Distinguish religion & spirituality

I swim in contrasting spiritual cultures—with those who are attached to religion and with those who are hostile or indifferent to religion. I reconcile them by keeping in mind an important distinction. Religion and spirituality are not the same thing, but they are often conflated. I think distinguishing between them could ease communication between two communities that chafe against each other.

Spiritual experiences that happen to everyone are called religious, and this conflation of the two deprives those who want to avoid religion of appreciating their essentially spiritual nature. In a discussion with atheists, I asked whether they didn’t prefer kindness to cruelty. Yes, they said, but that’s not spiritual. Not spiritual! It reminds me of a government declaring, “We don’t torture,” and, when given an example of their torturing, simply changing the definition of torture.

In my July 31 blog post, I cited a feature on artist Meinrad Craighead in the National Catholic Reporter, which stated that her “first real religious experience, at the age of seven, was not in the church but in nature, with her dog.” I would change a word in this statement; her experience was spiritual, not religious. Its only connection with church or religion was that religious people receive something similar in church.

I dare say many artists experience the Presence in beautiful nature but would deny that it’s spiritual. And scientists experience wondering awe in contemplating the universe, but many deny that the experience is spiritual because they associate spirituality with religion, which they regard with disgust as naïve and corrupt.

Those of us who see beauty in religion as well as the fraud and foolishness could help to bridge this divide by refraining from language that implies we own spirituality. Christians are prone to taking ownership of all things spiritual. Someone behaves generously and we call it “Christian.” That’s an insult to non-Christians who are just as apt to behave altruistically.

A family establishes mealtimes as the space for deep sharing and a Catholic might call it eucharist. But that puts a Christian cast on it and it could turn off an educated, enlightened family who desire no attachment to religion.

The great theologian Karl Rahner famously termed non-Christians who express a deep spirituality “anonymous Christians.” A Buddhist gently let him know it was insulting by asking how he would feel if he were called an “anonymous Buddhist.”

Given the right language, every human being responds to spiritual matters. This is why we must distinguish between the terms. Atheists are among the most spiritually inclined people I know. It is the reason they see religious nonsense and corruption and react negatively. But most over-react, and they sweep away what makes humans most human, the spiritual sensitivity at our core.

Some of the responsibility for that must be borne by Christians who have attached our brand onto all of spirituality. I urge fellow Christians to step out of our comfortable envelope where everyone uses language that absolutizes our particular brand of spiritual experience. It insulates us, inoculates against awareness of the harm in our language. Let’s step outside that box and stop referring to every experience that enlarges awareness of Transcendence as religious.

Using greater sensitivity in our language, we could join those who disdain religion in our common quest for truth, beauty, and goodness in all their forms. Honor, honesty, courage, cruelty, loveliness, ugliness, nobility, evil, and deception stir every human heart, whether religious or not. EVERYone, even the most despicable torturer, works for some perceived good.

To those who lump all religious people together, know that educated religious do not believe in the god you reject and ridicule. We’re not stupid. Between you and us lies the common ground of TRUTH/BEAUTY/GOODNESS that we could claim together if religion and spirituality were discussed as distinct from each other.


Anonymous said…
I agree strongly with your call for the religious and non-religious to acknowledge that people on both sides have aesthetic and ethical sensibilities. I question the use of the word "spiritual" as a rift-healing description of these sensibilities, since it is so loaded with religious connotations. Most atheists would not view their love of beauty, truth, or goodness as resident in or arising out of a spirit or soul, and so are unlikely to warm up to a word that carries such strong associations. It continues to hold some of the problem you identified with calling someone an "anonymous Christian"--however well-intentioned the compliment-- because most of the definitions one finds for "spiritual" are religion-connected. (I just checked two sources.)

I also think that this post might have been more successful in bridging divides had it not asked readers to "know that educated religious do not believe in the god you reject and ridicule. We’re not stupid." We both know educated people who believe in Yahweh, Three Guys in the Sky, or Allah and are not stupid (in the sense that they are not unintelligent, which is what "stupid" is likely to be taken to mean). Some might regard stupidity as the kindest explanation for orthodox belief in the face of contemporary scholarship (as stupidity might excuse alternative explanations of ignorance or intellectual dishonesty), but maybe the tail end of a post seeking unity wasn't the best place to put that.
Jeanette said…
I agree with most of this, even what I gather is a gentle chiding at the end. But I think we disagree in a fundamental way.

I do not believe we have a spirit or a soul; I believe we are spiritual. Having a soul reminds me of religion lessons in my youth when we pictured sin spots smudging our white souls, which were disconnected things somehow attached to our persons. I believe the universe—all reality—is spiritual as well as physical, and I think you deny it. If so, this is the heart of our disagreement.

Not all atheists deny the existence of spiritual or immaterial reality, which some call Mind or consciousness. I am an a-theist of a sort because I disbelieve in a god unattached or separate from individual consciousness—an object or set of objects out there, guys in the sky. Ken Wilber (a thinker influenced by Buddhism, which describes itself as atheist) urges us to pursue our observing Self, the Seer in us, to its source, which is pure Subjectivity, vast Emptiness, the Void. It is More than the sum of our little minds or the sum of the universe, and some Christians name this belief panentheism.

I started researching panentheism but quit in disgust when I came to a statement about a “Him.” That any philosopher contemplating the Ultimate can reduce it to one gender is beyond my tolerance.

Why go to church, which relentlessly drips sexist language? The allure of a religious tradition is another essay.

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