Is there a formal philosophical position equivalent to the popular "spiritual but not religious" idea?

You hear lots of people identify as "spiritual but not religious", presumably because they want to avoid the nihilism implied by atheism but they still can't subscribe to the tenets of any of the traditional religions.

I'm trying to see if this colloquial world view corresponds to any well know philosophical positions?

Personally, I could think of the following:

  • Dualism without tying it in to a traditional notion of soul.
  • Ethical/Moral realism without scripture or divine commands.
  • Deism.

Are there other positions that can be construed as being equivalent to "spiritual but not religious"? Have any academic philosophers addressed the "spiritual but not religious" position?

  • 1
    Wiki has an entry on spiritualism and philosophy, which mentions a bunch of thinkers/writers including Aristotle, Leibniz and Bergson: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritualism_(philosophy)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 18:17
  • 2
    In the questions rather than "as being equivalent" I think you mean "as falling under". If "spirituality" is understood ethically rather than ontologically then humanism might qualify:"today humanism typically refers to a non-theistic life stance centered on human agency and looking to science rather than revelation from a supernatural source to understand the world" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanism Sartre famously declared that existentialism is humanism, and existentialists certainly count themselves as "spiritual".
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 18:37
  • lack of belief in deity does not imply nihilism.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 19:42

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure if there is a positive answer, let alone an objective one, because a self-proclaimed "sbnr" person might be a non-denominational theists or a committed materialists who waxes lyrical about the grandeur of the universe (like Dawkins1), but I'll try.

In my view, it would be dualism in a very broad sense, or better non-materialism. Also, pan(en)theism seems to be closely tied to sbnrness.

In more traditionally religious countries, non-denominational belief in God (theistic or deistic) or in karma and reincarnation may be seen as spiritual and not as religious. For example the astronaut Gene Cernan says in the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon:

I felt that the world was just too beautiful to have happened by accident. There has to be something bigger than you and bigger than me. And I mean this in a spiritual sense, not a religious sense. There has to be a creator of the universe who stands above the religions that we ourselves create to govern our lives.

On the other hand, I believe that "spiritual materialism (physicalism)" rests on a confusion. If we accept materialism, we have broadly two options.

  1. we consistently see humans as products and part of this value-free, purposeless universe, as biological robots, like Alex Rosenberg2, and end up with an undisguised nihilism. It is not clear how we can free ourselves from what a dysteleological evolution imprinted in us. And even if that would be possible, evolution may still actively act against our "noble motives".

  2. we accept an unexplainable gap, which separates a fundamentally different human sphere of value, purpose and qualitative experience (like feelings, sound, color etc.) from the barren rest of the universe, only governed by purposeless mathematical laws3. Imho because of this gap, this is an absurd and incoherent view. But more importantly, it is pretty nihilistic too, because it severely alienates humanity from the rest of nature.

So it seems clear to me, that materialism because of its nihilistic implications is incompatible with anything that can justifiably be called spirituality.

1 though what Dawkins describes as "grandeur" and "beauty", to me just seems the unimaginably hugeness, complexity and scariness of the universe.

2 Alex Rosenberg: "The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions"

3 for example, see Richard Dawkins & Steven Pinker: "Is science killing the soul?", Edge 1999


Dualism is the other extreme, it is 'best of both, ignoring conflicts' rather than 'this, but not one of those thises'. Deism is just 'God but not religion', so I am not sure it is a separate case. And I am not sure the middle case is parallel -- it is not clear moral realism traditionally relies upon divine command since it goes back to the Stoics, and includes Kant, and both of those schools reject the notion that we need a source of directives outside ourselves.

I would put this among the lot of edge-cases where theories have been specifically derived with the aim to accept the main part of a school of philosophy but explicitly disclaim the parts that cause all the conflict.

Often the issue inserted is intractability or irreducibility, while the main goal of the philosophy is kept in principle.

  • Epiphenomenalism is 'physicalism but not reducibility to the physical'.
  • Compatibilism is 'determinism but not the lack of free will'.
  • Kant's transcendentalism idealism is 'idealism but not reducibility to ideals'.
  • I'm surprised you don't bring up Hegel. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 21:19
  • I actually think I misunderstood the question. I was looking for parallellism rather than actual matching. If Hegel qualifies, don't all Western philosophies that maintain the Platonic God, but then map him onto something that doesn't in any way match the Christian God kind of fall in your category. Why not Spinoza, Liebniz, Berkely or even Whitehead? They all make places for participation in divinity without a grounding in a specific religion (even when they had one in mind.)
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 19:29
  • Yes - but they placed it along side traditional religions, not as a replacement for traditional religions. My mention of Hegel was a humorous riff on your mention of Kant's idealism. I'm intrigued by Whitehead - any specific ref you would recommend? Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 20:50
  • Science and the Modern World is fun, if dense, and meant for a normal audience. To my mind, Process and Reality is incomprehensible unless you intend to read it multiple times, and does not repay that investment, once you wrestle it to the ground. (He was not Russell's stereotype for 'the muddleheaded' for nothing.) It is amazing to me that he is writing pretty much during the last revolution in science, and he is already ready for it...
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 20:58
  • In this context, Whitehead's God is just Liebniz's God with a slightly different sense of interdependency, informed by Relativity and Quantum Theory. This is why the 'even' -- God does not play major role.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 21:00

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