Materialists and Spiritualists

One of the blogs I’ve recently added to my blogroll recently posted about his problems when people define being religious, spiritual, and spiritual-not-religious.  To a large degree, I agree with him; it’s simply not true that you can’t be spiritual and religious at the same time, though one can be “religious” without doing much spiritually and vice versa.  It’s complicated, but it does have some truth to it.  I know that I myself (way back when I was younger and a little more pompous than I am now) described myself as spiritual-not-religious, but now that I think back on that, I can’t say that I’d mean now what I meant then by that phrase.

Being a Hermeticist, I like to classify things into large groups.  When it comes to beliefs or the lack thereof, I go by two big classifications, materialists and spiritualists.  I define these terms specifically for how they perceive the world:

  • Materialists believe that there is nothing except the physical, tangible world around us; in other words, to them there exists only Malkuth as the whole of existence.  Among others, atheists, agnostics, and “hard science-only” people fall into this category, either believing that there is nothing else besides the material world or having the lack of belief that anything immaterial exists.  Everything that exists only exists in terms of matter and material processes, having material starts, material ends, and material changes.
  • Spiritualists believe that there exists the physical and tangible world around us in addition to other non-physical, or spiritual, worlds around, involved with, or separated from us; in other words, there are other sephiroth besides Malkuth that make up the whole of existence.  This includes people of faith, magicians, mystics, and other such people.

I further break down that group of spiritualists into three further groups:

  • Conventional religionists believe that there is more to existence than the material world, but focus only on the material.  Most common people of faith such as Christians who go to church only on Sundays or just on Christmas and Easter but are otherwise uninvolved with spiritual matters, fall into this group.  For all intents and purposes, these people are pretty much the same as materialists with a veneer of spirituality.  No explicitly spiritual action is taken by these people.
  • Mystics believe that there is more to existence than the material world, and endeavor to go to and through other spiritual places so as to reach the Divine Source/God.  This is their sole or primary purpose; in qabbalistic terms, they’re interested only in bringing things from Below to Above.  Monastics, holy men, prophets, and theurgists fall into this group.
  • Magicians believe that there is more to existence than the material world, and endeavor to go to and through other spiritual places so as to change the world down here using spiritual or material means.  This is their sole or primary purpose; in qabbalistic terms, they’re interested in bringing things from Above to Below.  Magicians, sorcerers, witches, and the like fall into this group.

Of course, I’m defining the terms “mystic” and “magician” completely on a whim for the sake of classification at this point, and it’s entirely possible that someone spiritual but not a conventional religionist is either at any given point; it’s like the difference between theurgy and thaumaturgy, or doves versus snakes; even I myself switch modes depending on what needs to be done.  This isn’t to say that a mystic or a magician can’t be faithful as would normally be reckoned, either; I know many witches or ceremonial magicians (or “magicians” in the scheme above) who also have devout practices to particular gods.  In a way, the mystics and magicians could be combined into bigger group of “active spiritualists”, while conventional religionists might be called “passive spiritualists”.

The big difference between conventional religionists and magicians/mystics is the property of spiritual action; religionists believe but do nothing, while mystics and magicians believe and do things.  Of course, if you count prayer as spiritual activity (as one should), then many conventional religionists may be considered mystics (e.g. for salvation and purity); then again, depending on the nature of the prayer, they might also be considered magicians (e.g. for financial wealth and children).  Most American Christians I know, for instance, who don’t really do much of either fall into the conventional religionist/passive spiritualist category.  This is a pretty large group, and like I mentioned before, it’s basically the same as the materialists but with a veneer of spirituality; they’re otherwise the same.  That said, being seen as religious or involved at a minimum with social religion can be very useful for some people, and I can’t fault them for that, whatever their reason may be.

So whither the spiritual-not-religious people in this scheme?  It depends on the nature of their activity.  If they do work, they’re an active spiritualist and are likely a mystic or magician (in the scheme above), either in terms of bringing good stuff up there to down here or in terms of bringing themselves and others up there from down here.  If they don’t do much at all, then they’re a passive religionist, and no better or worse than a Sunday-only Protestant.  And, perhaps more obnoxious, that’s really not saying much more than if you were a materialist with an extra social connection.

Plus, a lot of the terms many people use are colored by Christianity’s definition of spirituality and religion; not all religions, faiths, or paths use these concepts.  For instance, when performing a religion census in China and Japan, it’s incredibly difficult to classify people as “just” a Buddhist, or a Taoist, or a Shinto practitioner, or a Confucianist.  Many people are all at once, depending on their work and upbringing, and instead of asking “to what faith do you belong” when many people would say “all of the above” (which is a concept shockingly different from what most of the Western world believes), such census questions ask instead whether one has read a particular canon of texts, whether they’ve taken refuge in the Three Gems of Buddhism, whether they go to a particular temple or set of temples, whether they’ve performed priestly or monastic work before, and the like.  The answer may still be complex, but then, nobody said this was a simple matter.

So, I suppose the big question in defining someone in terms of spirituality is: what do you Do?

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About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

9 Responses to Materialists and Spiritualists

  1. Pingback: Materialists and Spiritualists « WiccanWeb

  2. And then there’s people like me, who are materialists but engage in spiritual practices :P
    http://thespiritualmaterialist.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/should-i-use-the-word-spiritual/

    • polyphanes says:

      Well, this would be getting into a debate of terminology and lexicons. I presented above my use of the terms, which may only work for me and my systems of thought and worldview. Still, I would contend that a “spiritual materialist” is a contradiction in terms. As given above, a materialist is one who believes that there is only matter, and no spirit. Using the label “spiritual” means that you believe in some sort of spiritual presence immanent in or transcendent of matter. Even if you go with the strict sense of “spirit” as in “breath”, the notion of breath has been tied up with notions of etheric life that go way back when into the deepest reaches of humanity’s philosophy and beliefs. To my mind, to use “spiritual” without being spiritual doesn’t work.

      You can still use the terms how you like, though I may not agree with them. I didn’t intend for this to become some authoritative standard of language, just my views on the practices of different people as I see them. :P

      • Oh, I know you weren’t saying yours is a fixed standard or anything, don’t worry :)
        I use ‘spiritual’ to mean something like ‘concerned with long-term emotional well-being’. Or it would be easier to say ‘concerned with the soul’ but that is another term that materialists strictly shouldn’t use, but has a readily conveyed meaning. The point of my blog is to point out that materialists aren’t usually concerned enough about this well-being, for themselves or others, and that this should change.

        ‘Spiritual but not religious’ seems to be disliked by both religious and non-believers, used mostly as a accusation or accompanied with a roll of the eyes.
        Your post has helped me understand this and clarify my own position, so thanks for that :)

        • polyphanes says:

          And this makes sense, to an extent, though I still personally take issue with the use of “spiritual” for non-spiritual ends. So, for instance, while “concerned with long-term emotional well-being” might be construed in a spiritual sense, as a materialist there’s no spirit behind it, nothing mystical or metaphysical about emotional well-being or the methods used to achieve it (since no such metaphysical things exist in a materialist understanding of the universe). While metaphysical and physical methods to achieve such well-being might be exactly the same in the “down here” operation, I’d consider it spiritual if the method has a spiritual background or intent or theoretical framework, and material if the method does not. In other words, it sounds like “sound mind in a sound body” using physical bases and explanations for everything.

  3. Pingback: 49 Days of Definitions: Part VIII, Definition 1 | The Digital Ambler

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