Religion without Spirituality

by Daniel A. Kaufman


[This essay first appeared on my original – now defunct – blog Apophenia. At the time, I was very involved with our local synagogue and Jewish community, and my daughter was on the cusp of her Bat-Mitzvah. While I am not involved in this way today and though I would probably dial back a bit the stuff about meaning and sacredness (in light of the sorts of considerations I took up in my recent essay, “Lives and Principles”), I still hold, largely, to the sentiments and ideas presented here, and as I’ve done quite a bit of writing and talking with people on the subject of religion lately, I thought it worth re-publishing, which just the barest editing.]


I’m sure that many will think I have made a mistake; that I inadvertently got my title backwards. I can hear people saying “Surely, you mean ‘Spirituality without religion’.”

It’s understandable enough. The media is awash with stories about those who have abandoned religious institutions but retained their spirituality, and the reasons commonly cited are compelling. Whether it is in response to the systemic child abuse in the Catholic Church, the financial, sexual, and other scandals that have become almost de rigueur for evangelical and Pentecostal clergy, the orgy of violence engaged in by Islamic fundamentalists, or every manner of Swami, Yogi, Guru, etc., who has turned out to be a pervert or a fraud or both, not to mention the lifeless, going-through-the motions quality of so much of what passes for mainline religion today, there seems to be every reason in the world for people to abandon the religions to which they might otherwise belong. And given that many, if not most, human beings feel a powerful need for a sense of meaningfulness and sacredness in their lives, the idea of retaining one’s spirituality, while jettisoning one’s religion, makes a kind of obvious sense.

That said, I have not botched my title. I really do intend to talk about religion, in the absence of spirituality, and specifically, about how this combination has played out in my own life. On the surface it may seem quite odd: I am an atheist, but I participate actively in my religious community; I believe that much if not most of what one reads in the Bible is mythology, and yet I teach a Bible class to middle schoolers, as part of our synagogue’s religious school; I lead an almost entirely non-halakhic lifestyle and still, my Bar-Mitzvah remains one of the most significant events in my life, something that will be topped only by my daughter’s impending Bat-Mitzvah, about a month from now.

So, what to make of all of this?

I am an atheist, because I see no good reason to believe in the existence of anything supernatural.  Please do not mistake this with an embrace of what is sometimes called “Scientism” – the view that all genuine explanations must be explanations in the language of some natural science or other. Rather, it is because there is nothing the understanding of which is bolstered or improved by – or conversely, is weaker for the lack of – the existence of supernatural entities and forces. God does not help us better understand the universe, morality, the meaning of life, or anything else, and while the belief that he does is understandable, it always involves fallacies or confused thinking of one kind or another, whether the sort that is the subject of the Euthyphro dilemma or the kind that has one muddling through talk of “first causes” and the like. [For reasons to think that the God of the Abrahamic religions, specifically, cannot make morality intelligible to us, see section 2 of the last installment of my Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics.]

Like most people, it is very important that my life be meaningful to me and have some sort of sacred dimension, by which I mean that it includes elements that are deserving of reverence and which are inviolable. Given my views of the supernatural, this sense of meaningfulness and of the sacred cannot come from God or from anything “spiritual,” if what is meant is something that is incorporeal or otherwise transcendent.  Such things simply do not exist and cannot be justified even as useful fictions, as I am of the view – already mentioned – that they have no use in the search for understanding or virtue.

The arts, broadly construed, can provide a part of this sense of meaning and of the sacred, and certainly, music, literature, visual arts, and architecture have all played this sort of role, over the course of my life. I have had many experiences of the sacred in cathedrals, symphony halls, and art galleries — during Evensong services, at Christchurch Cathedral, over the years, when I was a regular participant in the British Society of Aesthetics’ annual meetings in Oxford; over the many afternoons spent strolling the grounds and galleries of the Cloisters, during the years that I lived in New York City; and in the balconies of Lincoln Center, while listening to music by Vaughan Williams or Debussy or William Byrd.

But these sorts of things can only penetrate so deeply, for they operate at the level of the intellect and what might be called the “nobler sentiments.”  They reflect an appreciation of history and culture and the aesthetic experience of beauty.  So while they may help to sacralize the world, generally speaking – and they have certainly done that in my experience — they could never sacralize my world, specifically. To do that, the experiences must be more personal; the beauty more heartfelt; and the sense of reverence and inviolability deeper. And it is here that I look to my family and to my people: the Jewish People.

