Religious but not spiritual

It is risen.Listening to Poulenc’s Stabat Mater as I knead bread, I feel a sudden strong surge of affection for Christianity, which ordinarily I am neutral to or even vaguely repulsed by, depending on my mood. Poulenc makes me almost wish I were Christian, in the same way that the poems of Rumi, Hafez and Khayyam make me wish I were Muslim and the temples of Kyoto and Nara once made me wish I were Buddhist.

Perhaps it sounds shallow to admit that the purely aesthetic or sensory expressions of a religion make its traditions come alive for me, but I think the kind of gestalt such expressions can produce is central to the religious experience, at least as I understand it. Philosophically, I am a materialist and a naturalist: there is no room in my worldview for the supernatural. Something either exists, and is therefore part of nature, or it doesn’t. But although I’m unashamed of my agnosticism in regards to the specific truth-claims of any given religion, I still think of myself as religious, inasmuch as I share a basic set of intuitions and practices that I think can only be described as religious. “Spiritual,” with its overtones of woo, doesn’t do as good a job of characterizing such habits as:

  • Relating to each entity and event as if it were unique and unrepeatable. Whereas in mathematics we are taught to treat sparrows (say) as interchangeable, so that they may be assigned some arbitrary value, from a religious standpoint, each sparrow is ultimately irreducible to any abstraction. Our generalizations fail to capture what is truest and most precious in the world.
  • Cultivating wonder and awe, even at the patterns unveiled by the aforementioned generalizations (which are essential to scientific understanding). Instead of taking a dismissive attitude about reality — x is no more than y — a properly religious person marvels that x is no less than y.
  • Remaining humble in the face of all we cannot know. To pick one example, I sometimes find myself echoing the Muslims and saying insh’allah (“God willing”) about any planned-for future event, because it just strikes me as unpardonably arrogant to state definitively that such-and-such will happen on such-and-such a date and time. There’s a presumptuousness about the way we post-modern consumer types relate to time and place that I find really disturbing.
  • Gratitude for our own existence, a feeling of having been blessed no matter how dire the circumstances. Deists may have a hard time accepting that it’s possible to feel a generalized gratitude to whoever or whatever unknown forces may have brought us into the here and now, but trust me: it’s not only possible, but really quite easy!
  • A kind of double vision that on the one hand sees the world as irredeemably broken or sinful or full of dukkha, but on the other hand sees it as already perfected, even paradisiacal — and tends to feel this latter vision is truer, if much more difficult to sustain. (In some religions, of course, this insight is reserved for those with more advanced training, or is restricted to mystical sects.) Thus though I believe strongly in evolution by natural selection, I feel no contradiction in also seeing the world as Creation, by which I mean: wondrous, unpredictable, and capable of exceeding itself at every turn.
  • A willingness to suspend disbelief without necessarily submitting to the tyranny of creeds. I think it was Sam Johnson who memorably characterized the necessary precondition for appreciating secular works of fiction as the suspension of disbelief. In many indigenous belief systems, conscious clowning and make-believe are vital ways to keep the imagination from calcifying and preserve that sense of awe and wonder mentioned above (see “Laughing in Church“). “Holy fools” are honored in most traditions; some Sufis maintain that Nasreddin was the subtlest and wisest teacher who ever lived. There is a playfulness to the best theology.
  • Feeling and showing deep respect toward other beings, to the point of seeing ourselves in them and placing their needs before our own. Empathy and compassion are at the root of ethical behavior. They’d be impossible without the humility and imagination already mentioned, but I don’t think they are simple corollaries, either. As social beings, I think we’ve evolved to respond in specific ways to the faces of others, as Levinas has argued.
  • Cultivating a healthy skepticism about one’s own wants and needs.

