Spiritual but not religious: What does that really mean?

It’s becoming quite popular in the Western world to define oneself as spiritual rather than religious.  A Forum poll commissioned by the National Post in December of 2012, showed that two-thirds of Canadians identify as spiritual while half say they are religious.  A quarter of those who profess ‘no religion’ still maintain a belief in God. Further research has shown that ‘nones’ really behave like ‘somes’ since they are spiritual seekers in their own way.

Surveys indicate that a fifth of ‘nones’ attend religious services annually.  Two out of five believe in God.  One in five say they have experienced God’s presence and more than one in ten pray weekly.  A third believe in life after death and the same number consider their religious and spiritual beliefs, important to how they conduct their lives. In Canada, ‘nones’ are a diverse group including militant atheists, freelance spiritualists, onetime Catholics, non-observant Jews, secular Muslims and others.  You can add Tantrik to the ‘nones’.

Tantra was never an organized religion, but an accumulation of ideas and practices.  It’s unifying thread was and is uniting one’s consciousness with that of a primordial ‘source’ consciousness.  Over time and in various communities, meditations and rituals were developed to access the supra-mundane through the mundane.  Most famously, or most concentrated upon in the Western world, was the sanctifying of the sex act.  However, Tantric practices have been used by Buddhists and Hindus alike, to unite with their respective deities and manifest their qualities.  The focus of Tantra is upon individual pursuits and experiences, as opposed to group conformity.

I chose Tantra and not the other way around. I was born to a former Presbyterian mother and a Sanatanist Hindu father.   My mother has since become a Seventh-Day Adventist.  My brother and I were baptized into Christianity at her insistence. My father did not resist this at all, for he saw no harm in it. We were exposed to the two religions growing up, but taught to identify ourselves as Christians.  I felt like I was lying every time I filled out a government form.  I saw checking the “Christian” box as a denial of my father’s beliefs and my real self.  It was a half-truth.

I also had the fortune of being exposed to Islam, since my maternal and paternal aunts married Muslims.  My childhood interpretation of their various faiths was “They’re all right.”  They all believed in God, so I didn’t see anything terribly different underlying their faiths.  The differences in their belief systems just seemed normal to me:  As normal as the differences in our physical appearances.  At the age of 16, however, I became an atheist.

We got the internet in 1999 and I read “Kissing Hank’s Ass” by the ‘Reverend’ James Huber.  It made me chuckle out loud and nullify my belief in God. Further exposure to atheistic arguments had me convinced.  I was very non-spiritual until the age of 24.  Then extreme stress made me take up meditation.  I only started practicing it after I read an article discussing its benefits in stress reduction.  The research was carried out by Harvard University scientists, so I accepted it.  My conscious mind could not rationally accept a belief in God, so I set about creating a system of beliefs that I could consciously adhere to.

The Ardhanarishwar

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“The Lord who is half-woman” is an androgynous composite of Shiva and Shakti.  It is a synthesis of the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ energies of the universe.  It is regarded as both energies, whilst realizing that our conceptions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, are premised upon our biological constructions and inferences.  What we categorise as ‘male’ and ‘female’, are really intangible essences which are linked to and inseparable from each other.  In Tantra, the Ardhanarishwar reflects the union of energy and consciousness as the seeds of creation.  Their biological equivalents are what we call  ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, but gender research has shown that gender identification is created in the mind.  It is not at all contingent upon our external genitals.

I chose a representation of ‘God’ which was ‘male’ and ‘female’, but neither.  It just seemed wholistic to me.  I couldn’t believe in ‘God’ as an all-powerful force which governed everything. That would force me to accept a God that allowed suffering and injustice.  That thought gave me no peace and still gives me no peace.  I could not and cannot love a God like that.  Hence, it was easier to conceptualize ‘God’ as a theoretical force for good and nothing else.  A counterbalance to negativity.  That I could believe in.


I found mantras online which were related to Shiva and Shakti.  They covered everything from attracting good fortune and good health, to acquiring knowledge.  I chanted them because I wanted more positive thoughts filling my head.  The end result was a calmer and more focused mind.

I found that whatever it was I deeply desired, I concentrated upon and worked towards.  My mind blocked out all the background noises in my head.  I was aware of having fears and anxieties, but I realised they had no power over me.  I consciously focused upon whatever it was that needed doing at the time, and the unpleasant feelings receded.

I gained more control over my thoughts and actions with meditation.  I consciously used Hindu and Buddhist meditations whilst tele-supporting survivors of sexual assault.  Sometimes, I would hold on to a tiny marble statue of the Buddha of Compassion, to remind myself that I was there for the other person.  Other times, I thought of Shiva as a manifestation of mental control and calm.  It helped me remain mindful during difficult conversations.

