What comes to mind when someone says, "I'm not religious but I'm spiritual"?

Would anyone care to comment on what you think, as an atheist, that a person is trying to say when they state that they are spiritual but not religious?  My own reaction is very negative; I'm usually expecting them to go on to talk about ESP or auras.  But maybe they are just saying they are interested in human values and emotions.

I think that being an atheist means recognizing that although we experience consciousness and emotions while our brains function, everything that we are comes from physical matter and will end when the brain fails and decays.  We have no "spirit" separate from our brains.

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I roll my eyes (figuratively, not visibly) and change the subject.

Admittedly, to be "spiritual but not religious" makes no sense. I'm guilty of using this expression. My use of the term, 'spiritual,' had nothing to do with seances or a belief in a connection with some remote (or immediate) deity. I'm Buddhist and deny the existence of a soul; nonetheless, Buddhism refers to 'spirits' and 'demons' as a way of packaging concepts, with no belief in the actual existence of such entities.

Sometimes, 'spirit,' is a 'warm fuzzy,' e.g., camaraderie; other times, it's something far less warm, e.g., the 'spirit of fear' that infused a convenience store as I stood at the counter, over 40 years ago, when a man pulled out a revolver and told us all to "Freeze!" I still remember this 'feeling,' and 'spirit' still strikes me as one of the best descriptors.

Perhaps people say "...but I'm still spiritual" because in this, our erroneously assumed-to-be "Christian" country, the opposite of 'Christian' is often viewed as 'evil,' or 'Muslim' or 'psychopath,' i.e., "No Christian would have done what Hitler did," (though Hitler professed to be Christian, and so did those who orchestrated the Crusades). I think many people sense the nonsense of [a personal] 'god,' but having no other frame of reference, simply need to state that despite their disbelief, they're not the opposite of "Go[o]d."

That said, I appreciate your question so much that I have now struck "...but I'm still spiritual" from my vocabulary."

I suppose it's like all other terms when entering the world of 'woo.'  When someone asks me if I believe in god, a sure conversation stopper is to say, "Define god." This works extremely well when there are several people around, as they all start to argue with each other over the definition.  I usually respond with something along the lines of, "Let me know when you get it figured out."

Same thing with the term 'spiritual." Ask 10 people to define what 'spiritual' means, and you'll get at least 11 different answers. It's a term that means whatever the speaker or proponent wants it to mean at the time it is being used. Which means, it really has no meaning absent the context in which it is promulgated. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition includes everything from supernatural beings to sharing common ideas with another person. Pick your poison.

And, let me know when you get it figured out.

I've enjoyed all of these answers and particularly enjoyed the image of Pat slipping out the back door unnoticed in the cloud of dust created by the response, "Define god".  It would be interesting to respond with, "Define spiritual" to someone who describes himself as spiritual as opposed to religious.

I do think most people I personally encounter who claim to be spiritual but not religious think that identifying as "spiritual" separates them from those nasty atheists and agnostics and they want to make it clear that they believe there is more to existence than the physical even though they don't buy into a lot of traditional church related nonsense.  And of course I think that the claim that there is anything beyond the physical is the biggest nonsense of all.

I suppose someone could then ask me to define, "physical"...

You are exactly correct, B. K.  The fundies want to tell you that god created you body, mind, and spirit. That's a number play on father, son, and holy goat. (I'm an ex fundy preacher.) Truth is, you have no spirit in the sense of possessing something. YOU ARE the spirit!

The above says everything for those who claim to be "spiritual but not religious." With that claim you can start and believe in anything supernatural, saying that it "is possible" and that "we don't really know." Tea readings and crystal balls or even UFO's come into play now. Most sincere "spiritual" are not even smart enough to know that they have these beliefs because the mind never fully sleeps. Our wonderful minds are working in our dreams, so there must be "something more" to us than what we experience in our waking state. THIS is the start of dualism and also at the base of all religion.

Now we see that there really is a flying spaghetti monster. At least to some people, and it's all in their minds. The irony is that once the bible (or any other holy book) is shown not to be accurate, the gullible STILL wants to believe something -- just in case!