The fall.People hostile to religion often seem to feel that if they can simply demolish the arguments for supernatural realities, that religious people will see the error of their ways. Their belief in the persuasive power of reason is touching, and smacks a little of superstition itself. I gather that modern psychology has found little evidence to suggest that people are ever persuaded by facts in this manner, unless they are already looking for things to justify abandoning beliefs that have become uncomfortable for other reasons. But be that as it may, I think critics sometimes fail to understand the appeal of religion in the first place — and fail to recognize the extent to which science does not and can never explain away the wonder and mystery at the core of existence. Whether organized religion is the best way to preserve this intuition is of course a completely different question.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

34 Comments


  1. Gave up on religions some time ago, but I’m fond of bluegrass gospel, a decidedly non-intellectual experience. It feels good, even if I wouldn’t agree with the sense of it if it were divorced from the sounds.
    I can be stirred by chants and chorales without understanding the language. Reactive. “Religious”, at least to me, carries the implication of practice, active.

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    1. I would argue that training oneself to see the world in a certain way is a kind of practice — and that some of the practices closely associated with particular traditions, such as meditation, ritual, and even certain forms of prayer (such as prayers of thanksgiving) don’t require, and may even be hampered by, piety.

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  2. Lovely re-examination of two much-abused words, Dave, thanks.

    Re: “I think such critics fail to understand the appeal of religion in the first place — and fail to recognize the extent to which science does not and can never explain away the wonder and mystery at the core of existence.” – ever read Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as Candle in the Dark”?

    The thesis of the whole (beautifully written) book is that the need for wonder is fundamental to the human species, and is the motivating force behind most good we do – and that the natural world supplies it in abundance far greater and more moving than fantasy, if we but bother to look. Many science and atheist and agnostic types don’t dismiss wonder, awe, a sense of the sacred as foundations for ethical living, though this is the strawman image of them – Sagan’s book is one good exploration. Think you’d like it.

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    1. I haven’t read it, but point taken — many critics of religion are worlds more sophisticated than I am in their appreciation of the wonders of the universe. It does seem as if the least nuanced arguments get the most attention, though. I gather that at a recent convention of atheists, Neil de Grasse Tyson came in for quite a lot of criticism for his more moderate attitude toward religion. And there is certainly no shortage of people online ready to blame religion for nearly every bad thing that ever happened.

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    2. Okay, I modified the post to read, “I think critics sometimes fail to understand…”

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  3. Dave, this is the kind of post that is so perfectly stated, so full of awe and wisdom, yet spoken with the humility of all that is unknown, that one wishes fervently that she had written it herself! I particularly love the juxtaposition of the ‘science’ explanation and the ‘awe-inspired’ description, which are not so much opposite views as differing intentions for being.

    Oh, how can I even try for eloquence after this read?

    Thanks for posting, especially as we turn the corner on this season.

    best, risa

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    1. Glad you found it useful, Risa, and not to sound excessively humble but I think that reading this kind of piece is maybe a bit like eating someone else’s cooking: it tastes fantastic in large part because one didn’t have to prepare it oneself! (Or maybe it’s that I don’t see the eloquence because I spent so many hours trying to remove all the most awkward turns of phrase?) Anyway, thanks for the kind words.

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    1. Thanks. “Almost” winter? Damn, you North Dakotans are tough! I’d call what we’ve been having the past few weeks full-on winter, for sure.

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  4. This is terrific, Dave, thank you for writing this. I also love the images you’ve chosen to go with this.

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    1. Thanks, Marja-Leena! The second one is a little out of focus, but what the heck. The last time I took a picture of a punched-down dough, I think I was still using that old 1-megapixel camera my cousin gave me.

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  5. I can’t respond fully to this . . . can’t type with one hand. I wrote the following going thru chemo. I love the life I get to live, simple not easy Thnx

    Point of View

    A black bird flies over the garage –
    in its claws some small creature
    a mouse or such, carried away
    over the neighbor’s yard – the sky today
    smoked from fires in Mexico –
    I watch the bird as long as possible.

