09/01/2011 09:42 am ET Updated Nov 01, 2011

Religious vs. Spiritual: Semantics or Neurotics?

My friend M said that the term "spirituality" really pisses off devoutly religious folks. I said that I thought the devoutly religious crowd didn't mind the term, but that it was only my fundamental-atheist brothers (or depending on our mutual sense of humor at the moment, my jihad-atheist pals) who really smirked at the word.

Apparently I'm wrong. The word "spirituality" (and/or "spiritual") seems to piss off just about everyone. Why?

I hate it when I feel like I'm the last person in the room to get the joke. Hell, I just assumed that if I held some personal "spiritual" belief in, let's just call it, a beyond-our-physical-universe reality (the nature of which won't be discussed here) that includes a very personal conception of humans (and other living things) having an eternal essence that transcends their bodies -- that I'd share enough common ground with devoutly religious people to, well, at least not piss them off. OK, to at least garner the merest civil, mutual respect, even if it's without any minimal agreement of basic epistemological and cosmological issues. I think many of us get, and don't condone, how, as Sam Harris has said, "religion is held off the table for rational criticism." I just had some rather naive notion that since some of my own "spiritual" beliefs trespass "rational" or scientific explanation, that this alone would increase the likelihood of greater understanding between me and more orthodox believers. Don't chuckle, I really thought this.

And why not? When, over the years, I've causally discussed "religion" with devoutly religious people, they've seemed to seamlessly accept my use of the word "spiritual" -- though, whether they've instantly replaced their own terms (when I say "spirit" they think "Jesus") I don't know for sure. But don't we all do that to some degree? Isn't that part of the function of metaphors and symbols?

I decided I needed to talk to a devoutly religious person. Not in passing; someone that I actually knew and that I could talk to in greater depth. And then I realized I didn't know many. (By "devoutly religious" I mean someone who's wholly committed, heart and soul, with a wavering-less certainty, to a prescribed, formal, established, organized religious dogma/doctrine.) I remembered a friend that now lived in New Mexico. A terrific guy, I knew that he quite regularly went with his wife and children to Sunday church and that although I didn't know exactly how "devout" he was, he was more so than I was. It's interesting to note that, according to the Gallup Research Organization, 40 percent of Americans claimed they went to church last weekend, even though it is fairly accepted that most people fudge how often they actually go. Still, that's 118 million people, and I was having a hell of a time finding any of them in my life, at least that I knew about. Anyhow, I phoned my friend in New Mexico, and I asked him, "What do you think of the term 'spirituality' as in 'I'm a spiritual person'?" and he said "No problem. Call it whatever you want." And then we caught up with each other's lives, since it'd been more than a year since we'd spoken. But then, after we got past the social layer and returned to my question, he gently informed me how the term frustrated him.

As we spoke I felt his frustration become almost a bitter sadness. To him the term "spirituality" was akin to the notion of pure relativism. And in light of how he viewed Christianity, relativism was like the doorway to the devil and must be securely shut. He told me straight out that he didn't want his candidness to affect our friendship, but he believed "...if God is Truth, then the word of God is True, then everything He wrote or said is True, which meant that Everything in the Bible was True -- and therefore, everything else is ... false!" So my mambsy-pambsy notion of "spirit" or "souls" or what-have-you was just an insidious altering of the truth. My definition was slippery to him. He said he didn't really understand it; it was vague. He said he'd be much more comfortable if I held traditional religious views that I could more clearly articulate -- even those of Islam or Judaism, it didn't matter. He'd still disagree with them, but they were solid traditions that he'd be able to address. What I was talking about, in my open-minded, relativistic, faux-religious blather, was as unformed as a slithering snake. And a serpent, as we all know, is worse than a Democrat.

What does this mean? Scientifically, not much. I'm certainly making some huge generalities here. Every religious person will obviously not react to the word "spiritual" the same. At least not in public or to my face. However, when I mentioned "spirituality" to my atheist friend, his reaction was unambiguously simple and snide: "Come on, give me a break!" And I have a sense that his sentiment would be readily shared by other secularists, even if only uttered to themselves.

"There are as many Gods as there are people who believe in them," Joseph Campbell said. And ol' Willy-the-Shake said, "...a rose is a rose by any other name." And for me, between these two sentiments lies the simple truth that seems to irk many who either hold both "spirituality" and "religion" in conceptual contempt or those who believe "spirituality" to be a threat to their own certainty. These are both terms that attempt to ascribe aspects and conditions of the ineffable to those who believe in them. Religion implies a particular faith tradition that includes acceptance of a metaphysical or supernatural reality, whereas spirituality is not necessarily bound to any particular religious tradition. Get a grip. What's the problem?

And then again, we all -- even those of us who still use and like the term "spirituality" -- are embarrassed by and have disdain for those who bandy about terms such as "spirituality" as a conveniently fashionable and corrupt excuse for sensory overload or anything else they can't articulate: as in a coked-up celebrity who blathered on about her amazing spiritual experience while meditating to the full moon. OK. Maybe we can find another word or set of words that wouldn't be so easily open to ridicule. How about ... mind your own business?