Secular spiritualism may seem like an oxymoron, but its definition is actually pretty simple. Those who follow secular spirituality aim for spiritual fulfillment without organized religion. Getting in touch with your human spirit, and finding peace within yourself is at the core of secular spirituality. It places the human self at the center of existence, pursues instant gratification, and encourages “mindfulness” as the way to gain spiritual enlightenment. 

There is no doubt you’ve heard the mantras of this philosophy before, but you may not have recognized them. Slogans like “live your truth,” “do what makes you happy,” and “radiate positive vibes” are all based in secular spiritualism. The pseudo-philosophy lies at the core of most American yoga classes and feminist wisdom. To practice secular spirituality is merely to do something “intentionally” or “mindfully.”

For those unfamiliar, this simply means that the practitioner chooses anything they enjoy doing — going for a walk, painting, making eggs, vacuuming, driving to work — and, by virtue of being engaged in this activity, they grant it some kind of intrinsic meaning. Secular spiritualism encourages everyone to be their own spiritual guide, and follow whatever fulfillment they find when they “look within themselves.”

This way of looking at the world may seem tempting, especially given organized religion’s susceptibility to corruption. We have been painfully reminded of this troubling factor over the past few weeks in the Catholic Church. In these heartbreaking times, perhaps it is better that we turn our spiritual life inward, rather than rely on corruptible institutions and hierarchies.

Turning inward toward secular spiritualism, however, is a dangerous response to disappointment in organized religions. It encourages us to seek truth “within ourselves” and our subjective understandings of goodness, morality and truth. We pursue what feels good and what makes us happy in the moment, which is often not to our long-term benefit. Eating all of your Halloween candy in one night sure feels good in the moment, but it leads to a massive stomach ache and no candy the next morning.

When you believe all of the answers lie “within yourself,” no one has the authority to warn you of a potentially destructive path or attempt to correct your behavior. By what standard would they correct it?

Additionally, placing the individual before all else means placing yourself and your pleasure above the needs of your neighbor. Service to your fellow man, whether that’s family, friends or strangers in need, slips further to the back of your mind when all of your attention is focused on your “self.”

In spite of its negative impact on others, the real reason secular spirituality is contemptible is because it is so completely unfulfilling. It dooms followers to loneliness and exhaustion, by asking them to ignore the Truth. They are sentenced to lives spent constantly chasing fleeting moments of happiness, getting glimpses at a life of sustained joy that is only achievable with God. Living this way means embarking on a futile search for meaning, which causes one to easily slip into despair.

Attempting to reach fulfillment with secular spiritualism is like trying to fill a cup with holes punched in the bottom. It is exhausting, never-ending work, and just when you think something is there, the cup empties. You are constantly left more exhausted than before, with your cup still empty. This modern substitute for religious faith and practice is heartbreaking to watch and draining to endure.