Spiritual but not Religious
Rev. Paul D. Daniel, Minister
How many times have you said or heard, I’m Spiritual but not religious?
Spiritual but not religious…really? What does that even mean?
I think this notion; this artificial split creates a false dichotomy.
Spirituality and Religion are not in competition, but rather
complement each other, as if they were two sides of the same coin.
The same could apply to our understanding of body and spirit,
the sacred and the profane, and
rational verses the mystical.
Over the centuries, literature and common usage have yoked these ideas together.
In our inclusive UU religion, we have
created a bridge connecting the secular and mundane to the sacred, which we identify as spirituality.
The Catholic Mystic theologian Thomas Merton, admonishes us not to split these two concepts. He writes, “When these two dimensions become split, one turns into egotistic secularism and the other into jealous and defensive religious demagoguery”.
Even so, many people make this distinction.
Statistics tell us more than 20% of Americans, mostly the “un-churched”, often millennials describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.
Robert C. Fuller writes, “Religion is spiritual and spirituality is religious. Spirituality tends to be more personal and private while Religion tends to incorporate public rituals, such as sharing our joys and sorrows, reciting a mission statement or our seven principles.
The lines between one and the other are not clear and distinct —they are each point on the spectrum of a belief system called religion. Religion like spirituality calls us to do something, take some action to enhance our human connection to the transcendent. Religion is how we put into practice the love our ethical and moral values call us to in the real world.
Neither religion nor spirituality excludes the other. These concepts probably mean different things to each of us.
Confusion stems from the fact that the words “spiritual” and “religious” are really synonyms. Both suggest a belief in transcendence, a longing for an intense relationship with mystery beyond our own understanding and consciousness. Both call us to a deeper connection with the holy that some find within themselves and others within community in shared public worship. Some call this love, other God or nature; the ground of all being in the philosopher Paul Tillich’s word. They both embody all those things and more.
Both spirituality and religion are relational. They embody a solo and corporate interest in rituals and practices each designed to enrich relationships with ourselves, with other and to that which we find transcendent and holy.
Historically, the terms religious and spiritual were used interchangeably until the 20th century when it became fashionable for rationalist to accentuate the differences between the “private” and “public” spheres of life.
I suspect we humanist’s, agnostics and atheists can take some credit for this. Fuller writes, “The increasing prestige of the sciences, the insights of modern biblical scholarship, and greater awareness of cultural relativism all make it more difficult for educated American to sustain an unqualified loyalty to religious institutions. Many began to associate genuine faith with the “private” realm of personal experience rather than with the “public” realm of institutions, creeds, and rituals that we create together through group worship and church activities.
Several social scientists studied 346 people representing a wide range of religious backgrounds to clarify what is implied when individuals describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” They found, those describing themselves as religious were associated with higher levels of interest in church attendance and commitment to orthodox beliefs.
Those who describe themselves as Spiritual showed a higher interest in mysticism, experimentation with unorthodox beliefs and practices, and negative feelings toward both clergy and churches.
Most respondents in this study did however try to integrate elements of religion and spirituality.
The 20 percent who described themselves as “spiritual, not religious” were less likely to evaluate the idea of religion positively, less likely to engage in traditional forms of worship such as church attendance and prayer, less likely to engage in group experiences related to spiritual growth. More likely they would describe themselves to be agnostic or atheist, more likely to characterize religion and spirituality as different and non-overlapping concepts, more likely to hold nontraditional beliefs, and more likely to have had mystical experiences.
Sociologists tell us, those who seek a more individual path, often are more likely than other Americans to have a college education, to belong to a white-collar profession, to be liberal in their political views, to have parents who attended church less frequently, and to be more independent in the sense of having weaker social relationships outside the church. Many felt a greater sense of isolation due to a lack of person to person interactions.
Like Merton, I see both of equal value. Each one serves to connect us in an intimate way to ourselves and to the holy in another. They join us to holy mystery, the sacred source of love. Both help us to find, the moral and ethical core of our lives that serve to guide us to living authentic individual lives within community. Albert Schweitzer held, “Spirituality means human to human connection where we learn to connect to the great chain of life…with all life that comes within our reach”.
These two elements exist whenever we struggle with the issue of how our lives connect with the rest of humanity and how we fit into the greater cosmic scheme of things.
Religion helps create a framework to support our spiritual questioning, which occurs every time we wonder where the universe comes from, what is our life’s purpose, or what happens when we die.
Spirituality embodies an emotional response to the world around us
which we experience as beauty, love, or through creativity. These emotions reveal meaning beyond our conscious knowing.
Religion helps to place those emotional responses in context in the real world.
An idea or practice is “spiritual” and/or “religious” when it reveals something about our personal desire to establish an emotionally connected relationship with the deepest meaning that governs our inner lives. It is the link, between and beyond our isolated selves, to something larger, more powerful and more enduring then ourselves. We start this journey to find our spiritual home in silence, entering the stillness within our souls.
We begin by first coming to accept and love ourselves and then through our faith, our religion, we are empowered to move outward to engage the rest of humanity. Home is within the self.
As my friend, mentor and colleague Ken Collier wrote: “This is the starting point. It is the long overdue journey to re-merge religious and spiritual love and yearning. It is time to bring spirituality home, close to the heart and connected to our ordinary lives”.
Spirituality and religion unite at the cusp of conscious life and spirit. Together they embody the love that enriches our lives and connects us to all that is holy and sacred.
May it be so!