In Theory: Is spirituality ‘worse’ than religious?

Deepak Chopra, New Age guru, is photographed at the Chopra Center for Well–Being at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad.

Deepak Chopra, New Age guru, is photographed at the Chopra Center for Well–Being at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Speaking at the Skeptics Society Conference at Caltech late last month, author and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins addressed the recent Pew study, which showed that the number of people who identified with no particular faith had grown 22.8% between 2007 and 2014.

Although Dawkins said the rise of “nones” is “very good news,” he noted that many people are also describing themselves as spiritual but not religious. He expressed concern that those people may simply be exchanging their religion for beliefs that are “even worse,” specifically taking aim at Deepak Chopra, the controversial New Age guru and alternative medicine advocate, with whom Dawkins has had a spat with in the past.

Q. What is your opinion of Dawkins’ comments?


As a humanist, I am a “none,” although I prefer humanist or “believer in kindness.” In my opinion, the rise in people relating to the world on a more rational, objective and scientific level is good. There are benefits to be drawn from religion, but scientific truth is not one of them. Further, one can be moral without a god and, I believe, often more moral.

I think it is healthy and important for people to cope with life based on what we can know while always being open to that knowledge changing. Pretending something is the truth because of our emotional desire to do so and the word of an ancient text or religious leader without evidence is detrimental.

As far as spirituality is concerned, it is defined in many ways and many nontheists who consider themselves spiritual do it from a standpoint of relating to a “human energy” and ability and a genuine respect for the awe of the unknown. My wife is one of those people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, and she is very sensible and logical in her reasoning.

In my opinion, the increase in nontheists is positive and inevitable. I don’t believe religion is being replaced by something else. I believe it is evolving from something needed by generations with less understanding of the world and more superstitions, into something that is “spiritual” but fully aware that biblical stories are just stories, gods are a meme created by man and human kindness is the real truth. This is how the world will progress ... in my opinion.

Joshua Lewis Berg
Humanist Celebrant


Well, of course Dawkins would look at any reduction in the percentage of the population that says it is religious as good news. He is an atheist, after all, and I’m guessing his best possible world would have zero people believing in God. Surprisingly, however, I am in agreement with him when he says that those claiming to be “spiritual” may actually be worse off than before. Dawkins and I agree: it is not good to be “spiritual” instead of being “religious.”

However, our reasons are different. He believes that somebody claiming to be “spiritual” might come under the influence of somebody like Deepak Chopra. My feeling about those who claim to be “spiritual” instead of “religious” is that they are afraid of being labeled as “religious.” For them, “being spiritual” is somehow better than coming out as an out-and-out atheist. For them, being considered “religious” is a cowardly fear of somebody painting them with a Pentecostal or mindless Fundamentalist brush. I am a religious person — and possibly “spiritual”, too — but I have always demanded the right to define what I mean as “religious,” not what you define as “religious.” If America is in religious trouble right now it’s because those who really do believe in God have somehow let the culture brow-beat them into a denial of their faith. Come on, my religious friends! Let’s show the world that we can take a stand (be “religious”) and still believe in science and evolution and gay rights and all the rest of the stuff progressive Christians believe — and let’s eschew the wishy-washy “spiritual” stance. What did Joshua say near the end of the book that bears his name? “Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). And none of that wishy-washy “spirituality” stuff for us! OK, he didn’t say that — but I think that’s what he meant!

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


I don’t believe Mr. Dawkins’ comments do much more than express his already known negative opinions about religion. Of course he would say a decline in identification with particular faiths is “very good news,” and that some people’s switch to more fringe religious groups is “even worse.”

Regarding the survey itself, the numbers are what they are. Religious belief and expression in cultures throughout history has always been an ebb and flow of greater and lesser popularity. We see this fact recorded in the Bible’s account of Israel’s history, particularly in the books of Judges, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles.

This ebb and flow says more about mankind than it does about God. God faithfulness is unchanging, man’s allegiance is fickle. God is truth, man often rejects the truth. God is sovereign, the pride of man rebels against his absolute rule. God commands man to be righteous, those who reject God encourage others to be unrighteous.

