as Holy One or “the Divine” or Creator Spirit is approachable. “Enlightenment” seems a more promising idea than “salvation”; “meditation” more fruitful than “prayer”; “awareness” more important than “truth”; “practice” more inviting than “obedience”; and “compassion” a more fit term to describe what we owe one another than “love.”

Religious language has been damaged by abuse. The name of Jesus has been invoked for purposes many Christians hasten to disclaim. Some are more comfortable referring to a “Higher Power” than to a fundamentalist God they associate with harsh parenting. Heaven and hell have been so thoroughly caricatured it’s hard for many to consider either seriously. Some find “sin” an embarrassing or even abusive term. “Dogma,” rather than carefully defined teaching, has come to mean rigid insistence on ideas that permit no discussion.

Religious language has been damaged by abuse. The name of Jesus has been invoked for purposes many Christians hasten to disclaim.

Though aspects of the cultural shift described in the Pew report are theological, much can be explained by affiliations between religions and political agendas, or cultural cross-pollination, or perhaps by the Spirit that in these “latter days” is being “poured out upon all mankind,” to quote a parting promise of Jesus, whose story has led to warfare and inquisitions, luminous poetry and lasting reassurance that “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

That conversation won’t reach a conclusion anytime soon, or stop developing new tributaries. It seems to me that believers, doubters, practitioners and skeptics might all find encouragement in the shifting sands of spiritual discourse.

The very longing that calls us out of petty concerns to consider the heavens and the mysteries of particle physics and our responsibilities toward the earth and its creatures may be leading us toward an end and beginning we can’t imagine.

What we believe and how we act upon it matter here and now – this week, in Sacramento. After that, T.S. Eliot may be right that despite ourselves and our errant ways, whatever our paths, “the end of all our exploring / will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.”

I take hope in these recent studies, and in conversations with med students who know they’re entering a world where life-and-death questions will face them on every level from clinical encounters to climate change. They are working in multicultural communities that challenge and enrich their reflections, modify their certainties and teach them the humility of real seekers. The best of these conversations may be fostering skills and habits of mind we need to survive together, and thrive.

Marilyn McEntyre is an adjunct professor of medical humanities at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. She is author of “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.” Contact her at

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