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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Mayank, I like meditation because it trains one to quiet the mind. When I get overwhelmed with all the thoughts flying through my brain, I waste energy trying to solve all problems at once or try to think creatively with a chaotic mind. It does me no good, it certainly doesn't get any productive work done, and I feel helpless. 

The remedy, at least for me, is to just sit quietly letting any and all thought come to me, I acknowledge the thought, and then dismiss it. When another thought comes I repeat the process. After a moment or two, my mind is quiet, I feel calm and restored. 

Thoughts usually have an emotional component, i.e., people spend too much time praying and not enough time thinking creatively; The Tea Party will take over the country, and we will have a fascist form of government; climate change will destroy life as we know it and Earth will purge itself of all that lives and go on its way creating new life forms. Utterly useless thoughts. 

So, with a calm mind and relaxed body I can prioritize the things I want to think about and create some concrete ideas about how I could make a difference. Life is too short to get upset and powerless. I have the ability to think, reason, face reality, imagine options, identify the probability of what will make a difference, develop action plans, put the plans into action, and then evaluate outcomes. If what I do isn't making a difference, I try plan B and then C. If what I do does make a difference, I can pursue that strategy for as long as it works. Pragmatism is the key concept.  

I have a kind of a life mantra, THINK THEN ACT AND EVALUATE! To do otherwise can make matters worse.  

Another mantra: Anger is my friend, it is the jet propulsion fuel that gets me moving when something needs to change. 

Another: I am not alone; there are 7,000,000,000+ human beings on this Earth and some of them make sense to me, some make no sense at all. 

When anyone puts a meditation together with Buddha, or whatever fictional person, I run, not walk away, physically and mentally. 

Hope this gives you a helpful perspective for your own decision making. 

I found your comment, below, interesting:

"When anyone puts a meditation together with Buddha, or whatever fictional person, I run, not walk away, physically and mentally."

How does the man, known as Buddha Shakyamuni, number among "fictional persons?" Many people mistakenly believe that Buddhists pray to Shakyamuni, believing that we think him a "God." Others, like you, believe he never existed, at all. The "Buddha Myth" is merely one opinion, and obviously, your personal truth -- and that's just fine with me. Buddhism, unlike Christianity, and some atheism, does not require us to mythologize or demean anything in which we do not believe -- and in no way do I mean to imply that your disbelief is disrespectful.

"Christ" did not initiate "Christianity"  any more than "Buddha" initiated "Buddhism." "Add people" can spoil just about any recipe, and we lack Polaroids and video recordings for a great many historical characters and events. And frankly, I doubt that you are any less suspicious of "his-story" than this woman of color.

I do not worship the Buddha, pray to the Buddha, hope to meet the Buddha in the sky or anywhere else, someday, or even care if he lived at all. Buddhism is a philosophy that espouses some of the very things you, yourself, have claimed to value. And there is no God, or soul, in Buddhism. 

One of my favorite "meditations" addresses anger. I bring this up because you mentioned the mantra "Anger is my friend." I learned, through studying Buddhism that anger is rarely, if ever, justified. The rationale being that "if you are in the right, there's no reason to be angry; and if you are in the wrong, you can't afford to be angry." If Christopher Dorner had considered this "option," he might still be alive and could have sought a better "solution." If ever there was a victim of his own anger, it was Christopher Dorner -- and I still believe he was victimized by his former colleagues. So, whether this makes sense to you or not, it works for me. Whether you believe it or not, it works for me. And while I would have been less inclined to have considered this view had it come from the Church of Mickey Mouse, or a meditation identified with "whatever fictional person," e.g., "Neo" from the Matrix, it works for me. As for anger, that's just one of many options -- even if you can't imagine any others. It seems contradictory that you can both value anger and a "quiet mind." 

Additionally, this philosophy has taught me not to beseech anyone, fictional or real, for anything. That's why Fake Buddha said, "put no faith in sentient beings," and "take nothing, from anyone (and he included himself), on faith." Many people live their lives as if people are sums in a bank account. They think that people owe them respect, agreement, admiration, commiseration, etc. I've learned that nobody owes us anything -- and that's quite freeing. 

Finally, there is one type of Buddhism that does believe in a 'soul,' and which many Buddhists believe is decidedly contrary to what the Buddha taught, and that's Tibetan Buddhism. Nonetheless, and quite interestingly, it's prime proponent, the Dalai Lama, has said:

 "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrongthen Buddhism will have to change." 

