Friday, June 10, 2011

A Rant In the Matter of Religion v. Spirituality


The FaceBook page, Proud to be Filthy Liberal Scum (one of Justin Rosario’s pages, of course), had a brief discussion yesterday about atheists and morality.  That discussion reminded me that I get annoyed all the time at the lack of precision in the use of the word “religion,” especially when I am in a discussion about “religious” people trying to do bad things to other people.

So I decided to rant a little about this topic.

Dictionary.com defines religion this way: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”

Wikipedia defines it another way: “Religion is a cultural system that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and moral values.   Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.”

Merrian Webster Online defines it as: “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.”

I was taught in my Latin and Theology classes that the English word "religion” comes from the Latin noun religio, which, in turn, comes from the verb ligare, meaning “to bind or tie to.”  Wikipedia agrees with what I was taught, and gives this interesting tidbit: “According to the philologist Max Müller, the root of the English word ‘religion’, the Latin religio, was originally used to mean only ‘reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things, piety’ (which Cicero further derived to mean "diligence"). . ."  Note that the original meaning had nothing to do with pious morality.

So. . . what have we here?

Religion at its core isn’t about morality.  It’s a world view informed by the particular religion’s perception of its god(s).  Religion includes first of all a theology (a shared understanding of the nature of the divine being or beings it worships), then a cosmology (a view of the universe, its creation, its structure, its history, and its future), a set or moral standards based on theology, and a set of norms for the worship of the deity or deities.

Religion is first and foremost concerned about those things that the human soul must do to bind itself to the divine.  Flowing from that are all other aspects of a religion.  Religious morality is designed to guide the soul in its relationship to its god(s).  Religious morality is in the ten commandments.  Religious morality is in the behavioral strictures imposed by the canon law of the Catholic Church.  Religious morality is in the requirements imposed by the Koran for prayer.  Religious morality is really religious law.  It tells the soul what it must do to bind itself to its god(s), or, to put it in Roman Catholic terms, what it must do to stay in a “state of grace.”

Religious morality is not spirituality.  Religious morality does not require the soul to love its gods.  It, rather, requires the soul to honor, obey, and maybe even fear its gods.

Religion is communal.  It is a set of beliefs and practices shared by people who accept the god(s) whom the religion worships.  Spirituality, on the other hand, tends to be individualistic and interior to the person.  Spirituality to some extent is “sharable,” as St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila did in their writings about their individual search for the divine.  As a professor from China taught us young seminarians so long ago, “Religion binds; spirituality loves.”

Wikipedia again: “In a wide variety of traditions, spirituality is seen as a path toward one or more of the following: a higher state of awareness, perfection of one's own being, wisdom, or communion with God or with creation. Plato's Allegory of the Cave, which appears in book VII of The Republic, is a description of such a journey, as are the writings of Teresa of Avila. It often includes the practice of disciplines such as meditation, prayer, fasting, following a spiritual preceptor, the reading of sacred texts, etc. Spirituality includes both inner growth and the outward manifestation of this growth.  The Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba stated that, ‘the spiritual path is like climbing up to the mountain top through hills and dales and thorny woods and along steep and dangerous precipices. If there is one thing which is most necessary for a safe and sure arrival at the top, it is love. All other qualities which are essential for the aspirants of the Highest can and must come to them if they faithfully follow the whispers of the unerring guide of love.’”

The outward manifestations of spiritual growth would include such things as changes in behavior, changes in social interactions, or changes in a person’s concerns for the poor, the wretched, the reviled.

The definition of spirituality isn’t linked to a belief in any god(s) or to a membership in any religion.  Spirituality is a person’s inner struggle for enlightenment, peace, understanding, acceptance of reality, etc., etc.

Atheists are not, of course, religious.  They don’t follow the theology of any group.  Most atheists I know are, however, spiritual.  They look into themselves to find an anchor, a compass, a set of criteria against which to measure their own and others’ behavior, and by which to understand the vicissitudes of human life.  Most atheists I know, then, are moral in that they live their lives trying to show those beautiful human qualities their inner dialog has taught them are good.  Without the given laws and rules of a religion, I believe that atheists are forced to be spiritual; the only place they are going to find rules for life is in the depths of their individual humanity.

Many religious people also are spiritual.  I don’t mean to say that religion and spirituality are exclusive of one another.  I mean to say that many, many people are deeply spiritual without being at all religious, or even theistic.

The other side of the coin, unfortunately, also is true.  Many people are fervently religious without being at all spiritual.
Jesus, in Matthew 23/27–28, addresses the difference between religion and spirituality: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”  Jesus had to deal with televangelists of a sort, too.


Christian fundamentalists are religious, without question.  They bind themselves to god by the ten commandments and by the rules and regulations imposed by their particular religious branch and their specific preacher.  Many of them don’t appear to be spiritual, though.  They interpret scripture like a judge interprets the law: “Scripture says what it says, and I’m sorry if you don’t like it.”  They hold on tight to their formulations of religious belief because that is all they have.  Not for them the scary interior work that spirituality requires.  Not for them the life–changing awareness that deep spirituality always brings.  Not for them the humility that real self–understanding always includes.  They and they alone have the laws of god.  They and they alone, following those laws, are good.  They and they alone are worthy of blessing.

End of rant!  Happy Pride month, dear readers!!!!!!!

1 comment:

  1. Religion is for people that are afraid of hell, spirituality, is for those of us who have been there.

    ReplyDelete