This is the level at which I engage with my religion. The rituals, practices, holidays, music, and foods; they all serve to connect me with those to whom I am most closely and intimately connected. Every time my family celebrates Pesach, with a traditional Seder, lights the Chanukah candles and sings Maoz Tzur, listens to the Shofar being blown on Rosh Hashanah, or attends a Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah, we experience our bondedness to one another, to our parents, to our ancestors, to those in our local Jewish community, and to Jewish people all around the world. When I teach our children Bible, during Sunday School, I am teaching them the myths and legends and ethical teachings, from which the story of the early history of our people has been formed and from which our distinctive values are derived. It doesn’t matter whether the stories are true, in whole or even in part. What matters is that they are constitutive of the Jewish consciousness; that they provide the common fabric, by which Jews are connected together, as a people, to which I am connected, as an individual, and against the backdrop of which my life is a part of a long, unbroken history of Jewish lives.

This is where my sense of the sacred and of a meaningful life comes from, and it matters not one whit whether there is a God or angels or heaven or anything else of that nature.

This is what I mean by religion without spirituality.

Some Relevant Links

Plato, Euthyphro (380 BC).



18 responses to “Religion without Spirituality”

  1. s. wallerstein

    The difference between us is that you connect to the Jews as a People, while I connect to them as a culture.

    The religion doesn’t interest me at all, and in fact, even at age 13 I refused to be bar mitzvahed.

    Still, you strike me as very Jewish and that’s certainly one feature that attracts me to your blog, in spite of the fact that
    I generally am not in agreement with your ethical and political views.

    That Jewish culture, as you well know, is much broader than the religious aspect. The other day I listened to a long recent interview with Woody Allen and I felt culturally connected in a way that I generally do not with non-Jewish American celebrities.

    The other day I was debating which book to read, one on the Frankfurt school or one about Heidegger and I opted for the Frankfurt school. All the thinkers in the Frankfurt school were Jewish, although none of them observant in the least and I feel a bond with them that I don’t feel with Heidegger. Not just because Heidegger was briefly a Nazi, but because he comes from a culture that is completely alien to me. I guess that you could try to show that the Frankfurt school has roots in traditional Jewish culture as do Marx and Freud, two of their chief influences, but I’d say that it’s more the outsider stance that they have that seems so Jewish to me. Not the outsider stance that consists of dying your hair green or purple and wearing clothes of the opposite gender, but one that goes deep into our (the Jewish way) of being in the world.

  2. This rings true.

    When pressed, I would have to admit that I cannot know whether God exists or not, or what God would be like if God does exist, or what it means that God might exist. I am, on most questions about ultimate realities, agnostic.

    However, I find the practice of religion to be helpful for many of the ways you describe. I find that telling the story of God, of entering into the practice of myth making, to be clarifying.

    Even if the stories we tell aren’t objectively true, they are still worth telling. In particular, the story of exodus is valuable. Where would we be without Moses and the prophets?

  3. Kyle Chadwick

    The sign that even agnosticism is at bottom a cultural stance, not an intellectual one, is that people who live in countries dominated by the Abrahamic religions never (to a first approximation–happy to be shown a counterexample) profess to be agnostic about animism, or about the Hindu avatars of the Godhead, or any polytheistic religions. It is always agnosticism as to “God.” This is simply a way of relating to the religions around us, not to any deeper aspects of theism.

  4. Interesting, even as an atheist you, like many of us, spend a lot of time thinking about God – so there is something in us that represents God. I believe in a God because I believe it is a foundational assumption in our existence as human beings. Let me explain.

    All cultural traditions defer to some entity from which all authority is derived. In most cases this is crystallized in the concept of a God that directs the activities of human beings. This exquisitely anthropoid kind of a God is very fragile and easily deconstructed.

    I believe in a more robust, more modern scientismic god, one derived from a synthesis of all the possible information that exist in the universe, known, unknown and suspected, virtual or real.

    The fact that we are here is evidence that there is a creator. Whatever that creator is, is obviously beyond anyone’s ability to conceptualize. As we evolve and become more knowledgeable our guesstimates about God may become more realistic. In the meantime my God is vaguely reassuring but otherwise not much help. I have to survive on my own

  5. Charles Justice

    You struck a good note here, and it’s a subject that attracts far too much vitriol and nonsense. Some of the same positive things could be said about lots of other ethnic and religious sects as well. People really over simplify religion these days. Another Philosopher who is concerned about our trashing religion, even though he is not particularly a believer is John Caputo. I recommend his book “Truth” even though I disagree with it, because he gives a rather balanced view of this situation.