I don't know much else about the DL, but where we part ways is at "the soul." It's a little difficult to deny that this attitude isn't head and shoulders above a Jimmy Swaggert, Ken and Gloria Copeland, Benny Hinn, or other "fictitious thinkers." Even "research" must be taken with a grain of salt, for belief in it, itself, can become a religion, and 'men of faith' can believe in things other than God, and be just as mistaken. Or in other words, there are many "gods," sex, anger, and even dead certainty... So, even if I do discover some day, for certain, that there was no Shakyamuni Buddha, that does not change the fact that the lessons I've learned, and the benefits of meditation, etc., have taught me a diversity of ways to handle my life.

I wish you well.

Vivien, Thank you for your very thought provoking comments. Clearly, your experience with Buddhism has been very different from mine. The Buddhists I know think dogmatically, with a litany of expectations about what is and is not correct about the rituals practiced. They seem to me to be as inflexible as any “religious” ones.


When I started reading about Buddhism, I found as much mysticism about his birth and life as any fables that emerged about Yahweh, Jesus or Mohammad. Talking with monks I experienced rigidity. No need to turn to the practices of Buddhism, they are no different than Presbyterianism or Paganism.


I think Buddha, in all probability, existed. The story of him leaving his wife and baby to find enlightenment was a copout. He could have been enlightened by any means, other than abandonment, emotionally, of his family. He is no better than Jesus who commands leaving parents and wives and family to follow him.


You are quite correct to say that Christ and Buddha did not create the religions that grew up around them. I have no quarrel with that. However, if I affiliate with a group of people who believe in mysticism, delusions and wishful thinking, I become one of them. I am disrespectful because I do not respect the policies and practices in which each participates.


I quite agree with you to not pray, hope to meet, or care if Buddha lived at all. There is no god or soul in Buddhism.


As to anger, my family and my religious community, from childhood through to adulthood, trained me to not be angry. I needed to be angry, from the time I was in the crib and watched my father beat my mother horribly until I ran from an abusive husband with three children. I should have been angry! Very angry! The Passive Gospel, i.e., “yield, pray, obey, turn the other cheek, crucify yourself daily in imitation of the crucified Christ and rejoice in your crucifixion” was not only wrong, it was not healthy, for me or for my children. I am entitled to my anger and without it I would have stayed bound to traditions that harm us. In fact, I am proud of my  anger, even as I am proud of my ability to live peacefully and without violence.


Whenever I spoke out about the abuse, some “loving” relative would say I was telling the truth but we don’t talk about it. That was the problem. No one talked about the violence in our family. Everyone lived it and did not talk about it.


Pema Chodron gives a good lecture about stopping anger and if I had followed her counsel, I would still be in the place I was 39 years ago. Gaining my freedom, changing the ways I parented my children, teaching them how to communicate, listen, assert themselves, solve problems, resolve conflict changed not only me, but my three children, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. The mates of these offspring tell me I do not need to worry. No one will ever abuse them, they are strong and will not permit it.


To mention Christopher Dorner in the same piece as you write to me is an insult. I have no intention of becoming psychotic, never did and never will. I found out why I was angry, why I made the choices I did, searched for healthy, productive ways to meet my challenges and can stand tall and proud for the ways I handled my feelings. I wrote a thesis, “Toward a theory of family violence, its antecedents, treatment and prevention” to understand what happened to my family, and me going back generations. I wrote a dissertation, “A Splendid Heresy” to clarify a way to heal from past insults and to pass along a healthy way of dealing with real world challenges.


Have you read the history of Tenzin Gyatso? Do you know the way he was chosen to be Dalai Lama? Do you know his history during the Second World War? Perhaps you will find his leadership … questionable. Whether many revere him does not mean he has clean hands. Some say Buddhists never hate anyone. All we have to do is read the news stories of brutality, corruption, money laundering, and violence within the Buddhist communities and between them. 


I am sure you write sincerely,

“So, even if I do discover some day, for certain, that there was no Shakyamuni Buddha, that does not change the fact that the lessons I've learned, and the benefits of meditation, etc., have taught me a diversity of ways to handle my life.”


Of course the teachings of Buddhism has value and I use them myself. That does not blind me to the reality of fantasy, fabrication and delusions. I learned from reading about Jesus. Neither the Dalai Lama nor Jesus holds any position of respect, even as I learn by reading about them.


Hi Joan-

I certainly appreciate the opportunity to engage! 

Actually, our experiences with Buddhists have been quite similar. Not only have I experienced the same dogmatism you describe, but searing hatred between different sects of the same Buddhist "school." Additionally, there are serious issues regarding the non-acceptance of African Americans within particular sects of Buddhism, as well. I, myself, am Black (I don't like the term "African American").

