Religious but not spiritual

For years, I have been sarcastically reversing the popular claim that one is “spiritual but not religious,” instead declaring myself to be “religious but not spiritual.” As I’ve pondered this formula more, however, I have become increasingly convinced that this joke does contain a sincere grain of truth about the way I’d like to approach my life. I obviously don’t want to be “religious” in the sense of going to church every week, but that’s not all that’s at stake in “spiritual but not religious.” The “religious” is the formula, the ritual, the mediating institution that’s bigger than any individual — anything that’s not fully owned by the individual, anything that risks being an empty gesture. The “spiritual but not religious” person wants to cut past all the accumulation of tradition and habit and get straight to sincere spiritual experience.

My inspiration to write about this at long last comes from my reading of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which seems to fit my current mood perfectly. In particular, this bit strikes me as true:

Behind the pseudo-democratic dismantling of ceremony, of old-fashioned courtesy, of the useless conversation suspected, not even unjustly, of being idle gossip, behind the seeming clarification and transparency of human relations that no longer admit anything undefined, naked brutality is ushered in. The direct statement without divagations, hestitations or reflections, that gives the other the facts full in the face, already has the form and timbre of the command issued under Fascism by the dumb to the silent. Matter-of-factness between people, doing away with all ideological ornamentation between them, has already itself become an ideology for treating people as things. (sec. 20)

Once the empty gestures of courtesy are swept away, we aren’t inducted into a new realm of sincere, unmediated human brotherhood — rather, we are left with nothing but the brutality of market relations. Similarly, once we get rid of “religion,” we’re left with nothing but prideful (and empty) speculations and a demand for the warm fuzzies we associate with spiritual ecstacy.

My main focus is not on the spirituality element, though, but on the element of ritual. I have found that the “empty gestures” of life, the little rituals — touching glasses before drinking, going through the meaningless exchange of “hi” and “how are you,” etc. — have felt more and more important and necessary. Dressing “properly” has also become a concern for me, as I reject the enforced casualness of the previous generation of academics.

In this, I may be falling behind the historical dialectic, however. A recent New York Times op-ed proclaims that the hipster ethos of niceness and do-it-yourself-ness is ultimately about self-branding and salesmanship. It’s as though the old gestures of courtesy, after being abolished in favor of the rawness of market relations, have been taken back up by those very market relations.

I developed detectors for this kind of thing early on, as my evangelical upbringing made me very suspicious that people who were apparently very sincere and friendly actually had an agenda — and they often did in that setting, either to sell a self-image of themselves as happy Christians or to sell Jesus to the outside world. The emotionally manipulative services were part and parcel of this: they were always selling salvation, dressing it up with music and drama and moving stories and pop psychology, selling it even and especially to those who had already bought it time and time again.

There was no end to the sales pitch, and that was part of what made my conversion to Catholicism seem like an appealling option: from the Catholics, I detected a spirit of “we’re doing this with or without you — you can take it or leave it.” After years of compulsory spontenaity, there was something satisfying about the ritual, the routine, in its very arbitrarity, its clearly being imposed from without.

And now, of course, emerging church hipsters are embracing liturgy with their “ancient/future” faith, just as hipsters are embracing niceness — and even “proper” dress (though most introduce some excessive or out of place element in order to “ironize” their reclamation of older styles).

Yet it seems to me that there is more in the “religious but not spiritual” lifestyle than simple hipsterism — or more precisely, less. It is perhaps the case that beneath the trappings of courtesy there really is no “sincere” core other than self-seeking and beneath the empty ritual of religion there is no “deep” spiritual experience other than groundless speculation or pleasure-seeking. Yet it may be possible to repurpose those empty gestures as something other than a weapon in the self-seeking arsenal — a way of leaving people alone, of making space for them, of refusing to make use of them.

For example, I dress “properly” as a professor in part to make it clear that I embrace that role and don’t expect us all to act like we’re personal friends, all on the same level. Even in the democratic ethos of the discussion model at Shimer College, it’s an illusion to pretend that a person with (at the very least) a decade of concentrated education over the students and with the authority to assess their performance is simply one class member among others, and pretending that everyone is on the same level opens up the door for all kinds of manipulation and abuse of teacher-student relationships. I go through the ritual of exchanging niceties to cushion the blow of a personal encounter, to allow us to acknowledge each other without skipping straight to making demands on each other (whether utilitarian or emotional). And although I no longer attend mass, I would still prefer an “empty” liturgical observance if I were to go to church, because that ritual element leaves each person’s individual experience alone — it doesn’t demand spontaneous outbursts of praise, or feelings of intense guilt and repentence, or really any inner experience at all.

