On “spiritual but not religious”

Karen Armstrong says more is needed if we are to respond to the suffering of others.



Karen Armstrong says more is needed if we are to respond to the suffering of others.


It really irritates me when people say “oh, I’m spiritual but I am not religious”. I … number one, none of us are wholly spiritual, we’re all deeply physical beings. We’re all a mess, and very often this kind of spirituality is a kind of polishing of one’s own soul. People are doing … you know, doing mindfulness, or in meditation, or chanting – but it’s all for them. It’s about feeling peaceable and tranquil in yourself, and then you get a nice spiritual warm glow.

The religious impulse, however, properly so-called, insists that you can’t just sit back and sing a few hymns and get a nice sense of righteousness and peace. The religious … the Buddha once said, after achieving enlightenment, you must come down from the mountaintop and return to the marketplace, and there practice compassion for all living beings. Go back to the mess.

Jesus out in the wilderness did not become – after he’d fought with Satan, did not become a monk like later anchorites did. He went back into society and did a healing mission, a healing and political mission that brought him to death.

The people who talk about being spiritual just often want to have that warm glow, they don’t seem to feel that impulsion then to return to the mess, and pain, and suffering of humanity. And in our world, where we’re inundated with images of suffering as no previous generation have been – beamed into us every night on our … on the news – where we know that shoals of people are not only hungry but don’t even have clean water, then we should all be profoundly uncomfortable. And not allow … and force that to prick that bubble of spiritual peace and joy. It must … you must go back to the mire of humanity and feel confusion. The seed of discomfort should act spiritually, the great masters say, as though it … as the grain of sand in the oyster that creates the pearl.