The most arrogant T-shirt in the world

Published on October 10, 2014 by      Print
facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

By Trish Tillman

I’ve seen my fair share of annoyingly self-important sayings from the world of New-Agey pop-spirituality—most likely, you have as well. We could even compare notes. But the other day I saw, emblazoned on a T-shirt, a saying which for me, personally, took the cake:

RELIGION IS FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE AFRAID OF HELL. SPIRITUALITY IS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE ALREADY BEEN THERE.

This made my eye twitch, for several reasons. First off, the dichotomy between religion and spirituality is an old one in the literature of New-Age Lite. Inevitably, it goes:

RELIGION = BAD.
SPIRITUALITY = GOOD.

One problem with this is that it’s comparatively easy to define what a religion is, but almost impossible to define what “spirituality” is. Organized religion entails, for the most part, belonging to a community, paying literal or figurative dues, and formally saying, “Yes, I am this.” Spirituality, on the other hand, could mean almost anything.

I understand that not everyone feels drawn to organized religion.

Some have already been burned by bad experiences from childhood religion, and some have been raised in a secular environment with general moral and ethical guidelines, and don’t “get” why we need religion. When it’s good, religion can feel like a supportive, embracing community; when it’s bad, religion can feel like a claustrophobic array of laws and restrictions.

This T-shirt’s breezy oversimplification of the whole religion vs. spirituality debate is what bothers me: spirituality can be a liberating and category-free way to explore the big questions in life. Or, as in this case, it can be an easy catchphrase to give you feelings of superiority over the unenlightened masses who cling to organized religion. To modify the famous saying, a little spirituality is a dangerous thing.

The idea that spirituality and religion are two separate, mutually-exclusive categories is also false.

Most of the world’s religions have compendious and profound spiritual and mystical traditions attached to them, the result of many generations’ personal experience of the absolute. Arguably, it makes just as much sense to attach yourself to one of these traditions as it does to strike out on your own. To put it in academic terms, why not take advantage of pre-existing research?

Furthermore, this T-shirt snidely implies that those who are religious only practice their faith out of fear of hell. I wonder if the author of this slogan imagined Haredi Jews dourly washing their hands before meals, or Catholics resignedly going off on Ash Wednesday to have a cross daubed on their foreheads. If only they could be free from their dogmatic straitjackets, then they would really live it up, one imagines the author would say.

This T-shirt also indulges in heinous overgeneralization by suggesting that personal trauma somehow promotes spirituality.

In fact, individuals can respond to trauma in very different ways: some people lose their faith after a traumatic experience and become atheists, others seek out alternative modes of spirituality, and still others return to their original faith with increased passion and intensity.

My biggest grievance against this T-shirt, however, is that it devalues other people’s experiences, while putting those of the wearer on a pedestal. It presupposes that the wearer’s suffering has given him or her some kind of searing, personal gnosis which has enabled them to grasp the deeper meaning of the universe. What about those who have gone through difficult, maybe even horrific experiences, but have arrived at other conclusions regarding religion and spirituality? Are they still among the ranks of the unenlightened? Furthermore, as someone who studies twentieth-century history, I can tell you that it’s the height of insensitivity to wear a T-shirt which proclaims that your suffering is the real suffering, while others have somehow failed to grasp the point.

For the most part, I appreciate both religion and spirituality, but that only makes this T-shirt more aggravating.

I don’t like to see things which can be deep and profound and meaningful turned into winky slogans designed to bolster the wearer’s self-esteem. Whatever your belief system, or lack thereof, virtually all of us (myself included) could stand to cultivate a little more humility—and humility is precisely what this shirt lacks.

Trish TillmanAbout Trish Tillman

Trish Tillman is an adjunct professor of history, grad student, yoga teacher, and Gracie Jiu Jitsu  purple belt in the Washington, DC metro area. She was nicknamed “Hateful Trish” by her jiu jitsu teammates, but is, generally, fairly good-natured while off the jiu jitsu mats. Check out more of her thoughts at http://postpostmodernpish.wordpress.com

Filed under: Soulless Hippies and Tagged:

13 Comments !

  1. scott robinson says:


    Thank you for this! I, too, am vexed by the self-righreousness and cheap grace of the self-employed. Thank you for putting it so compellingly.

  2. scott robinson says:


    I just wrote on the same topic–you may find this interesting:

    http://www.opentothedivine.com/blog/spiritual-but-not-religious

  3. Jenn says:


    This is a common saying at 12 step meetings where all religions are accepted and everyone is encouraged to discuss their spirituality instead of religion so that EVERYONE feels included. I can’t speak for the person wearing the shirt, but the original message was one of inclusion, not putting anyone on a pedestal.

  4. Joslyn Hamilton says:


    I love the gist of this piece so much. It seems so common for those in the supposedly progressive and open-minded New Age culture to diss on religion while boasting about being “spiritual.” While, as Jenn above says, the second half of the message is intended to be inclusive (of anyone who considers themselves to be “spiritual”), there’s no getting around the fact that the first half of the message denigrates anyone who considers themselves actively religious. This always struck me as a very hypocritical view. If we’re going to be truly spiritual, don’t we have to also accept and honor those who are straight-up religious? In other words, let everyone be who they are.

  5. Anne Clendening says:


    OMG, thank you for this. Couldn’t have said it any better. And I’m definitely guilty of tossing around certain inane sayings and buzz words that may sound inspirational, but lack any real meaning. But I guess it’s better than running into a crowded yoga room and yelling “fire, fire!”
    Again, genius article, thanks!

  6. The Most Arrogant T-shirt in the World. says:


    [...] The most arrogant T-shirt in the world [...]

  7. Nicole Marie Story says:


    Love it.

  8. Trish Tillman says:


    Thanks guys! Scott, I guess I interpreted “self-employed” in your original comment to mean spiritually self-employed, or something. It kind of made sense to me, heh. I think my reaction was not so much to the t-shirt as an isolated thing, but rather the slogan as a symptom of more general, underlying attitudes that I’d been observing for a while. I guess the most inclusive thing to say would be something like, “All religions, spiritualities, agnosticisms, and atheisms are welcome here, as long as you strive to live in an ethical fashion and improve your life and the lives of others.” It seems a tad clunky, though.

  9. C. Crowley says:


    Well-written. Cheers to you for posting this, it’s good for all of us who have sprained our eyes looking at such legible clothing.

    Cheers from Texas,
    C. Crowley

  10. Danielle Stimpson says:


    “This T-shirt also indulges in heinous overgeneralization by suggesting that personal trauma somehow promotes spirituality.” SO WELL SAID, our connection to however we define the Universe needn’t be a contest of who has suffered more. Suffering is suffering, not a source of wisdom that you only have access to if you’ve had a rough go of things. If connection to divinity were solely based on suffering, let’s remember for a moment we live in the first world and have the the ability to buy overpriced TShirts with pithy statements…and then discuss it freely while drinking $5 coffees.

  11. fifa4joy says:


    Thanks extremely useful. Will certainly share website with my pals


Leave a Reply

Asterisk (*) marked fields are required

 characters still available (brevity is a form of creativity!)