None of this is difficult to comprehend or even surprising. What is surprising, however, is God’s patience with us all and his love for us in spite of ourselves. John puts it this way in 1 John 4:9-10: “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent his only begotten son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.” In Romans 5:8 Paul writes that: “God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In fact, God loves Richard Dawkins very much, and wants him to repent, believe in Jesus Christ and receive eternal life. That’s God’s opinion about us all, and that is “very good news” indeed.

Pastor Jon Barta


I am sad that Dawkins has felt it necessary to take a swipe at both religion and spirituality in one short statement. I happen to be a person who values both religion and spirituality very highly, but I don’t need to attack those who are not religious or those who have not chosen to affiliate with a particular religious tradition just because their views are different from mine.

Francis David, one of our Unitarian forebears from the 16th century, is credited with the statement: “We don’t need to think alike to love alike.” The disdain that atheists such as Dawkins heap on supporters of religious or spiritual ideas is certainly not an example of love or even respect.

What we need in this world is open dialogue with others with whom we disagree instead of attack. Dawkins’ statements preclude further discussion and encourage hostility. We have enough of that in the world without creating more. Hopefully, we can find ways to encourage people to talk to each other with open-mindedness. Maybe then we can heal the wounds of discord and hatred in ourselves, our communities, our country and our world. May it be so!

Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


I assume that atheist Richard Dawkins’ comment that people are exchanging their religion for beliefs that are “even worse” is directed specifically toward Deepak Chopra’s advocacy of unscientific alternative medical treatments. On this point I find common ground with them both.

Medical decisions should be rational, based on scientific fact, yet at the same time Chopra’s mantra of “consciousness creates reality” is also helpful — up to a point. One’s mental outlook definitely affects health outcomes. But it goes too far to say that disease or ill health are a conscious choice.

Chopra also says: “Secular society has sharpened our demand for truth. To me this is a positive development.” He should follow his own advice, and Dawkins’, in advocating alternative medicine and always remind his followers that recognizing scientific truth is as important as positive spiritual beliefs in staying healthy.

Roberta Medford


I never thought I’d ever agree with this militant atheist in anything, but in this particular assessment he’s quite right. Well, partly. Foolish people have abandoned God in favor of essentially nothing, and that is not as he thinks, “good.” In Dawkins’ world there’s no such thing as good anyway, it’s all about what’s expedient or socially agreed. But the whole “spiritual not religious” categorization is certainly ridiculous, and in this we are simpatico.

Recently I joined an online dating service, eligible bachelor that I am, and while I specifically checked the box that says “Christian” and the other box that says “Deal Breaker,” I nonetheless get inundated with responses from gals who identify as “Spiritual Not Religious.” What happened to the second box?

To me, this is dumb. We’re all spiritual, despite the atheist objection, because even atheists have to admit that there’s a “me” part of our being. By that I mean that we all have an awareness of our identity despite our physicality, and that is what we Christians call “spirit.” The word “religious” simply means we have a plan, rather than the alternative … nothing.

To say “I’m spiritual” means little more than “I’m alive.” To say you are such but “not religious” means that you likely gravitate toward things that Oprah Winfrey endorses after another of her guests has wowed her with spiritual wackiness. As such have no clue and certainly no commitment, and according to God in his Bible, they are lost and Hell-bound.

There’s no fence-sitting in the spirit realm. You’re either in or out, a saint or an ain’t, and that’s it. Jesus said, “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Mat 7:13-14).

In other words, there’s a lot of hooey out there, and most people buy it. Christ came to save those who would accept him in his way. Have you? Have most? Or are you among those who think with some artificial superiority that you are “spiritual” but not “religious”? Let me say that there are many who are religious but not spiritual, yet they are no better than those who champion “spiritual but not religious.” All the same, and hell, the pain. Not good. Better to recognize your spirituality and do something about it by connecting with a church. Why a church? Because it’s the only institution for which the Bible says, “Christ loved … and gave himself up for” (Eph 5:25). He didn’t die for the “spiritual,” He sacrificed for those who pursued their relationship with God “religiously.” What do you do religiously? Is God even a consideration? If not, don’t be surprised when you meet up with Dawkins in that warm place without divine repose.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Community Church of Montrose