In a world of forced niceness, where even the lowest-paid service workers have to pretend to be your sincere friend, where we all have to put our best face forward and sell ourselves constantly, there is something, if not revolutionary, then at least refreshing about the empty gesture that simply lets someone be.

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18 Responses to “Religious but not spiritual”

  1. Amod Lele Says:

    Adam, I liked your comments about dressing properly. When I came to teach at casual Colorado College, I found that wearing a suit to class was quite helpful to establish the parameters of the relationship. On the other hand, when I arrived at Stonehill College – a small and relatively parochial Catholic college outside Boston – it was even clearer to me, almost immediately, that wearing a suit was counterproductive. The students’ educational upbringing had been so authoritarian that they were typically afraid to disagree with each other in class (let alone with me). I not only took the suit off, I asked students to call me by my first name – and boy did that ever freak them out.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I can definitely see something like that being context-dependent.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    A way to state the difference between the two situations is that whereas your dress in that setting was taken as putting the students in their place, mine is attempting to send the message: “Don’t worry, I know what my role is.”

  4. Trevor Owen Jones Says:

    This is a great post, really very thoughtful. Material for an upcoming book maybe?

  5. Chris Rodkey Says:

    I am struggling to come to a productive opinion. The interplay of the term “religious” here is interesting; remember for Tillich he used the term in both positive and negative connotations. Positive when it points toward something resembling ultimate concern, and negative when it became institutionally self-serving.

    I am also piqued by the conclusion of Freitas in her book Sex & the Soul that suggest that usually the branding of “spiritual but not religious” is a socially acceptable way of side-stepping conversations about religion in public or in a classroom. It gives the allusion that one is not outrightly dismissive but is really a kind of apathy.

    Perhaps what strikes me is the “emerging church hipsters” bit–as I’m not quite sure where to place myself with regard to this generalization. What if the community, and its emotive, pan-generational connectedness, is the main goal?

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    By religion, I mean ritual and habit. By emerging church hipsters, I mean precisely them. There’s no veiled attack on you or what you do in this post, if you’re worried.

  7. dominicfox Says:

    I always knew you’d come to Anglicanism in the end.

  8. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    No, I didn’t take it that way. It’s more self-implication.

  9. Moby Hick Says:

    I like this idea. It explains why I go to mass even when I’m not feeling like getting out of the house on a given Sunday. And I’ve always said to myself that I might have gone on to graduate school in economics if my macro instructor hadn’t made me completely unable to care about the topic because he wore Bike shorts to class every single day. For all the wrong reasons, he saved me a bunch of pain.

  10. Jeremy Says:

    This emphasis on compulsory spontaneity is very pertinent to psychoanalysis and modern debates about the frame of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. It’s very interesting that the postmodern ‘intersubjective’ analysts constantly bash the rigid, neutral stance of the therapist. I think there is something very important and comfortable with the analytic frame that needs to be respected. Similarly, the impulse for professors to create an egalitarian, non-hierarchical environment is so manipulative, and it bespeaks our society’s extreme anxiety and refusal of power and aggression (which I believe it contributes to so much passive-aggressiveness in our society). Thanks for this post, I’m planning on writing an article on some of these issues next semester.

  11. Sergius Says:

    Interesting post. I’m reminded of participating in a “spiritual” group, long ago, involved in self-inquiry. Supporting self-expression and sincerity rather than mindless gossip became part of the culture, and part of this was a resistance to the robotic “How are you?” “Fine” interchange. You’d ask someone how they were and they’d pause and try to actually answer the question, like, “Hmm… Pretty open… and kind of confused, and I’m aware of some frustration towards my mom. There’s an ache in my solar plexus…” That kind of thing. Anyway, all that was fine in that context, and I got a lot out of the group, but I realized that I felt social pressure to say something other than “fine” when I didn’t want to. To me, “how are you” was not a literal question but a ritual.

    But it doesn’t seem quite fair (if I’m reading you right) to use a NYT op-ed as evidence that “their” (hipsters’?) “religion”/ritual is somehow false or contaminated by the market, and then to imply that your ritual of dressing, clinking glasses, etc. is a sincere and productive. Doesn’t that feel a little too convenient? I think in truth this type of behavior has multiple motivations, some more self-indulgent than others.

    Also, I’m not sure I agree with the way you’ve generalized the idea of religion. That is certainly not what most people mean, I think. If you want to reclaim the word, that will be a long battle. Why is it so obvious, by the way, that you don’t mean going to church? A lot of religious folk consider that to have the ritual aspect you are getting at.

