I wrote this article a while ago and am reposting it here to re-heat the issue and to point to a far more comprehensive and in depth excellent article by futurist Mike Morrell, “Jesus and Religion’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated.” Here is my short article:
An increasing number of people identify with the statement, “I am spiritual but not religious.” Even many religious people don’t know exactly how we got here but we have to honor where our hearts have gone.
Religion is difficult. It has history— and every history has its dark ages or, at the very least, dark moments. And the entire world is the judge. Spirituality, on the other hand, is personal. It starts and ends with me. And I am the judge.
We know there is more to life than what we can see and touch. Our existence is mystical and not just physical. We are all made of this “spiritual stuff,” a dust that remembers its cosmic origins. No-one is spared being human, so none of us are spared from being spiritual. Spirituality is our subjective experience of the common lot of living “in between”—between dust and stardust, glory and gore, matter and spirit. Spirituality is our individual experience of the interior world we all have.
Spirituality does not have to involve religion. It is a way of traveling freely and intimately through the journey of human life, engaging with what’s found there. But, the moment two people begin conversing about the meaning of their experience—the moment they begin naming experiences, thoughts, concepts, practices, convictions, anything at all—is the moment their religion germinates. We want to communicate about and pursue together what we think matters, strive for what is good, struggle against what is bad, cling to what is real and admire what is beautiful.
And the moment a large number of people begin to want the same things and decide to help each other on their journey, we have a major religion.
Religion comes from the Latin root word religio, meaning “to bind back.” We bind ourselves to what we hold as valuable and to others who value the same thing. To thrive and make a difference, every spirituality needs a community— maybe not a church as we know it but certainly a community. In this sense, everyone has religion.
Religion will never go away, for we will always want to make our spirituality function in more than our own isolated selves. We fight over our religions because it is in religion that we fully articulate our differences. Without religion, we would be left to drift with our own meanings, isolated from each other. Without religion, nothing would be passed from generation to generation. Imagine the invention of the wheel, fire and writing, with every new generation taking up the task of inventing them again.
Spirituality, on the other hand, can be frighteningly undemanding. It can serve some kind of generic god that submits himself (or herself ) to our own egos. Such a god never cuts across our will, never confronts, never frustrates and never leads us through dark places.
But the world is often dark and, more importantly, each of us participates in making it the way it is. To change the world, one must be changed oneself, and a god who is not allowed to disagree with us cannot change us. Spirituality without religion has been as much a source of suffering as religion without spirituality.
Religion is a journey of many generations that provides us with a starting point to dig down and find the depth of our soul. Religious traditions—with their accumulated wisdom, practices and an extensive chart of wrong paths taken in the past—can help us stay “with it” until we touch the bottom.
Religion is here to stay, simply because human beings will always put their efforts together in making good— or evil—happen. But it is in a religious community that a robust personal spirituality can develop where it matters most. In community, our personal spiritualities cross pollinate with one another, and interact with the wisdom and strength handed down to us from our religious tradition. In turn, our present contribution can be shared with others in such a community and passed into the future.
To live is to be spiritual. To live well is to be religious.
(this post is an adaptation of an article I wrote last year for Signs of the Times, Australia)