'I'm spiritual, but not religious': A new kind of religion? Or a big spiritual problem?


First aired on Tapestry (15/2/13)

"I'm spiritual, but not religious."

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This qualifying phrase has gained a lot of traction in recent years. But what does it really mean? David Webster doesn't know and he's pretty sure you don't either -- especially if you use this label to define your own spirituality. However, the professor of philosophy, religion and ethics doesn't just find the phrase "confusing," he finds it "quite problematic" -- and he has written a book explaining why.

Wester discussed his views with Tapestry in a recent interview. He believes the term emerged as a qualifying cultural statement. Saying you're "not religious" suggests you aren't entrenched in "capital R religion," which is associated with sex scandals, wars, hatred and bigotry. But also claiming to be spiritual ensures that you aren't seen as a "mechanistic egotist" that's "shallow and only interested in possessions."

As a result, according to Webster, contemporary spirituality has evolved into a "buffet-style approach, where everyone builds a different platter." Individuals pick and choose what elements of what religions work for them: maybe you're into Christian activism, but enjoy practicing Buddhist meditation. Maybe you do yoga and go church on Sundays. On one hand, this new approach seems inclusive and progressive. "It's building bridges, it's inclusive, it isn't hostile to other faiths," Webster acknowledged. But on the other hand, he points out that it's missing the fundamental point of religion and spirituality: the quest for truth.

"All these religions, all these different traditions, they are all saying they're right. And they can't all be right," he said. And without the quest for truth, spirituality isn't challenging us socially, culturally or intellectually. It's not encouraging people to look at the world critically. "There are right and wrong answers to these [questions] and we need to work them out and we can't all be relaxed about it," he said. "Intellectually we need to have a certain level of battle in order to work out what we want to believe in and what we believe is true."

Webster believes that when the quest for truth is eliminated, the spiritual journey becomes one of personal betterment. Instead, it moves "towards being self-obsessed, towards self-development," which is a direct contradiction of why people hang on to the spiritual label in the first place. And without these challenges, Webster believes that spirituality ends up being little more than a leisure pursuit and not a contemplation of truth, ethics and mortality. It becomes about the self and bettering oneself instead of bettering and challenging the world around us.

And Webster believes this is a big mistake. "I think there's a danger that contemporary spirituality is about an inward turn to the self," he said. "Perhaps the answers to the questions you are trying to seek internally lie in other people, in relationships, in working with communities."

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