In case of what??

I'm annoyed by TV ads that want you to "trust in Jesus." One movement out there today is that if the bible is wrong in ancient writings, at least it is right about Jesus. Forget everything else, you just have to trust in Jesus. So now I'm to trust and believe in a man who also trusted and believed all the ancient writings? That makes him not so smart after all, and is why I say "the baby has been thrown out with the bath water." Some do not get it!

God is imaginary. Religion and being "spiritual" came out of waking and dreaming states of our minds.

I spend my days among a diverse bunch of people, most of whom are religious.  To keep the peace, and avoid more isolation and discrimination than I already experience, I keep quiet.  When people define themselves as "spiritual  but not religious", they often seem to me nicer, more open, more friendly, and more moral than the overtly religious ones.  I am grateful for the break from religious tribalism.

Sentient Biped, excuse the expression, but your "days" sound like "heaven" to me. I live in a building where I'm surrounded by fundies. Not a day goes by when I don't hear about the infamous "lake of fire" where God has reserved a place, just for me. And it's not just a "lake of fire," it's a "burning" lake of fire. In fact I've even been the subject of a "lay" exorcism. Like you, I keep my mouth shut.

This can be true-I think it is sad that people feel they need to say they are at least "open" to "something spiritual" to avoid the wrath of religious nuts. Why the hell, if your god is so great, do you need to annihilate (did I spell that right?) people who just don't agree? God must be a real crybaby bully if he's that worried about what the yokels are thinking.

I think it all depends on what you define as spiritual. For me I feel spiritual when I look up at the stars and realize I'm part of something that so much bigger than me. That sense of awe. Some people will define that as spiritual. I enjoy meditation and try to practice mindfulness. However there is science and psychology to back those practices up. I think this world is what we all make it to be and try to be a positive force within it. I am not a Nihilist and I don't really click with Nihilistic Atheists. 

However some people mean spiritual in a very literal sense with a connection to the idea of a "spirit." Unfortunately many of the people who are "spiritual but not religious" have extreme lapses in critical thinking when it comes to certain things. Blindly accepting alternative medicine or eastern religious ideas without really thinking it through. These are the people who think that vaccines will give you autism. Sometimes they can end up being just as superstitious and dogmatic as any religious person. My partner and I call them "Born again New age.' Living in the San Francisco bay area, I run into a lot of these types. It actually has been one of the more disappointing aspects of living in this area. I'm still able to tolerate New Age people more than Christian religious people because they're rarely homophobic. That's something at least.

Vivien, I welcome and appreciate your response, and yes, sharing sites is an important part of what happens on Atheist Nexus. We gather ideas and points of view wherever we find them. I welcome your clarity and the opportunity to engage with you!

Having similar experiences with Buddhists as I does not surprise me. Non-acceptance of Blacks does surprise me. I had no idea. That presents just one more reason people need to share their experiences with others. We have the opportunity to join together to resist such occurrences.

Thank you for clarifying your preference for the term Black over African American.

Your mother and father engaged in the same civil rights struggle as I. Although I am Caucasian, I participated in marches, especially in 1968 when I lived in Bethesda, MD. while my former husband served at Walter Reed Army Hospital as a prosthodontic resident. I tutored Black children at Valley Green Housing Project in Anacostia, just across the Anacostia River from Washington, D.C.. Seniors graduating from high school in that area were not able to get jobs. They couldn’t pass Civil Service tests.

We set up a classroom in an apartment in the project, with the help of the city housing authority, Mayor Walter Washington, and Senator Hatfield from Oregon. We had room for 13 chairs, 12 girls due to graduate from high school volunteered to participate. I tested them and none of them could read; some didn’t know how to use an envelope. In 27 hours, all learned to read, all passed the Civil Service Test and all were hired. It then became obvious we needed tutoring for all the children in the project. Volunteers filled that need.

