I am religious, but not spiritual

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By Kit Carlson

“I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”

This has become an incredibly popular statement in recent years. In a Beliefnet excerpt from his book, Spiritual, But Not Religious,” Robert C. Fuller estimates that about one in every five people describes themselves this way. The increasing individualism and consumerism in modern culture has also extended into the realm of the spiritual. People who describe themselves this way see spirituality as something private, not public, something personal, not communal, and something they can design and control and devise, rather than something handed to them by an institution of some sort.

Fuller quotes researchers who say such folks are “less likely to evaluate religiousness 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 to be agnostic, more likely to characterize religiousness and spirituality as different and non-overlapping concepts, more likely to hold nontraditional beliefs, and more likely to have had mystical experiences.”

Practically, this statement – “I’m spiritual but not religious” — has a way of raising a wall between a regular, church-going sort of person and a friend or colleague who has no intention of becoming a regular, church-going sort of person. It says, “Back off. Don’t butt into my private relationship or lack of relationship with the Divine. I know all about you ‘religious’ folks. You want to tell me I’m going to hell or imply there’s something wrong with me. Well, I have my own way of connecting – or not – with God. So shut up.”

Well, that’s how I hear it any way. It may not be what is intended, when the person speaks it. But it cuts. It says to me that the person believes that “spiritual” is somehow more authentic, nobler than “religious”, with its checkered history of pogroms and persecutions, its tedious liturgies and self-righteous evangelistic approaches. It makes me — as a sort of regular, church-going person who actually is religious — feel like a representative of the Spanish Inquisition or a denizen of the shiniest buckle in the Bible Belt.

But I have decided to feel inferior to these “spiritual but not religious” people no more. I am going to claim my identity as “religious but not spiritual.”

What do I mean by that? I mean to celebrate the fact that one can become part of a faith community and enter into its life and practices and find meaning there, without ever having been smacked over the head by a supernatural experience. That one can choose to adhere to the tenets and expectations of a religious community and let that life of following those expectations create a space within one’s soul where the spiritual might occur. That – much like entering into a long marriage, rather than looking to hook ups for love and affection – one might find that the long, tedious, faithful activities of a committed relationship actually can make one a larger and more loving person than one would have been otherwise, left to one’s own devices.

I mean that discipline, duty, and devotion to a religious community can work as well for the spiritual life as it does for the physical life. No one says, “I’m athletic but I don’t work out.” No one says, “I’m tennis player but I have no partners.” To become athletic, a person has to move. It helps even more if one joins a team or a health club or gets a personal trainer. To become a tennis player, you have to play tennis with other people. You can only get so far whacking the ball against a concrete wall day after day.

Religion, admittedly, has brought the world its share of grief. But religion has also given the world hospitals and health clinics, universities and inner-city schools. Religion has fed the hungry and clothed the naked. Religion gave us Habitat for Humanity. It gave us Bach. It gave us Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Religion, faithfully practiced, might even help the “spiritual but not religious” folks to grow more spiritual, to be more connected to God, and to give them fellow travelers on the way who can help them in their spiritual quests.

I’m glad that I am religious. My religious life forces me to think about God even when I don’t feel like it. It inspires me to be a better person than I actually want to be. It connects me to people I never would seek out on my own and helps me to relate to them as my brothers and sisters in the eyes of God. It believes for me when I don’t feel like believing. It prays for me when I can’t pray. It opens the pathway to God for me, week in and week out, and invites me to take another step along the way.

So, yes, I have joined the “I’m religious, but not spiritual” group on Facebook. I honestly think that this may be an idea whose time has come — especially for those shy and staid sort of folks who go to church dutifully every Sunday, cook casseroles for families with new babies, work on the Habitat house, make a pledge, show up at church clean-up day, haul their protesting teenagers to youth group, who remember their church in their will, but who … urk … cough … struggle to offer up an extemporaneous prayer, or to articulate what exactly it is they are doing here, anyway.

There are more of us out there than you think. Religious, but maybe not quite so spiritual.

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich., where she blogs at Saints Alive!

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Harry Mehta
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Harry Mehta

I liked reading this article Kit, it helps me understand why people believe in religion for the right reasons.

But I am spiritual and not religious. Though I say that the most important thing for both sides is get along with respect as opposed to violence or petty name calling because we stick to our sides for good reasons and neither are actually wrong.

As for me, the only reason I'm spiritual but not religious is because I feel its more expanding and enlightening to question something and learn for myself than to go on believing the established. Illusions are a good part of life but I want to invest only in the reality over time so I can get a good understand without the needless suffering from the formalization.

