I wrote this on November 2, 2015:
This phrase seems to beg me to make fun of it ;-)
I can't speak for everybody who would use this phrase to describe herself, but there was a time when I used it to describe myself.
Speaking only for my former self, in light of the experiences I've had since then ... today I would say that "spiritual but not religious" means that the person wants to believe in unreasonable things, but only in a non authoritarian way ;-) More tactfully, the person wants to become a member of the contemplative traditions, without being controlled by any particular tradition. They want to believe in something, but they also want to figure it out for themselves.
The spiritual but not religious person struggles with the mysteries of being a temporally-limited sentient being among billions of others inside a massive and ancient universe, while rejecting the religious hierarchies that claim to answer these mysteries for us.
I don't struggle with it so much anymore. I think I'm more at peace with the idea that there are fundamental limits to my construction of a verifiable model of reality. There are fundamental limits to any model's ability to model reality. Putting on a robe and setting yourself up as an expert in areas that are fundamentally impossible to model is just a con game. Maybe a sincere con game for most? I can't judge everybody's sincerity, or capacity for self-delusion, or need for certainty/denial. For some people, being a religious leader is just a job, providing a salary and room & board, like any other job.
To some people, these mysteries aren't a big deal anyway. They always understood that life is random or arbitrary, that evil and suffering exist, and that we all die, so what.
But for others, they were taught from an early age that each person has a special relationship with a powerful-yet-invisible deity or deities, that there is a secret Plan for everybody, and they spend their lives struggling to figure out what this Plan is. Maybe they reject the particular deity of their parents, but continue to believe that there is still a deity of some other kind.
Meanwhile, throughout history political leaders have used religions (and vice versa) to secure their control of human hierarchies. In some places today it is dangerous to openly question these political/religious hierarchies.
I think spiritual but not religious is better than authoritarian religion. But the human brain's ability to ask questions fundamentally surpasses its ability to answer them. We've all encountered the curious child who persistently asks a series of, "But, why?" until the adult finally shuts them down with, "Just because." To the spiritual but not religious folk out there, reality will eventually shut you down with just because. But whether you continue asking impossible questions until then, is totally up to you ;-)
I wrote this on Dec. 13th, 2015:
GX3, also known as GaymerX, the now-annual conference for LGBTQIA gamers, is mainly an intellectual stimulant for me. The panels get me thinking, deeply. This year, they've provoked my socialist, anarchist, and atheist dimensions, mainly because none of these dimensions were represented in front of me.
I've tried to attend the panels that sound most provocative to my own belief set.
For example, a panel about designing queer-inclusive pantheons for fantasy role-playing games.
I'm going into this thinking, but, why, why do you need to design a pantheon at all??? You don't need a queer-inclusive pantheon, you don't need a pantheon at all, we don't need deities in our games, just as we don't need deities in our lives.
But nobody voiced these objections.
Instead I heard explanations that assumed part of what they were trying to explain. First, that the history of human theology has many examples of queer deities; the erasure of queer behaviors and identities from religion is more recent than our politicians and conservative clerics would admit.
Then I heard explanations of the importance of theology to culture, both fictional cultures and existing in-real cultures.
Then the panel spoke about the need to avoid offending people of faith, because faith is important to people ... and many in the audience nodded ...
OK, the so-called need to avoid offending people is capitalist. In this globalized system of capitalism, if you want to attract the most productive employees and the most loyal customers, you need to avoid offending people. You don't want to offend them on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, faith, or anything else that is unrelated to performance or spending power.
The need to avoid offending people is also political. In modern democracies, if you want to win elections you need to attract people of every ethnicity, faith, gender, sexuality, and economic class. You need all kinds of voters to turn out for you.
But I'm neither a business owner nor a politician. I don't need to avoid offending people. I can think what I want to think, and write in my social media what I want to write.
I also attended a panel on cultural appropriation, which I've had difficulty understanding as a problem. I want to understand it better, so I can see what the problem is, and the panel helped me some.
But after thinking about it and talking with Tod about it ... to me the issue of cultural appropriation is just another facet of the problem of offending people. If you use another culture's symbols, you'd better figure out how to do it within that culture's traditions, or you'll offend people.
But cultures are not neutral. Respecting a culture, or disrespecting a culture, ... either of these can be a conscious choice. You might decide that some cultural practices (such as female genital mutilation) do not deserve your respect.
If you are a global corporation, or a politician, you'd better try to respect as many cultures as possible, to preserve your market or viability.
But, me, I'm just a plain old human. I'm allowed to make my own decisions about which cultures and subcultures and practices I choose to respect. I don't have to respect all of them. Some of them don't deserve my respect.
I grew up gay, and just by living openly gay some people were offended at who I was. I learned to live my own life, regardless of who might feel offense, because I wasn't actually harming anybody by being gay. Their taking offense was not actually harming them. Living in a liberal society means that some people's opinions and behaviors will offend me, that's just normal. Some people's opinions and behaviors will offend you. But nowadays there are people who want to create norms that don't offend anybody. These norms are supposed to be inclusive, while also respectful.
In my own writing, I've reimagined certain books of the Bible. These reimaginations are plainly offensive to some people, even in ways I did not anticipate. According to the panelists I've listened to here at GX3, I shouldn't have written these things. I should have been more sensitive to other people's faiths. Don't joke about existing religions, they said. Faith is very important to people. Nods.
But from my point of view, writing these things was liberating. I freed myself from an orthodoxy that was injected into my brain before I was old enough to engage critical cognitive skills. Now I can reexamine this orthodoxy, and play with its components. Play -- isn't this what games are about? Pulling apart pieces of the world and putting them back together in different, unexpected, emergent ways? If my play happens to pull apart an orthodoxy and reassemble it, offending people along the way, I believe I have served an artistic purpose, I believe I have asked people to set aside their own orthodoxies, to experience a different, less rigid view of the universe.
To me, this is what liberals are supposed to do, to examine and re-examine their assumptions, to approach better approximations of reality, understanding that any approximation of reality is imperfect. Nobody has all the answers.
If somebody else's offense is allowed to imprison my philosophical, political, personal views, then we are all worse off, because we are more interested in avoiding offense than in examining -- and learning from -- reality. Your offense presumes that you have a perfect understanding of reality, and that my ... imagination ... is harmful because it calls into question your perfect understanding.
Now, I realize that conservatives might agree with bits of what I've said above, saying that we are living in the midst of an epidemic of political correctness.
My point is that you shouldn't let another person's taking offense, you shouldn't let another person's pain, stop you from exploring reality and expressing your point of view. Yes, privilege exists. Yes, power differentials exist. Don't ignore your privileges or your power advantages.
But the mere fact that somebody feels offended should not control your expression. Listen to them, but don't give them veto power. Integrate their point of view, but don't let go of your own.
This compulsive empathy can become a prison.