I am now capable of concentrating for very long periods of time.  I become still and almost corpse-like.  I recently participated in a Neuroscience research project, and was told by the researcher that she’d never seen anyone so still.  I am now more attuned to myself and others around me.   I have a deep connection with nature and a profound appreciation for all life-forms.  I possess a feeling of internal tranquility which money cannot buy. I am supremely grateful that I developed this capacity through meditation.


The term ‘spirit’ means “the animating or vital principle in man and animals.”  Spirituality used to be defined as “a process of personal transformation in accordance with religious ideals.”  Since the 19th century, it has become more separated from religion.  Now it’s more individualized and encompasses a person’s subjective experience and psychological growth.

This reality angers some like the Reverend Lillian Daniel.  She believes that Christians need the church.  She stated:

 “Community is where the religious rubber meets the road. People challenge us, ask hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to practice all the things we preach.”

Hmmm.  Maybe if Reverend Daniel realised that not everyone agrees with the church’s definition of “sins”, she’d realise why more people choose to follow Christ on their own, as opposed to worshiping amongst those from whom they ‘need forgiveness’.   

She also stated that the spiritual but not religious path is “too easy.”

“It’s self-indulgent.  There’s nothing unique in it, it merely reflects our culture of narcissism and individualism…Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.”

If Reverend Daniel bothered to enlighten herself about the realities of people, she would realise that ancient religions tend to construct realities for people which are outdated, unscientific, unbelievable and oppressive.  Spirituality is a conscious reaction to the  dogma of religion.  What she sees as an act of cowardice (the ‘easy’ way out), is a necessary survival mechanism.  People need to have the freedom to contemplate and construct their own beliefs, contingent upon their knowledge, lived and living realities.  Take for example, Kanwar Saini.  Facebook locked his account for 12 hours, because a photo he posted was deemed ‘offensive’.  It looked like this:


Kanwar is openly gay and does not believe in God.  Yet, he strongly identifies as a Sikh.  I asked him some questions and he was kind enough to reply.

What does being a Sikh mean to you, given that you don’t believe in God?

K:  It is still a significant part of who I am.  IMO, Sikhism was the original anarchy, so there is room for alternative lifestyles and beliefs. The faith itself went from existential to martial over the course of its development.  Although God was a focus, many many other things were too.  Sikhism is accommodating to non-believers in this way as well.  There were social/political motivations that kept it cohesive. I consider it my heritage, but I try not to define myself only by it.  I just deleted God from my life, and freed myself of a lot of complications it’s followers impose.

Why do you not believe in God?

K:  The only risk in not believing in God, is social.  Social risk defines learning in my opinion. You are actively pursuing new territory and putting it into practice in life. Learning is a big part of my heritage as the word “Sikh” means student. So, I took a social risk giving up on the concept of God.  Believing in God was too risky socially, emotionally, financially as my life has shown me over and over since childhood.

How are you perceived as a Sikh?  By your own community and by outsiders?

K:  I have a unique vantage point as I am popular within the diaspora for being out, queer, and unmuted.  Some think I epitomize Sikh values in content, despite my appearance.   I do not look like what idealists would like a Sikh to look like. Others want to see me dead for what they think I’m doing to the stat(us) of the faith. Then there’s everything in between.

People who are interested in Sikhism as outsiders, are seemingly disappointed as I may behave as though I represent the attrition of ‘Sikh values’ (I have a different style beard, tattoos etc).  But this is an interaction with race.  I’m the son of immigrants, and live a different set of ethics…a whole new style of living than my parents.  Non- Punjabis and non-Sikhs seem to think “I’m supposed to do this” or “Supposed to do that” because I’m Sikh.  They don’t afford me the freedom to live mentally free.  At the same time, the Punjabi Sikh community does the same exact thing according to their own thoughts on Sikhism and culture.   (Very gendered and conservative)  They too also do not afford me the ability to live as a North American Sikh boy with a Punjabi heritage. So, outsiders think they know what and how I should be according to their view, and insiders do the same.   The result (is) I’m probably perceived in a number of ways, none of which are important in a Sikh ethos.

How do you find peace in the world?

K:  Existentially, peace is fleeting and needs to be pursued but balanced. In reality, politically the world is an unstable place.  Peace of mind is reserved for people of privilege who come in a variety of colours and circumstances.

I asked Mike Standup, a Mohawk Traditional healer about his views on spirituality and religion.  He said:

“Religions are man-made cults.  Spirit is nothing physical.  Spirituality is nothing that you can grasp, with anything but your mind.  You’re supposed to feel whatever it is you’re feeling at the moment.  It could be anger, joy, sadness, happiness.  Spirituality is all.  It is living your truth, or it living through you.   Spirituality is a form of belief.  Religion is a form of control.”

I asked him then what were the differences between Aboriginal and Christian spirituality.  He said simply “There is no difference.  Spirit is Spirit.”  I thought that was the best reply ever.

Photo credit:  Meditation by Hartwick HKD, Flickr.  Kanwar Saini’s photo used with permission.  

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