My love/hate relationship with 'spiritual'


I hate that word. But it’s a cool word.

A lot of people, friends even, don’t want to say they’re religious. Supposedly, that’s nasty. Instead, they want to say they’re spiritual.

Most of the time for them, spiritual means they believe in something bigger than themselves, something bigger than empirical evidence reveals.

Most people who say they’re spiritual believe there’s something after death. They don’t think death is the end. They think we become part of everything else or go to heaven or become gods or angels or spirits or something.

Most people who say they’re spiritual want to at least partially accept all religions. And they try pretty hard to pull that off, actually.

Trouble is, no one – and I do mean no one – knows what it really means. Seriously, someone define “spiritual” for me.

See, spiritual isn’t defined by what it is because, almost by definition, we don’t know what it is. That’s why it’s tricky. If we understood it, it probably wouldn’t be spiritual. It would be scientific or something.

Instead, spiritual is defined by what it isn’t.

  • Spiritual isn’t physical, though it might sometimes relate to physical things. So we call it metaphysical.
  • Spiritual isn’t natural, though supposedly nature points to it. So we call it supernatural.
  • Spiritual isn’t understandable, though we might try to understand it. So we call it transcendent.

Which brings us to my love/hate relationship with spiritual.

I hate spiritual because…

  1. It’s indecisive. It’s a label that could mean almost anything… except that you’re a materialist. Woohoo… that tells me almost nothing. It’s like flipping down one person on my first turn in Guess Who.
  2. It’s cool. Religion is out; spiritual is in. To me, people who say they’re spiritual often just say it to include everyone and to seem cool… like acting like a Native American was cool in the ’70s.

But I love spiritual because…

  1. It’s conversation material. Most people who say they’re spiritual are interested in conversations about it, which is fantastic. So am I. And the indecisiveness of the label lends itself to good conversations.
  2. It means the person’s a convert. Most people who call themselves spiritual started out in some other group – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, even atheist – and merged into the spiritual group. That means they’ve thought about this and actually made a change, not just grown up in it.

That’s the love/hate relationship.

As a lame human, I want a nice, short word that sums up everything about a person’s beliefs. But as an interested person, I love that I have to actually dig into people’s personalities and motives to understand them, instead of just stereotyping…

…like I’ve done this entire post.

How do you feel about spiritual?