    Maybe that is the way to the other life –
    I witness the carrying and note
    how one small life feeds another.
    Now a cardinal, brilliant in shrubbery,
    orange beak and mask, obvious
    as his mate feeds in secret.

    A year ago cancer took my niece.
    Two weeks with little rest – she ceased
    walking then standing. Speech dwindled
    to syllables then nothing.
    In that time of extended expectation
    the dying know only what we can give:

    the mercy of medication and feeble words.
    There I am cleaning pus from her eyes,
    there is her heart stopped, the mechanism
    of breath yet uniformed of its uselessness.
    Here is the black bird, the cardinal –
    along the way I surrendered my belief in hell.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that — lovely and moving. The sense of lacrimae rerum may be another intuition I should’ve listed above.

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  6. I give you five minutes tonight, and you give me church (I mean, good church). I expect I’ll be reflecting on this meal for a while.

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    1. Oh hey, man, sorry about that. :) Seriously, I have always admired your willingness to learn from non-believers like me — in fact, it isn’t clear to me after years of reading you that you even make that distinction, believer vs. non-believer, in your own mind. Guys like you make Christianity seem very attractive indeed.

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  7. Oh, I love this. It’s just what I’ve been trying to express to myself as I keep finding words like “miracle” and “blessing” on my (atheistic, world-worshiping) tongue.

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    1. Hi Kat — I’m honored that you would say so. I really admired that poem of yours about the faith of an unbeliever that we published on qarrtsiluni a couple years ago…

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  8. What I want to say is “holy crap, Dave,” but without seeming insincere. (Holy crap is my favorite response to an aha-moment.) Thanks (once again) for writing about the real stuff in a way that makes me say amen. And mean it.

    I’ve thought about those Jesus sparrows for a long, long time. Your thoughts resonate.

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    1. Thanks, Deb — I’m glad. My all-but-ordained rabbi friend Rachel Barenblat is fond of exclaiming “Holy wow,” but like you I’ve always preferred the commoner, more earthy versions of the phrase. Guess it goes along with being a disciple of that mad monk Rabelais.

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      1. Thankfully, there is a long tradition of mad monks.

        PS. The Hopis have their clowns, too. Kashare is but one.

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        1. I believe all the Pueblo Indians had sacred clowns at one time, if they don’t still.

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  9. A superb post, Dave. It crystallises my own vague thoughts beautifully.

    I’m particularly interested in your observation about playfulness. One of the things I find incomprehensible about Christianity (and probably some other organised religions) is its seemingly relentless lack of humour. Perhaps I’m misguided on this though?

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    1. Hi Pete – I’m glad this resonated with you. “Relentless lack of humor” might be putting it a bit strongly, but I do agree that Christianity has gotten awfully serious in recent centuries. I’m not sure why this is, but I’m inclined to blame the Reformation. My main source for news on the religion, though, is the liberal Protestant news magazine The Christian Century, which has always carried cartoons, humorous briefs, and until recently, a humor column by one of the most distinguished historians of religion in America, Martin E. Marty. (It also carries good poetry, which is mainly why I read it.)

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  10. I have begun to think recently that you don’t have to consider myth and religion as objective statements of the truth. They are in fact phenomena in their own right, atttempts prompted by speculation, hope, fear, love or hatred, to answer difficult questions. Peoples and cultures build them up, with their rules and rituals, as they build cities and cathedrals, and as termites build towering structures in the desert.
    And, to take it further, as The Earth brings forth mountains, lakes and forests, creatures of all sorts including us. As the Big Bang produces a universe where mysteriously life has shown itself to be possiblem so the myths and religions to which we belong or hover on the outside of, are no less or no more, than all the other beautiful phenomena, of nature. Where ever the observer stands he can look at the stories and prescriptions that puff up like mist or mountain ranges or oceans in the world, and wonder at them in the same sort of way.

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    1. Quite right, Joe. If all people thought like poets, we wouldn’t have this plague of literalists shouting at each other from warring camps, either, and no one would ever think to suggest that sceince and religion were somehow in conflict.

