It’s a great and self-serving mess, this claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” which we hear from almost anyone who talks about religion in public, outside those the worldlings define as fundamentalist (me, probably you, Joseph Bottum, David Goldman, Benedict XVI, Hassidic Jews, devout Muslims, religious families with more than four children).

It’s one of those easily remembered phrases that work like a “get out of jail free” card for anyone who feels he has to explain his lack of religious practice, and as a claim to superiority for those who care about being superior to those who practice an established religion. It’s the religious equivalent of “I gave at the office” or “There’s a call on the other line” or “I don’t eat meat.”

So we find Lady Gaga, the pornographic songstress, telling a reporter for The Times that she has a new spirituality just before taking her out for a night at a Berlin sex club. Asked by the reporter, “You were raised a Catholic ” so when you say ‘God,’ do you mean the Catholic God, or a different, perhaps more spiritual sense of God?”, she responded, “More spiritual . . . . There’s really no religion that doesn’t hate or condemn a certain kind of people, and I totally believe in all love and forgiveness, and excluding no one.”

You see what I mean. To be truly spiritual ”on a scale on which “the Catholic God” seems stuck in the middle”apparently means indifferently inclusive or (what is another way of saying the same thing) undogmatic.

I don’t think Ms. Gaga or anyone else who talks like this has really thought it through. That God who forgives everyone and excludes no one doesn’t object to debauches in Berlin sex clubs. A point in his favor, from one point of view. But then he doesn’t object to murderers and torturers and corrupt bankers either. A point in his favor from no one’s point of view.

Even academics don’t see the problem. A few years ago a much-reported study of college students’ religious practice found that they become more “spiritual” as their observance of their childhood faith declined. The researchers defined “spiritual” as “growth in self-understanding, caring about others, becoming more of a global citizen and accepting others of different faiths.” They simply dressed up their favored attitudes by calling them “spiritual.” That kind of spirituality, detached from anything specifically religious, is just materialism in a tuxedo.

The word “spiritual” has no useful meaning if it does not refer to a relation to a real spirit, something from a world not our own, something supernatural, something that or someone who tells us things we do not know, judges us for our failures, and gives us ideals to strive for and maybe help in reaching them. It’s not a useful word if it means a general inclination or shape of mind or emotional pattern or set of attitudes or collection of values. There is no reason to call any of these spiritual .

Unless, of course, you like that little sense of importance and that comforting sense of social approval that our society still gives to “spiritual things,” though not to religious things. It’s a warm and fuzzy word. It’s a cute cuddly bunny word. It’s not like “religion.” That’s a cold and forbidding word. It’s a screeching preacher with bad breath word.

A better definition is not, however, wanted. The moment you acknowledge a real spirit to whom your spirituality is oriented and by whom it is guided, however distant and unengaged that spirit may be, you have a religion. You are bound by something. You have marching orders. You have to ask what the spirit wants and what he requires and what he says.

As the writer Malcolm Muggeridge, himself a convert from a vaporous kind of religion, put it, we crave “a Christianity without tears; . . . an idyll rather than a drama, with a happy ending instead of that gaunt Cross rising so inexorably into the sky.” The spirit might turn out to be a Puritan. He might say something about taking up a cross. Better to be “spiritual” without the spirit, and hope no one notices.

But why bother to be “spiritual” at all? Why not be at least agnostic? Being “spiritual” is a kind of natural default position. “Spiritual but not religious” provides a comfortable compromise between the two sides of our natures, our desire for God and our desire to be God ourselves.

We want the spiritual-ish, because God made us to want him yet we do not want to want him, and we do not want him on his terms. If our hearts are restless without God, as St. Augustine argued, they can be tranquillized with substitutes, of which “spirituality” is easier to find and much less costly than the alternatives. Drugs and drink are bad for you, and wealth and sex are hard to get, and achievement takes work.

“We live in an unbelieving age but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual,” observed the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. “There is something in us . . . that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” The modern man “looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.”

“At its worst,” O’Connor concluded, ours is “an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.” Very often, I think, the distinction of “spiritual” from “religious” with the first emptied of meaning is the ideology, the justification, of domesticated despair. It is a way of feeling better about being alone in the universe by claiming some relation with something beyond us, though we know not what.

Marxism is dead as a source of human hope, but the attempt to find hope in an abstraction safely distant from our lives remains with us. The libertine who claims to be “spiritual” reminds me of the academics who used to be called “Gucci Marxists,” who preached revolution, and felt very good about themselves for their radicalism, but lived the most sybaritic and luxurious of lives, feeling justified in doing so because the Revolution had not come.

Being “spiritual” does not do us any good. As I recently wrote elsewhere, it works fairly well when you are healthy and have enough money to enjoy life, and just want from your spirituality the feeling that all is well with the universe, particularly your corner of it. But it doesn’t help you much when things go from good to bad.

The man wasting away from pancreatic cancer will get no help nor comfort from the “spiritual,” which will seem a lot less friendly and comforting when he feels pain morphine won’t suppress. He has no one to beg for help, no one to ask for comfort, no one to be with him, no one to meet when he crosses from this world to the next. He wants what religion promises.

And he is right to do so. The dying man is the true man, in the sense of being the one who reveals to us what we essentially are. We are on our death bed from the day we are born. To paraphrase Pascal, dying men want not the God of spirituality, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

David Mills is the deputy editor of First Things .

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