Significant words with no meaning


People use many words that have no meaning. Two such words are “religious” and “spiritual.” The words are usually used in a negative fashion, as in “she is not religious” and “that pastor is not spiritual enough.” The problem is that we have no idea what makes the criticized person irreligious or not-spiritual; the words tell us nothing.


Dictionary definitions are not helpful

Dictionaries define “religion” as “a set of beliefs” and as “outward acts indicating recognition of the existence of God” and as “fidelity in conforming to a particular enjoined rule of conduct.” These definitions do not tell us what the person believes. Human nature being what it is, we can be sure that any two people, even of the same faith group, who are described as “religious,” have different ideas, even radically distinct notions about God and what God requires. So the words “religious” and “spiritual” tell us nothing.


Humorous definitions address hypocrisy and are unhelpful

“Religious people” are frequently mocked for being hypocritical and ignorant. Ambrose Bierce defined “religion” humorously in his “The Devil’s Dictionary,” as “A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.” He defined “Scripture” as “The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.” Gideon Wurdz defined “religion” in his “The Foolish Dictionary” as “A cloak used by some persons in this world who will be warm enough without one in the next.” These definitions shower religion with mockery and its adherents with hypocrisy because the adherents do not act as others feel they should, but these clever definitions do not tell us what religious or spiritual people are supposed to think or how they should act.


Another word: observant

“Observant” means the person performs the practices of his or her religion. But although it seems to be informative, it is still not good. Humans being humans, we can be sure, as I said, that any two people who are called “observant” will act differently, one may observe a certain practice but not another and the other will do just the opposite. Yet each feels that he or she is acting appropriately. Thus, using “irreligious,” “non-spiritual,” or even “non-observant” to demean someone only tells us that the speaker is intolerant, but nothing about the person who is insulted, for the debased individuals may feel they are doing what God wants.


What does the Bible say?

Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are built on the Hebrew Bible. It is significant that the words “religion” and “spiritual” are not in the Hebrew Bible. The concepts do not exist.


The current Hebrew word for “religion” is dat, a word that does appear in the Hebrew Bible, but in the Bible it means “law.” The relationship between a person and God in the Hebrew Bible is “law” – specifically, a good person is one who does what God mandated, the divine law. But this is also unclear because each person understands God differently.


Since the words “religious” and “spiritual” and even “observant” have no specific meaning, shouldn’t we stop using them? Maybe we should think about the word “tolerant” and “respectful.”