I firmly believe that if there's an organization to be vetted, and it accepts people as members, it's suspect. To quote Groucho Marx, "I don't want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members." So, I don't believe that Buddhists "do it" any better than Christians. I take people one at a time, Buddhist or not. 

Regarding your experiences of growing up with abuse, seeing your mother abused, and then entering an abusive marriage, yourself, though I have not had those experiences, I agree with you that anger is a natural response. Truly, it is beyond my experience to speak to such pain, and I respect your feelings. 

As for me, my experience with anger has been much different than yours. I was raised by Black activist parents in the Martin Luther King, Jr.,/Malcolm X/Maya Angelou traditions. My family life, though far from happy, was privileged.

My father was a physician. I started working in his office when I was eleven years of age, and will never forget the day a White woman walked in, saw Daddy, and said, "You're the doctor?" He said, "Yes, Madam" (he was very formal). She then said, "I thought, from talking to you on the phone, that you were White!" She then gathered her two children and walked out of his office. Let's just say that in my first master's program, some 11 years later,I focused on "the artificial construct of 'race'." The "angry black person" is not fictitious, but we're not just walking around angry for no reason. So, I've dealt with my own type of anger for many years.

As for the Church's teachings, I was raised Lutheran. And in the Lutheran Church (back then, anyway), when one reached the 'age of accountability' (around 12) one also had the choice of leaving the Church. And that's what I did. I experimented with Catholicism, as well as the Pentecostal church, and even Transcendental Meditation. Eventually, I was exposed to Buddhism through my father, who was also a martial artist. 

Anyway... a number of tragic circumstances, later in my life, brought me face-to-face with my anger. And while I've always believed in "righteous anger," as someone once said to me, "Just because anger is natural, doesn't mean it's healthy, or always right." And eventually, I got tired of my anger being the means, or key, to others controlling me, or simply wrecking my day. And *that* is why I mentioned Christopher Dorner. I did not, in any way mean it as an insult to you. 

We know very little about Christopher Dorner except for his Facebook Manifesto, and what the Media and his former colleagues told us -- way after the fact. And I doubt that we'll ever get to the bottom of things as the LAPD promised to do while tracking him down. Mr. Dorner had many friends and people who loved and respected him who could not understand "what happened." His own mother, when she issued a statement, said, "We don't condone what Christopher did." And neither do I.

There's no evidence that Christopher Dorner was a psychopath, run amok, for all of his life. He was, at one time, quite good at what he "did." And no matter what anyone else did to him, it appears that it was his anger that "made him" do what he did. He said, regarding the officers's daughter he killed, "I never got to have a family, so now I'm going to take yours." Buddhism teaches that the only thing we truly "own" is our character -- and that 'character' is demonstrated by our actions. Christopher Dorner's actions demonstrated, to put it mildly, a lack of character. Anger is excessively ego-driven. Dorner's pain and anger became his totality -- and perhaps that's a great definition for psychopathy. And to make things worse, Dorner charged "racism," which of course we all know no longer exists in this "post-racial" society...

And yes, I'm familiar with Tenzin Gyatso. The "method" used in determining the next Dalai Lama speaks, beautifully, to the differences between Tibetan Buddhism and other schools. The monks 'try to determine' where they think the last DL will materialize; then, when they find the boy whom they think is "the one," they expose him to the former material possessions of the last DL." According to the boy's reactions, or what the monks "see," they determine whether or not he is "the one." After that, they essentially tell the boy what to believe, thereby indoctrinating him to believe that he is the reincarnation of the "former" DL. Tibetan Buddhists, unlike other Buddhists, believe in reincarnation (only possible with the survival of a soul), as opposed to rebirth. Reincarnation and Rebirth are two very different doctrines. Buddhists do *not* believe in reincarnation, and very few people take the time to understand 'rebirth.' 

Your dissertation sounds fascinating! I'll definitely see if I can find it in one of the dissertation databases, or at least, an excerpt. And I "hear ya'" regarding Pema Chodrun. I like her work, but it we have some major doctrinal differences -- and part of the reason is the Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. And I can honestly say that it is Tibetan Buddhism about which most people think when they think about Buddhism, at all, to the exclusion of most all other types.

Truly, as a woman, as a Black person, and as an activist, I struggle, daily, with walking the line between "Buddhist-or-not." Certain Buddhist "friends" have stopped talking to me because I have complained about injustices where I live, calling it "slander" and anger. Hell, I even filed a lawsuit regarding this matter. And in those lawsuits, I've articulated "the problem." 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. As for me, I cannot fathom being a Buddhist without being an activist, as well. There is nothing in this philosophy that advocates being a doormat. That's why, some of us joke, there are, and have always been, "warrior monks." 