  6. davidlduffy

    All very well if one is in a liberal religious community, but less so where one might be shunned, including by family. Even Richard Dawkins is a cultural Anglican.

  7. I come from a different background (raised in two forms of Christianity, Catholic and evangelical protestant) and I lean differently (I’m an agnostic who sometimes leans to theism and sometimes to atheism), but I really appreciate this essay. Thanks for writing it and sharing it again.

  8. Animal Symbolicum

    Thanks for this post. I’ve always been interested in the phenomenology of religious belief, especially since I don’t think I’ve ever had it. I want to know what it’s like to feel that reverence, wholeness, etc. So I’m keen to understand the distinction you draw between (1) what and how your aesthetic experiences contribute to your life and (2) what and how your religious experiences contribute to your life. I have a few interrelated questions.

    Why is it that art only gets as far as sacralizing *the* world, whereas religion sacralizes *your* world? You say that practicing Judaism makes the sacredness more “personal,” but I’m seeing how. Is it your connection to the long, beautiful tradition? The community? The ritual? What makes these “personal”? Could someone not genetically related to the people, yet who converts to Judaism, find that more *personal* reverence in the rituals, etc.?

    You say that art doesn’t sacralize *your* world. Do you think it can sacralize someone’s world? Or do you think there’s an inherent limitation in aesthetic experience?

    I have lots more questions, but I’ll start there.

  9. Animal Symbolicum

    Sorry: The second sentence in my second paragraph should read, “You say that practicing Judaism makes the sacredness more “personal,” but I’m having trouble seeing how.”

  10. I don’t know that I can explain it better than my penultimate paragraph.

    As for art, I can’t speak for others though I suspect that aesthetics alone will rarely be sufficient if ever. While aesthetic experience certainly isn’t shallow as some suggest it is, I doubt that for most it will go deep enough.

    There are many ways to sacralize a life or a world. For my Dept. Head, whose entire value system is structured around ethical veganism, sacralization is effected by humanizing nature. For me it’s being connected to a people as if they were a family. For others it may lie in something else. Certainly, one’s life experience will constrain the directions this goes. For example, had virtually my entire family, save a handful, not been exterminated in the ovens of Auschwitz and on the work-gangs of the Arrow Cross, I doubt that my own method of sacralization would have taken the form it did. [My Dept. Head’s method is equally comprehensible/predictable in light of her own particular insecurities, anxieties, and life experiences.]

  11. Animal Symbolicum

    Thanks for replying. I think I see better now what you mean.

    And, for what it’s worth, I’m certainly convinced that any view according to which aesthetic experience comes out looking irredeemably thin or shallow is mistaken. Aesthetic experiences, and my memories of them, have shaped my mind and sensibilities so thoroughly that it’s difficult for me to imagine what worth my life would have to me were it to become impossible for me to have them or remember them (either because of something that happens to me or something that happens to the world). Some I’ve enjoyed communally, some alone. But I treasure them for their uniqueness and fleetingness and, most of all, for their being mine in an important respect — even if I sometimes enjoy acquiring and talking about them with others (and with due acknowledgment of the publicity of norms and concepts and the like). They’ve enriched my inner life, which is something from which I can never escape, as it were. Aesthetic experiences sometimes make me feel complete; sometimes they leave me satisfyingly emptied; the best ones often somehow do both, and make me feel so big and so small at the same time.

  12. “This is where my sense of the sacred and of a meaningful life comes from, and it matters not one whit whether there is a God or angels or heaven or anything else of that nature.

    This is what I mean by religion without spirituality.”

    I hesitate to ask, but is this uncommon? Isn’t it the way most people outside the bible belt and a few fundamentalist communities live their religion?

    I grew up in a predominantly catholic (although heavily secularizing) country. My parents and my family – uncles, aunts, cousins etc. – were all catholic. But did they believe in the catholic god and angels and heaven, purgatory and hell? Well … If asked directly, they probably would have said “yes”, but nobody asked. It would have been impolite, and I never had the feeling it was very important.

    Advent, christmas, easter, the holy communion, funeral rituals, inviting a lonely neighbor for a christmas dinner, giving money to charities, attending mass, trying to limit the sweets during lent – they were the things you did because it connected you to your family, the community your were living in and, yes, a greater whole. It would call it spirituality, but I doubt it was religious spirituality.

