Can one be spiritual *and* religious?

Yesterday we had the first public event in the RSA’s new project: Spirituality, Tools of the Mind and the Social Brain. It’s the child of the RSA’s Jonathan Rowson, who wants to rehabilitate the term ‘spirituality’ and re-connect it to our public conversation. As he noted, there is a large body of people out there who don’t sign up to any one particular religion, but still have a hunger for a spiritual life – including him. I found it refreshing to hear a public conversation on this topic – as if a window had been opened and we could all breath easier.

The Guardian’s Madeline Bunting was on the panel, and initially made a slightly caricatured dismissal of ‘spirituality’ as self-pampering rather than self-denying, suggesting it’s all scented candles and personal development rather than hair-shirts and soup kitchens. I presumed she was speaking from a superior position of orthodox religious commitment. Actually, no – it emerged later in the conversation that she grew up a Catholic but still went to Buddhist retreats, and has wrestled for years with the question of which tradition to commit to. She, like the rest of us, is meandering down the aisles of the spiritual supermarket.

I found myself meandering down the aisles a few weeks ago, when I spoke at a New Age festival in Holland. Every tradition was thrown in together, as in some heavenly paella – angels, yoga, palmistry, Tarot, aura photos, crystals, more Buddhas than you could shake a joss-stick at. The line from The Wasteland came back to me –

Madame Sosotris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe

– and I wondered what TS Eliot would make of the festival. Then I thought, well, Tom, you helped make it, you and your generation.

Don’t blame us, Tom, your generation created the spiritual supermarket

There were some pre-modernist pioneers, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I’d suggest that it was the modernist generation who created the spiritual supermarket – artists and thinkers like Wagner, Jung, Tolstoy, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Yeats, William James and Aldous Huxley. They ate the apple of knowledge – knowledge of other religious traditions, particularly through their first, breathless reception of eastern classics like the the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the I-Ching.  Eliot was as heterodox as any of them, studying Sanskrit and Bergson, and ending The Wasteland with some rousing Hindu chanting.  And they also had a Romantic sense (I’m thinking particularly of William James here) that spiritual experiences could happen outside of any religious tradition, particularly if you’ve done enough nitrous oxide.

Spiritual pluralism was developed by the modernists before passing, via the Beats, into the main arteries of western culture. We all now grow up in the spiritual supermarket – I am fairly typical in having dismissed Christianity as a teenager, and turned instead to Walt Whitman, the Buddha, Rumi, Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tzu and Hunter S. Thompson for spiritual guidance.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Once you are aware of the spiritual wisdom in many different religious traditions, how can you commit to any particular one? It’s the paradox of choice – we are offered so many paths, we end up going a few steps down each one, before returning the way we came to try out another route.

The free market in religion is the consequence of liberalism, the disestablishment of church and state, the tolerance of multiple faiths – all of which seem to me a good thing. And yet the free market works in strange ways. Holland and the UK, for example, have established churches, and are among the most secular countries in the world. The US, where religion is disestablished, has a much higher percentage of believers.

America’s free market in religion may have spurred innovation and aggressive marketing – like this Mormon cathedral in San Diego

Why is this? It may be that America’s 250-year-old free market in religion has spurred more innovation, new religious movements (Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostalists), more aggressive marketing, bolder truth-claims on the part of all those competing churches, while the Church of England always reined in their evangelical wings before they got too ecstatic. Or it may be, as Robert Rowland-Smith suggested at the RSA, that World War II and the horrors of the death camps made it difficult for Europeans to believe in providence.

In any case, some have reacted to the free market by hardening their faith into fundamentalism. This weekend, I chatted to a nice Christian girl about how spiritual experiences seem to happen to people outside of any religious tradition. ‘Oh yes’, she nodded. ‘Spiritual experiences can happen without Jesus. That just means they’re demonic.’ In a similar vein, I read an American pastor recently insisting that anyone who doesn’t accept the divinity of Jesus is going to Hell. ‘Otherwise Jesus would have died in vain’. So he’s happy to consign four fifths of humanity to Hell to preserve the specialness of one life.