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  11. This is just terrifically interesting, though it’s taken some time to sort out my response.

    In my Christmas post today, I included the line, “Christmas cannot be reduced to the worship of believers or the rituals of the world.” In a strange way, that’s a restatement of your distinction between religion and spirituality – albeit a funky, folkish spirituality when it comes to Christmas.

    But from my perspective , Christian faith has been the most vibrant,the most appealing, the most true, when it managed to walk a third path between religion and spirituality. When it falls to the side of religion, it gets humorless, clubby and prescriptive. When it tends toward spirituality, it becomes ungrounded, floating off into a world that refuses to take creation seriously and confuses immortality with resurrection.

    Ironically, Luther had it right – it’s not an either/or proposition. From his perspective, we’d better get ready to deal with law and gospel, and figure out each of us is both saint and sinner, or there’s trouble ahead. He loved the tension, the polarity, the paradoxes – it was those danged Anabaptists and Puritans and Calvanists who wanted to resolve everything into neat little bundles!

    Truth to tell, I’d love to do the comparative study of Luther and Annie Dillard – the theologies of creation are strikingly similar. But – I’d better just tell you I really enjoyed this remarkably stimulating piece and get myself off to bake Christmas pies, or there’s going to be tension around here in a day or so!

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    1. When it falls to the side of religion, it gets humorless, clubby and prescriptive. When it tends toward spirituality, it becomes ungrounded, floating off into a world that refuses to take creation seriously and confuses immortality with resurrection.

      Well said! Yes, religion and ideology always seem most palatable when they make room for ambiguity: I think of the Buddha’s Middle Way, or Peter Kropotkin’s insistence that individualism and socialism need not rule each other out.

      Good luck with those pies! (A good pie is worth more than the subtlest theology, if you ask me.)

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  12. (I will say this badly, typing as I am with one hand) I’m thinking about ‘community’ and ‘ritual’. These are two main concepts, the way my mind and heart gather in belief. I take great comfort in gathering in a church and saying the Lord’s Prayer in unison or even the Apostle’s Creed. I get the same satisfaction in saying the Serenity Prayer at a 12 step meeting. When I moved to an area of the country that is a Baptist and Football culture, I entered a culture that is more black and white. You are saved or you are not. . . you are with us or you are against us. Hard to teach English Comp at first. My Catholic roots instilled in me the concept of paradox, the practice of prayer AND mediation, forbearance and compassion and forgiveness. I was fortunate to go to a small, small church in Georgetown, Ct. The pastor had a D.Div in Canon Law, had told the bishop he was wrong about something and was sent as ‘punishment’ to this tiny congregation. A man of deep faith and intelligence. I know my love of language, my faith in words stems from these Sundays, mixed with the chemical smells of my mother’s dark room and my father’s love of history. They both had a more open mind to religion than I see in today’s churches/synagogues/mosques of any flavor . . and they came out of the Depression, Latin Masses. I was taught by example that sacred was not just church but humanity, that creation is art and beauty is love. . .and the equation reverses (great pun I see: bible verse and reverse!): there is no church without humanity, art is creation a spiritual act of faith, and love is beauty. Fundamentalism in any way, shape or form scares me for it blots out wonder, it points fingers, it blames rather than being responsible, being awed by the itty bitty miracles of the everyday and living with wonder so heart filling the mind demands we create.

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    1. Amen. Thanks for taking the time to write all that (and beautifully) with one hand! Merry Christmas.

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  13. I’ve so enjoyed this, read and reread it and the comments, given it to Tom to read and talk about, and still not got around to commenting!

    I feel reassured both when I am drawn to religion, in exactly the ways you describe, and when I am repelled by it. Seems to restore and maintain a proper balance somehow.

    Happy Christmas, Dave.

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    1. And to you and Tom! Yes, I know some people have very good reasons for rejecting religion altogether, but I can’t help thinking they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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