Can Spirituality Exist Without God? A Growing Number Of Americans Say Yes

Jan 13, 2020

The global research firm YouGov lists “being more spiritual” as one of Americans’ top 10 New Year’s resolutions for 2020, and the icon used to illustrate that aspiration is a person meditating — not praying.

And more than a quarter of Americans now say they are spiritual, but not religious, according to Pew Research Center.

What does it mean to be spiritual outside the confines of religion? For some, both exist side by side. For others, even those who consider themselves atheists or “nones,” the concept of spirituality might feel critically important. They say it has to do with how we interact with others, with living more contemplatively, and with appreciating nature and the natural world.

One person who has made a career out of examining the concept is Krista Tippett. She’s the creator and host of public radio show “On Being,” which includes the “Civil Conversation Project” — an initiative that brings people of opposing views together to discuss profoundly divisive issues with civility.

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“To me, the root meaning of what we’re talking about when we talk about spirituality is inner life,” Tippett says.

In 2018, scientists at Yale University and Columbia University found the “spiritual part of the brain” — an area they’re calling the “neurobiological home” of spirituality. It’s an area that lights up during more traditional religious experiences of feeling in touch with God, but more broadly also when that “transcendence” involves communion with nature or humanity, the research finds.

Tippett says she’s noticing the emergence of a powerful secular spirituality.

“We are a culture that has for a while now really only privileged and rewarded exterior accomplishment,” she says, pointing out that “not long ago” most people had some kind of religious identity that they inherited.

While it may have been either a positive or negative experience, “it was a place that was given to each person where reflection was invited,” she says. Now, she says, it’s harder to carve out a place for it.

These days, many young people put their passion into different areas — things like work, politics or even spin class, she says.

Tippett says there’s “a real spiritual curiosity” among people who consider themselves “nones” — a term used to describe people who self-identify as having no religion.

Yale scientists describe the spiritual state they see in the brain as robust. And those researchers are not alone: Tippett says the scientists she speaks to illuminate understanding ourselves in a way that used to be reserved only for theology.

“I see scientists as really deep companions in these ancient, animating existential questions,” she says.

Tippett also talks about those who use nature to experience the spiritual. One of those she interviewed was former priest John O’Donohue, who spoke about the abstract aesthetics of the landscape he grew up in, which he said were “all laid down by some wild surrealistic kind of deity like a wild invitation to extend your imagination.”

She says that this plays into the notion of “awe” and the work of Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

“And not only is an awe a real thing,” Tippett says, “awe is a life-giving, health-giving thing.”

While “awe” has been historically connected to religion and belief in God, she says Keltner’s research shows humans can experience awe through the natural world.

To her, part of the key is that mind, body and spirit are not separate — she says the spiritually she pursues is about connecting your inner and outer self, making space for discernment and authenticity. It’s about “constantly coming back, looking inward, getting re-centered, looking beyond ourselves,” she says.

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Finding ways to connect with people whose views differ from our own can be challenging. She says ideally, the space where we reach out to one another is one where we don’t allow our disagreements to define what’s possible between us.

“The demonization of each other is the layer that gets added on to the real things that divide us and that are meaningful disagreement that makes it impossible to see each other as human beings and makes a lot of violence possible both in word and deed,” she says.

Tippett says a more spiritual way of approaching these disagreements is to become clear and passionate about what we love, what brings us joy and what sparks joy within other people — and not to simply accept that “these chasms are forever.”

“We’re kind of stuck in outrage, which is actually terrible for us, right?” she says. “I mean, we talked about awe a few minutes ago and it’s the absolute opposite of that! And I’m sure [scientists] could demonstrate the terrible effects on our health and well-being.”

Tippett says an interview she did with author Brené Brown addressed the issue of finding spirituality in the most difficult conversations — ones where we struggle to talk to “someone you’re supposed to hate because of ideology or belief.”

Move in and ask questions, Brown said in the interview, and remind yourself of “that spiritual belief of inextricable connection. How am I connected to you in a way that is bigger and more primal than our politics?” Tippett says.

“The wise people I speak with, including people on really hard lines of social justice say, ‘We’re in relationship with each other. We’re in relationship with people on the other side of whatever vexes us.’” Tippett says. “And I think that is the challenging insight that the spiritual traditions invite us to, and how we grow.”

Working through uncomfortable or difficult conversations with others, she says, is “also about your soul.”


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Miller-Medzon also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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