This modern fundamentalist reaction to the free market gets nasty when it feeds into the public sphere. There can be no tolerance of other religions – they are demonic. We see the fruits of this attitude across the Middle East and Africa, where Christians are murdered every day by Muslim fanatics. It makes us long for the cosmopolitan spirit of earlier Islamic eras, so beautifully elegized by William Dalrymple, when many different religions rubbed shoulders, mixed together, interbred.

On the other hand, there is a risk in not being committed to any particular path – as I’ve put it before, you end up sleeping with everyone at the New Age orgy, and not marrying anyone. You never really commit to a religious tradition, never allow yourself to be transformed. I’m not saying this is always the case, by any means, but it’s a risk of the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ approach.

I wonder if it’s possible to be spiritual and religious: one recognizes that the Spirit connects with people in many different religious traditions, and also with people outside of any religion. At the same time, one also recognizes the value of submitting oneself to a particular religious tradition, its scripture, practices and community structures. As Elizabeth Oldfield suggested at the RSA, perhaps one can recognise many paths to God but still suggest yours is the best (the best you’ve found, anyway).  I wonder if it’s where TS Eliot ended up too – Four Quartets is clearly a Christian poem, yet we also get guest-appearances from the Buddha and Krishna.

What I’m grappling with is this: does the ‘spiritual and religious’ position undermine the specialness of Jesus, and contradict his words that ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’? Can one be a Christian pluralist, or does that basically mean I’m not a Christian, I’m a (gulp) Unitarian? Am I Ba’hai? Ba’how did I end up here?


In other news:

This coming Monday, pragmatist philosopher Robert Talisse is speaking at the London Philosophy Club. Handful of places left.

My book came out in America! Without any media promotion alas, so it’s languishing at #50,000 on Amazon. But anyway, you can get it in the US and Canada now.

Check out the great trailer Donald Robertson made for Stoic Week (last week of November)! Keep November 30 free for a big Stoic event we’re organizing in London.

Talking of Stoics, I did an interview with Jonathan Newhouse, CEO of Conde Nast International, about how he uses Stoicism in his life.

Next weekend I’m speaking at the Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead, about ecstasy. Fuck knows how that will go! Come and find out.

New paper by Kinderman et al showing how psychological processes like rumination predict mental illness. Good to show that mental illnesses aren’t just physical diseases, but involve thought habits that people can change.

Two days left to watch this fantastic Otis Redding documentary on BBC iplayer. You gotta!

Here are my top ten tips for recovering from mental illness.

Finally, do listen to Grayson Perry’s first Reith Lecture, on why democracy has bad taste when it comes to art. Funny and interesting.

See you next week,


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  • Kirk McElhearn says:

    Oh, Jules, you need to go back at least another century – particularly in the US – to find the roots of this sort of “spirituality.” I’d say the Transcendelists – mainly Emerson and Thoreau – were the ones who started down this path, reading Indian and Persian texts. William James then followed, and that lead to the modernists.

  • Jules Evans says:

    I was wondering about that – did Emerson discuss the Upanishads etc? I know the Romantics liked their Hellenic culture, but I’m not sure they were that aware of eg Buddhism, Bhagavad Gita etc – am I wrong?

  • Jules Evans says:

    Dhammapada, for example, only translated into English in 1881, although Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads translated a century or so earlier. I don’t think they had a huge influence on Romanticism, though I think you’re right, Emerson was ahead of the game.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Nice quote a reader posted to me, from Thomas Merton:

    “I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot “affirm” and “accept,” but first one must say “yes” where one really can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.”