    Finally, I’d be interested in a follow up about the “spiritual” side. In what sense are you “not spiritual”? This is a sincere question. I can think of different ways you could mean it – since the idea of spirituality can be parsed in so many ways and can be spoken of from different orientations.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Sergius, I’m not trying to redefine religion for all time — I’m just explaining my understanding of the reversed cliche. And I mean it’s obvious to people who know me that I’m not planning on resuming churchgoing duties any time soon.

  13. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    The religious-spiritual dialectic is certainly not specific to Christianity. LIke you, Adam, I have long found the word “spiritual” rather off-putting when used by a rabbi or other Jews. I guess I could say with you, I’m not spiritual, I’m Jewish (as I will explain, Judaism is the first “religion”). Being spiritual always smacked of a certain Protestant interiority that, I am ashamed to admit, I never felt, a certain intimacy with God that seemed to be embarrassing when people talked about it. I don’t want to say that people can’t be intimate with God or have spiritual feelings, I only thought that it was embarrassing to make these things public. In public, you say things that are ritually defined, the liturgy as it’s written. No personal testimonies. Of course, most of the time, the liturgical words are hollow, purely “religious.” But still, the words, said together with other Jews in the synagogue, create, or can sometimes create, a sense that one is in touch with something bigger, call it a certain history or tradition. In public, maybe we want to be able to protect our privacy and the most intimate secrets of our relationships (with God, with our friends, our spouses, etc). I think that the turn toward “spirituality” (and as I say, this is both Jewish and Christian, and perhaps Muslim, but I wouldn’t presume to speak on this) is part and parcel of our voyeuristic interest in the the private lives of others, the way that the public sphere has been swallowed up by the private sphere, as Hannah Arendt has argued. Judaism, the first “religion” (that is, the first to be called merely ritualistic and legalistic and empty of Spirit), was accused of this because it refused to efface the difference between the public (what is a matter for Jews qua Jews) and the private (what is a matter for a Jew qua one specific human being like all others). A Jew qua human was never supposed to appear in public. When, as in the The Mercant of Venice, a Jew is forced to defend himself qua human in public (“Does not a Jew bleed?”), it is a sign that the culture has become a culture of prostitution, of the public sale of intimacy (Portia must submit to the test of the caskets). Then, the “private” Jew is hiding himself, unwilling to show who he is, so therefore guilty of something. Shylock says, in effect: If you want me to show you that my interiority is like yours, I will have to take my heart out and show you all my love (for my dead wife, for my daughter); instead, I’ll show you my hatred for what you make me do, I’ll take out your heart, since this is what you are demanding of me. So Christians who flout their “spirituality” before the world, as you suggest, Adam, are prostituting their own interiority and condemning everyone else for hiding theirs. The irony is that the Protestant Reformation was thought to be a rejection of the “whore of Babylon” in Rome, a recovery of the sanctity of interiority. (Kierkegaard comes to mind, his return to Silentio and the heroism of silence, to the sheer exteriority of Christian appearance, a strange return to Jewish reticence, named “Abraham”.)

  14. William Evans (@wmevans) Says:

    A wonderful book dedicated to this subject is Adam Seligman’s Ritual and its Consequence: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity.

    Consider it a Jewish retort to the Christian monopoly on authenticity. Excellent book.

  15. Mathew Says:

    I love that bit from Adorno and I think your inversion of the (often extremely narcissistic) ‘spiritual but not religious’ trope is refreshing. Do you take yourself to be making a broadly Weberian point about the metaphysics of selfhood underlying capitalism here? There does seem to be a lesson in this about the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. Or is that too crude a way of drawing this up?

    Another question that arises is whether the ‘religious’ as you are defining it is necessarily or merely contingently institutional – whether the formal aspects of belief (ritual, dress, rote behaviours, etc.) that you are right to bring to our attention are in some fundamental sense tied to symbolic authority. I am thinking here of Santner’s claims about the role of repetition compulsions (of which ritual would seem to be an example) in providing a subjective support for power. Is there ritual without such a tie to Law?

    Anyway, thanks for a very interesting post.

  16. Sarah Conaway (@transversal) Says:

    Where can I find out more about this ancient/future hipster religion?

  17. “Religious but not spiritual…” « The International Society of Ontolinguistics Says:

    [...] Kotsko, whose books I have enjoyed a good deal, wrote the following recently: from the Catholics, I detected a spirit of “we’re doing this with or without you — you can [...]

  18. Chris Rodkey Says:

    In Phil Snider’s new book, The Hyphenateds.


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