In some ways my intelligence and curiosity took hold of my beliefs once I was exposed to more information and my spirituality automatically felt the need to be individualized. And faith is fine, but in the end I feel its better to have faith in yourself and your work instead of having faith in an institution.

Over time I've realized that institutions will lie, become violent and incredibly greedy as they become bigger or to accomplish its means. But my spirituality is that I wouldn't hurt others individually and I keep that as a point to function whether the institution does or not.

I appreciate your quote about being athletic and not working out (as spiritual but not religious) and although some people might be more athletically predisposed despite not have to working out based on their genes, I really think a more sensitive quote would be something like "Appreciate the game without betting on either sides. There's always the possibility of win, but also the possibility of lose as you increase frequency"

The cool things about both sides however, is that minus the fanatics, we both actually appreciate the spirituality on some level. And I totally agree, religion can do wonderful things if interpreted in the right way by everybody and can adapt to the changing times (which is where the difficult part comes in).

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Cassandrareinhart
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Cassandrareinhart

I would like to say something about your opinion on spiritual people. Though some may be closed and unwilling to be a part of something bigger than themselves, not all spiritual people are like that. I see religion as different groups of spiritual people trying to find the meaning of life and conforming to dogma that a certain group of people follow. I am spiritual and unlike a christian, a catholic, a Muslim, a Mormon, a wiccan, or whatever, I can connect with everyone. I believe in the oneness of life. I can treasure the moments I have in this life and look forward to the life I will have after this one. I don't like religious wars, sin, damnation, or any other fearful threats religion imposes. I believe that life is life. there is no right nor wrong. There are pleasant things in life and unpleasant things in life but hate and anger comes from fear and the unknown. How can an all loving god become angry? Life is something that should be treasured and embraced. Differences should be respected. Converting a group of people to follow a set belief takes away creativity. As for me, I define creativity as an absolute necessity for spirituality. My imagination is the fantastic world I can build within and I was born with that ability. Why should I not be able to fantasize about the meaning of life just because it is different from traditional religious scriptures? I believe in the oneness like I said. I believe at one point we were all a part of the same exact thing which is known as the big bang. I believe that possibilities are endless. I believe we are the universes attempt at understanding ourselves. I love the world and I love people and I am very spiritual and I will listen to anybody's perspective on the meaning of life. I respect everybody's opinions and have my own. I pray in my own way because I believe in the power of thought and emotion. Please don't come to a conclusion that all spiritual people are disconnected and unwilling to be a part of something bigger than themselves. I am spiritual, i believe we are all connected and one, I am a part of the universe and that is so much greater than myself but I am an important part of its existence as is everyone else. Call me a hippie most do but peace and love is possible in humanity and putting down our defenses is the first step to embracing the compassion and love humanity really does have. Of course every person wants a better life and many want perfection but that is something that people have to strive for with or without church attendance. I have looked through many religions. Christianity, Mormonism, Catholicism, Muslim, Buddhism, Taoism, Wiccan, Paganism, Ba-hi, and different ethical viewpoints from philosophers. They all say the same thing...Love one another. That doesn't mean love only those in your religious group. That means love everyone. So dang it love everyone. That's what I try to do through spirituality and I try to take in all good teachings from every religion and philosopher and also my own logic. The universe made me with a mind and I use it. Spirituality to me is my truth and I rejoice in the oneness of humanity.

---Cassandra Reinhart

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jmwhite1
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jmwhite1

Wow, thank you for putting into words something I have been struggling to make clear for myself. I hope you will not mind if I borrow some of your great lines!

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B. Snyder
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B. Snyder

Amen.

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TheHumanCalculator
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Amen to that.

I think parents have a pivotal role for their children... in terms of being spiritual and religious.

For my family, both of my parents are religious and spiritual... but they let my sister and I have our ways once we went to college. I went to church almost always every week when I was in college... although church stuff probably had a lot to do with it. However, I was glad it happened because I learned how to be an active lay member and a young adult leader in the process, which actually came in very handy when I officially relocated at the start of this year.

My sister, on the other hand, would only go to church once every month or two. I wonder what would she transpires into after she had done with her academic career. Since we are polar opposites on a lot of things, I would not be surprised she could be a late bloomer, in terms of finding her calling, or just go to church whenever she feels like it and that's it.

If I have my kids some day, I would say to them, "I don't need you to be super active in church like me or your grandparents (my parents). But, if you are called upon by God to be a minister in his church, you should accept his call. After all, you are not only doing a disservice to your church, but also God."

- Bill Wong

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