  • Rob Lewis says:

    Hi Jules,

    I think much of what your describing is understood in Buddhist terms as living as a sort of ‘hungry ghost’, there is much ‘hungry ghost syndrome’ out there regarding spirituality. It reminded me of the time I went to see a lone Benedictine monk, Fr. Tom, who lives on the outskirts of Liverpool, just the other side of Crosby towards Southport, in a place called Ince Bennet, Tom said to me about my dipping in and out of and drawing from different sects and traditions, ‘eventually you have to choose one and walk the path instead of circling the path’. At least he said something to that effect, I doubt they were his exact words.

    being a glutton for punishment i went back six months later with my A-level RS class to visit him for the afternoon as we were studying the history of Western Monasticism. he answered all our questions with great wit and insight and then showed us about and spoke of how his life of prayer and devotion manifested in everything he did in life. he asked us to come and pray with him for a short while and we did. In his small chapel, he sat in the corner and prayed the prayer of abandonment by Charles de Foucald, he said this prayer with such gentle commitment and sincerity that it moved and terrified me. I never went back to see him for another year. It was Easter time and I couldn’t go in to see him and just parked up outside the path to his dwelling for about thirty minutes and then drove off again.

    Another six months down the line and I went to see him with an artist friend of mine, my partner and my youngest son who is thirteen. he welcomed us and invited us in for lunch. I told him of what I’d experienced with him and he just smiled and said, ‘well, sometimes we all want to a say prayer like that but it’s too difficult to actually say it but saying a prayer like that starts first off as us just wanting to say it in our hearts’. Again, not his exact words but close.

    I guess I’m saying all this because the spiritual life requires a very steady commitment in the end and it’s not an easy path, St Benedict believed regular prayer and dedicated formal and informal practice was essential in order to make our spiritual practice/life firmly rooted and ‘stability’. This word ‘stability’ is something that has come up so much in my own spiritual research and practice, it is what we are to aim at, without becoming desperate or clutching and grasping for it, when we have stabilised (or ‘rooted’/ ‘grounded’) our practice, it seems, all other things gradually fall into place.

    Any way, here’s a bit from Thich Naht Hanh on hungry ghosts (taken from his book ‘Going Home – Jesus and Buddha as Brothers’, Section: ‘Going Back to One’s Roots’, pp.182-184):

    ‘Thirty years of sharing the Dharma in the West has brought many opportunities for me to meet Europeans and Americans who bear very much the same kinds of wounds and desires. […] They want to become a Buddhist because they have hated everything relating to their roots. […] I recognise them as hungry souls. Yes, they are very hungry [spiritually]. […] My tendency is to tell them that a person without roots cannot be a happy person. You have to go back to your roots. […] However,, that is exactly what they don’t want to do, and they often become angry when we try to tell them so. […] So, I have to be very patient. I say “Welcome. Practice sitting meditation. Practice walking meditation. You have the right to love the Buddha, to love the Vietnamese culture.” And we try to offer the Sangha, the community, as a family to him or her. […] In Asia we have a tradition of offering food and drink to wandering souls on the afternoon of the full moon day of the seventh lunar month. […] So we make an offering in the front yard of our house. The hungry ghosts are described as beings whose belly is as big as a drum but whose throats are as tiny as a needle. So their capacity to receive [spiritual] food or help is very limited. Even if people have real understanding and love to offer, they’re still suspicious. That is why you have to be patient. In our time, society is organised in such a way that we create thousands of hungry ghosts every day. They are mostly young people. Look around us. There are so many. They have no roots. They are hungry. They suffer. We have to be careful in our daily life, trying not to create more hungry ghosts. We have to play our role as parents, teachers, friend a and priests with understanding and compassion.’

    I hope this offers something by way of a useful response to your POW blog this week, Jules.

    Take good care old son.

    Kindest regards and every blessing,

    Rob Lewis

  • Olly says:

    I once heard from a scholar of religion that the New Testament Greek phrase translated as “the only way to the father is through me”, is actually better translated as “the only way to the father is within the self.” I can’t be certain of this as I don’t read ancient Greek and haven’t seen the original, but it’s an interesting idea. Reflects how much of religion hangs on translation!

  • Steven says:

    This post reminds me of a quote by Vaclav Havel:

    “It logically follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies, or sympathies — it must be rooted in self-transcendence:

    Transcendence as a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe.

    Transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world.

    Transcendence as the only real alternative to extinction.”

  • […] least two thoughtful public responses from co-panelist Elizabeth Oldfield, Director of Theos, and Jules Evans, who is working as a consultant on the project, and many more positive (and a few constructively […]

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