Again, I agree that you had a right to be angry when, as a child, you saw your mother being abused. And what else can a child do? Patrick Stuart (Captain Picard) recently did an interview in which he revealed that his mother was abused by his father. He reveals being five-years-old and not being able to help his mother. He says that's why he's so active now. He puts great responsibility on *men* to act in helping to prevent domestic violence. Here are a couple links. Don't know if I can share links on this site 'cause I'm still new:



Again, thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful response. I apologize for being so long-winded. 

Best regards,


I envy you, Joan. I have tried to meditate a lot, but it just doesn't happen. Maybe I don't try hard enough. Or maybe I try harder than I ought to. Anyway, I don't place a lot of emphasis on meditation. I know it is really hard to enter that state of thoughtlessness that you talk about, but I have never wanted to. And then again, I am not the most practical person you'll meet. I am rational, and I think for myself but I don't emphasize action and don't plan things or prioritize. But I realize that these are luxuries afforded to a student, once you start working and meet life's challenges, you can't always go with the flow. That said, I do waste a lot of time thinking about things that aren't of any immediate concern to me. The state of the world, our future as a species, life elsewhere in the universe? I think about them all. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy it immensely. But again, I think that is because I have a lot of time on my hands now, as a student.

Concerning anger, I am inclined to agree with you. Anger if properly utilized and controlled can help people a lot, as it gives one focus and energy. But here too, I am at a loss as it doesn't come easily to me. Getting myself worked up about something is really difficult, even concerning things that I know I should get worked up about. Now that may seem useful but it is not, as it cuts both ways. I don't get angry or sad usually but neither am I truly thankful or happy anytime.

Which ties neatly into Buddhism, as the Buddha's teachings about following the middle path appeal quite a lot to me. I wouldn't do it of course, as there's no fun in that. I find that the eight-fold path, if followed, may lead to happiness but you have to question the usage of the word 'right' here. Who tells you what constitutes right intention, right concentration, right speech etc.? And such questions can really tell people a lot about the nature of Buddhism. Regardless of whether there was a Buddha or not (I think there most likely was), the teachings in Buddhism read less like religious dogma and more like a philosophical treatise. It's ironic that Buddhism, now considered a religion, was considered as an atheist (nastika) school of philosophy earlier. So was Jainism. Not many Westerners know about Jainism,because it isn't as widespread. Although they differ a lot in their teachings, both systems of thought do not involve meditations upon a higher power, at least in their original form. But they have room for mysticism and that together with an even more mythical leader and the gullibility of most people to believe in a higher power, converted them into full-blown religions. 

By the way, this website is amazing. I don't get to have such conversations with people around me.

As an ex-neopagan, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. My experience with neopaganism was rife with characters claiming to be "spiritual, not religious". Almost without fail, these people would have cult-like devotion to particular concepts and practices, leading to hostility towards anyone outside of the clique.

So, what I hear is, "I'm on MY side, not YOUR side". It has nothing to do with actually being spiritual, and everything to do with developing an identity that meshes well with whatever group they chum around with at the time.

It depends on what that person means by the word 'Spirit'.If he thinks its a separate entity apart from body,then its no better than a religion.But the experience which he gains through meditation,the emotional factor or rather the absence of it,if he wants to call that as spiritual then I see no wrong in that.Meditation may just be silent observance through focus without letting your emotion get in.Experiments have shown some positive benefits of meditation.In fact even I am considering to practice it.Our personal doctor recommended my father to do yoga when his blood pressure shoot up.I guess Yoga has taken such a different form in the west and has been marketed as a product that people concentrate on yoga pants more that the actual yoga.Its just an exercise to focus your mind with correct body posture.And religious people have incorporated their religious myth as well into this.Everything gets adulterated and this is no exception.
Observance of the beauty and vastness of our universe and having a sense of humility and oneness may also be termed as spiritual.
Trying to postpone death or avoiding it through such measures is ridiculous but if you can benefit from it,I don't see whats wrong in that.

R.Vasanthan, I like your concept.  

I tend to lean toward Carl Sagan's loose-knit description of spirituality when he described the vastness of the universe and the awe and wonder one can feel when one realizes we are all made of "star stuff." Regardless of the definition of "spirituality" offered up from dictionaries, feeling "spiritual" about this is not a bad expression. It is too bad that so many xtians (and many atheists) instantly peg a religious connotation to this particular experience.

Larry Taylor, I agree

I couldn't agree more!


ya gonna get ripped off someday .. if not as u speak. that's what comes to mind. would not say that to em tho.. they'll know




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