The anger of the Black community forced the hand of the USA government to look seriously at discrimination against Blacks. In 1968, that was the height of the Viet Name war, the struggle for civil rights and strong political disagreements. It became clear negotiation, compromise, and bargaining accomplished nothing. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4 and the next day, riots began all over the country.

While teaching the 12 girls the next night, we heard a riot begin, with gunshots, police and fire sirens, shouts from a mob coming closer. The classroom door burst open, a group of Black men came in, picked me up bodily and took me to my car. They put cars on all sides of mine and escorted me to the bridge crossing to Washington, D.C. I drove through the monuments to my home in Bethesda. Looking through the monuments, I saw Anacostia smoke and flames rise framing the majestic buildings in a surreal glow.

I returned the next week to the classroom,and an old Black woman came in. We sat in stunned silence. She began to rock back and forth humming an old spiritual. She told me her grandparents were slaves and her grandchildren were rioting, burning buildings, and looting.

I became dedicated to the efforts in support of Black activists Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Maya Angelou.

I happily learn you had opportunities afforded you because of your father’s education and position, and sadly learn of your experience of racism. Focusing your energy on "the artificial construct of 'race' and “The "angry black person" means you were able to use your knowledge and experiences to try to make sense of the nonsense of racism, and deal with your own anger.

I understand when people say that righteous anger doesn’t make it right. I wholeheartedly disagree. Anger sometimes is necessary to bring about the kinds of change in which I believe. Just as the Founding Fathers didn’t want to pay taxes to the Crown, they chose revolution. That is the choice many have to make in order secure justice. Peace without justice is no peace.

I can also understand you being tired of being angry; even feeling "controlled by others and wrecking your day". I have a different perspective. I continue to see battered women and children; I see men getting away with abuse and sexual assault on women and children and know my job is not finished.

I think killers must be psychotic to commit murder. A far better way to react to anger is facing the elements that generate the strong feeling and work to bring about change. Denial, projection, repression and all the other coping defense mechanisms do not bring about desired change. Face the reality; name it for what it is, and prosecute offenders fairly … not in the racist manner as currently occurs.

If Buddhist practices bring you comfort and peace, then by all means, do what you need to do. I choose another path and feel I do not jeopardize my character or integrity.

Reincarnation and rebirth sounds like so much woo woo to me.

You wrote, “It's easy for people who are not suffering, or whose experiences are very different from one's own to be judgmental and decide how we should act.” I agree!

Being an activist makes sense to me. Your videos so clearly reflect that sentiment. I had not seen these before and am grateful to have access to them. Thank you. I will repost them with attribution to you.

I am happy to meet you and engage in thoughtful conversation. Looking forward to future exchanges.


Thanks, Vivien E. Zazzau, for the references

I agree with you that psychosis is a constituent of murder, and do not doubt that that was what fueled Christopher Dorner. But again, I must say that most people who were interviewed regarding the Christopher Dorner they had known, for years prior, described him as a kind and caring person. So, while it's possible that he always carried the seed of psychosis, it's also possible that he may have had a 'psychotic break.' Violence, until "the end,"  was not a documented, expected, or confirmed way of life for Dorner. But then Gore Vidal said, "We must always remember that the police are recruited from the criminal classes." So, who knows?

I, too, have enjoyed our dialogue and have learned a great deal. When I read your comments about anger, I was truly intrigued because I have been thinking a great deal about anger lately. Hearing your perspectives has opened some new avenues for me. And I do understand, when you say that rebirth and reincarnation are "so much woo woo" to you. Please believe me when I say that not only is it not important to me that you believe or care, but also that I wouldn't even try to convince you. Except for one sect that comes to mind, proselytizing isn't a Buddhist "practice," much less, mandate. Nonetheless, just as a point of information (I am, after all, an academic librarian), you might find the area of 'quantum Buddhism' interesting...;-)

What a rich life you have lead, and continue to lead! Thank you for sharing, and I, too, look forward to future exchanges. You've given us all great context and an honored look into your great heart.

All my best,


I would say its code for "I don't like to define my beliefs in words, because then I sound stupid."



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