Just before I read your post I was writing about the idea of being
"spiritual, but not religious." I see an unthoughtful, inherent neo-gnosticism in such a sentiment. Do you think that the elevation of "spirituality" over religion has anything to do with our denigration of things physical?
I felt that this deserved an entry on the main blog, so here it is.
It is my belief that what people mean by the statement, "I'm spiritual, but not religious," is usually "I crave some kind of deep fulfilment beyond the reach of my physical life but I refuse to be bound by any commitment to an established belief which threatens my own way of thinking." If I'm wrong, then please correct me.
This belief manifests itself mainly in the picking and mixing elements of various religions, a bit of Buddhist meditation together with a smattering of the Rosary and a dash of Dervish dancing, despite the fact that these religions teach very different things. And why is it that people who are spiritual but not religious (SBNR for short, I think) always attach themselves to old established expressions of spirituality, instead of inventing their own? I suppose that they see the spirituality that they crave manifested in a particular activity which they then adopt, being careful not to adopt any belief which is incompatible with their own thought.
Now that, as Jason says, is Gnosticism since many SBNRs will be looking mainly for an escape from the physical world (a salvation if you will) through a certain knowledge and practice, and hence involves the notional separation of the spirit from the body "spirit-good, body-bad", though I wonder how SBNRs would have fared in a Decian-style persecution. Are they willing to die for their beliefs?
However, just what is the spirituality that an SBNR seeks? It can only be a spirituality of the self, since the spirituality is put together by the self from elements that appeal to the self. In these matters, the spirituality is largely an aesthetic commodity that seeks to lift the soul from the consideration of things physical and yet is based only upon what gives the best spiritual high in life. Now, this doesn't stop the SBNR from possessing some wonderful altruistic properties.
Many SBNRs are fond of the idea of Karma, which drives them to demonstrate proper acts of respect and consideration of others. But still, the adoption of Karma apart from Buddhism and Hinduism, is the adoption of something that feels right, but there is still the refusal to commit wholeheartedly to being a Buddhist, or a Hindu.
It's the refusal to commit to anything which punctuates SBNR belief, and why this belief is largely self-justifying, self-orienting, and self-obsessed. It's a belief that cannot be shared with others; there is no koinonia, communion, or coherence, so this cannot be a belief that is truly societal. In some sense, an SBNR ought to regard Satre's "l'Enfers, c'est les autres" as being very true, for it is the existence of others that threatens the sheer individuality of SBNR belief. Since we live in a society, and have to live in a society, we can only conclude that SBNR belief, along with the great modern doctrine of Individualism, is not for the good of society. Indeed, Individualism and synchretism (essentially the method of compiling SBNR belief) have been great concerns of Pope Benedict.
We are human beings, body, mind and spirit (or body and spirit for dichotomists) and to ignore a part of our make up is a great mistake, for we ignore part of who we are and how healthy we are. Since we are truly unable to see who we really are, we have to rely on others' interactions. I can't tell how healthy my teeth are, I need someone (a dentist) to look into my mouth and tell me if there's anything wrong. If I refuse to see a dentist and declare everything to be okay, despite a niggling pain in my tooth, then it's me I'm hurting ultimately, and needlessly. Likewise, in order to know that my eyes are healthy, i need an optician, an other to help me.
We will only find true fulfilment by committing to beliefs in which other people form a vitally important part in sharing in that commitment. This commitment will involve difficulty, wrestling, searching, and much discomfort, conforming to rules, and praxes of that society, but can only contribute to our growth as human beings. However, such a commitment will constitute a religion, and the SBNRs will not like that.