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The term "spirituality" can be used in several ways, for example:
- The first definition, highly unremarkable and rather banal, is a person's focus on their so-called "inner" world, or on the perceived essence of their being. People who explore their spirituality in this sense frequently talk about feeling "one with nature" on an emotional or intellectual level, or about "understanding the meaning in life or their place in it", and they do not have to be religious or believe in a god to say so. People who see themselves as "spiritual" in this way may pray, meditate, or do other activities for these personal "journeys". There is rarely anything magical or even marketable about such actions.
- The second meaning falls right in the heart of Woodom. "Spiritual" people in this sense see their spirituality as something larger than human understanding - it appears to them as magical and transcendent of all rational ideas. They use the term "spirituality" because they do not have a particular religion, believing in a "creative energy" that gives an anthropomorphic consciousness to all things.
- A third meaning involves using "spirituality" as a code word of sorts for discussing people who have moved away from organized religion but have not given up the idea of a god, even though their view of the divine may really not differ from what they believed within their religion. "I am no longer a Christian. Now I am just spiritual."
This article primarily focuses on the second and third definitions.
New Age quacks
Spirituality plays a huge role in the so-called "New Age" movement, since by-and-large, very little if anything in New Age is organized, and the experiences are very individual and tend to all be in this vague area of "self-awareness", "self-improvement" and generic "fulfillment". Books, tapes, crystals, retreats and conferences are sold by the thousands to "help" individuals "get in touch with their unique spirituality". Individual practitioners may or may not believe themselves to be of a higher "spirituality", but their general views and belief in magical thinking leaves them open to woomeisters who sell spirituality to anyone willing to pay.
Like all woo, spirituality in a New Age context has its share of idiots claiming "scientific" evidence regarding the benefits of their particular woo. Of course, they usually charge a fee for their incalculably valuable services, which has let some of them become filthy stinking rich.
Spiritual but not religious
"Spiritual but not religious" is a concept that one believes "something", but that they have rejected organized religion's attempts to explain, define, or confine it.
This idea became popular with dating sites. Since religion can impact a person's choice of mate, dating sites usually try to get some data about members' religious background or views. Given the difficulty of reducing complex worldviews into simple data points, these sites need to create a category for people who may feel or even "experience" that "there is something more", but do not subscribe to any formal religious ideology. This is similar to the caveat of "organized" that people put before religion when describing what they dislike, as if not belonging to an official organization excuses a variety of crackpot beliefs.
So, they check off the "spiritual but not religious" box. It could mean anything.
In a nutshell
The biological connection
Spirituality is often an attempt to place meaning on profound, but nevertheless natural biological experiences of the brain, termed "mystical experiences" by William James. James' work supplemented by a century of scientific research, posits that under duress, the brain sends out chemicals that cause the mind to have an experience that is similar across cultures, though it is interpreted from within those cultures and their religions. It is perhaps unfortunate that this experience was first described with religious tones, for it adds a layer of woo that doesn't help in studying the brain's working. There are ways that said spiritual experiences and spirituality can be studied and used to make scientific claims without resorting to woo-woo. Studies have shown that psilocybin mushrooms change brain function in such a way as to make their users believe they are having certain experiences which they might define as "spiritual", which can lead to individuals feeling happier.
The general characteristics are reported as:
- A profound sense of the breakdown of self which can lead to the feeling of "oneness" with all things, a shared identity or beginning
- A profound sense of the loss of time, or shifting of time
- The experience is transient, ineffable, noetic, passive
These states have been induced in people without religious connotation by stimulating the brain with various levels of magnetic pulses. They can be induced by drugs, by dangerous or frightening experiences, by meditation, or spinning, but they all seem to come back to the same biological hard-wiring that is then interpreted through the glasses of the person's worldview.
It is actually possible, though not proven, that these biological experiences and the near-death experience may be part of the seed of religion.
Various scholars, including Carl Sagan and Sam Harris, emphasize spiritual experiences as potentially positive, transforming experiences. Harris reminds people, however, that we can't use it to make claims about neuroscience or the universe, but there may be objective claims about the subjective experiences of consciousness that can be determined, much like we can learn things about the human brain about religious experiences that won't ever justify religious beliefs.
- See the Wikipedia article on Spirituality.
- Philip Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality, Wiley-Blackwell 2007 p. 1-2
- Authors such as Carl Sagan  and David Attenborough have talked about the spirituality they find in studying the stars or nature. See: http://www.ca.uky.edu/agc/news/interview/attenborough_interview.htm
- Yes, some people really won't date outside their faith. But they're never accused of discrimination…
- [The Varieties of Religious Experience], William James (1902).