    (another reason why you did all those things was, of course, because the ritual wasn’t complete without a sumptuous meal – the catholic women in my family were great cooks)

  13. I don’t know whether it’s uncommon or not. When I wrote the piece — some years ago — the story trending with regard to this subject was about the so-called “nones” and how increasingly, they were not atheists, but rather “Spiritual but not religious.” This idea of SBNR struck me as interesting and I thought about its inverse (or converse or whichever it is) — “Religious but not spiritual” — and how it actually described me at the time pretty well. I wasn’t suggesting that it was some rare or brave stance.

  14. couvent2104

    “… If asked directly (about believing specific doctrines), they probably would have said “yes”, but nobody asked. It would have been impolite, and I never had the feeling it was very important.”

    My family background is similar, at least on the paternal side. And, yes, it would have been considered impolite. But there was a sense, I think, amongst many individuals, especially of older generations, that these things were important even if the precise formulations of the truths involved was inevitably inadequate.

    Obviously, these matters were once taken far more seriously than they are generally today. Even amongst the children I grew up with, however, a good few retained a sense of the seriousness of religion into adolescence and some into adulthood.

    I am also reminded of David Albert’s scathing attack on the superficiality of Lawrence Krauss’s attitude to religious belief.

  15. Dan, as you know I was, some time ago, a confirmed New Atheist, until I came to confront that spirituality is really a matter of emotional conviction, unapproachable by reason. Given that, there seemed to be no reason to engage a strong anti-theistic campaign against what really has no explanation and yet which explains everything for the believer, but nothing to anyone else, yet stands as placeholder resistant to any other explanation. So I adopted the stance that is rather basic to anyone who believes, not in gods or religions, but in the possibilities for a liberal state: Believe what you will, but obey the common laws of the republic. (Kant said something like that, and I always cringed at what I took to be his submissiveness, because he had a king to deal with; but I’ve learned the reasonableness of it now.)

    Religion begins, after all, in much the way you describe. It is a community’s development of codes of signification and ritual behaviors enhancing (occasionally enforcing) social connectivity. In a pluralistic society, it clearly benefits smaller groups within the greater community embraced by the state, and so long as no one group impels its faith or practices on others (to their evident detriment), there form networks among various groups of shared experience, thus binding the social fabric of the state together. And I have my feelings, too, and confess a certain religious view as well (Buddhism), and participate in networking with those of liberal faiths of various sects).

    All well and good. But over the past few months of the Trump era (which sadly and frightfully has apparently not ended with his retreat to Mara-Lago) I have developed a profound antipathy to fundamentalist, evangelical protestant Christianity (We’ll call it the Religious Right, as the term was developed for it in the later ’70s.) It has become clear to me that for the Republic to stand, the far right must be crush, or at least marginalized; and to accomplice this, the Religious Right must also be crushed or marginalized.

    Surveillance of potential terrorists is a minimum for protection of citizens. Response with overwhelming force to insurgencies is another. For the churches involved, we can start taking away their tax exemptions, since they are in clear violation of regulations of these which prohibit political activism. Further regulations, especially intervening in broadcast of incendiary speech and volatile conspiracy theories, may also be considered. The teaching of certain forms of Religious Right beliefs, especially racist or anti-Semitic or anti-abortionistically anti-female, clearly comprise hate crimes.

    Strange thing to say, of a ‘religion of peace,’ that certain interpretation of it constitute hate-crimes. My suggestions above are alarmingly disturbing, no doubt – I feel that disturbance myself.

    But we are possibly witnessing the beginning of a war (or a renewal of the Civil War), and no doubt many on the Right are convinced it is a religious war (the final conflict of the Reformation?). Do we, who are not on the far right – we liberals, we leftists, we traditional conservatives, we Democrats, we free-thinking independents, even libertarians – have the political will to stop bickering amongst ourselves and consider the possibly stern measures needed to preserve this experiment in democratic republicanism? I fear not; but it is worth raising such issues, so at least someone may know what opportunity has been lost.

    Commentators have argued over and over whether comparison of Trump to Hitler is anywhere near accurate, or a dreadfully exaggerated analogy. The argument usually misses the point: Failure to stop the Trumpian Right invites a future Hitler. Surely that is now obvious. But ask Georgia rep. Marjorie Greene – according to her tweets and retweets, she apparently thinks liberal Jews drink children’s blood; where have we heard that one before?

    Dan, I live in New York, where, religion- wise, outside of certain small communities, no one gives a damn. I know you live in the Bible-Belt. I worry for you because of this, and hope that if there is a coming storm, you and yours survive untouched and even stronger in your religion as in all matters.

  16. Charles Justice

    Call them Christian Nationalists. They are basically a Christian version of The Iranian Revolution and ISIS. It’s a perfect storm of white power, Christian Nationalism and pure grift.