Religion or Spirituality

Religion has a bad name in alternative circles. It’s associated with the Christian church and all it’s crimes (real and perceived). Religion is associated with dogma, stifling rules that don’t fit our day to day lives and worse of all: authority. A preacher to tell me what to do in my personal life? Never!

In my religion classes at Leiden University very different definitions of religion are taught. I’ll use a famous one by Clifford Geertz to sum up the point:

“Religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

[Geertz wrote in 1966, just before political correct formulations would have replaced ‘men’ by ‘people’.]

The basic point here is that religion is that which gives direction to our lives, helps us establish priorities (consciously or unconsciously) and helps us understand our lives – in such a way that our worldview and priorities seem uniquely realistic.

That definition actually includes spirituality. We have symbols: Ying & Yang, the Buddha and the Tibetan flag (1). We have ideas about the universe we live in which often include: holism, karma, alternative health, aura’s etc. (3). These ideas about life and the universe seem real to us (4) and therefore the lifestyle that comes with them does too (2, 5).

The obsession with the difference between religion and spirituality comes, I think, from the bad reputation the Christian churches has with many of us. Religion has often been defined as ‘organised religion’.

Spirituality – taking place in yoga classrooms, alternative bookstores and retreats – is not organized in the same clear way. One can be spiritual within any religious system. The main thing is that one hasn’t settled for dogma’s, thinks for oneself and keeps ones own spiritual and ethical growth as a top priority (2).

One thought on “Religion or Spirituality”

  1. Below is an etymology of the word religion:

    c.1200, “state of life bound by monastic vows,” also “conduct indicating a belief in a divine power,” from Anglo-Fr. religiun (11c.), from O.Fr. religion “religious community,” from L. religionem (nom. religio) “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods,” in L.L. “monastic life” (5c.); according to Cicero, derived from relegare “go through again, read again,” from re- “again” + legere “read” (see lecture). However, popular etymology among the later ancients (and many modern writers) connects it with religare “to bind fast” (see rely), via notion of “place an obligation on,” or “bond between humans and gods.” Another possible origin is religiens “careful,” opposite of negligens. Meaning “particular system of faith” is recorded from c.1300.

    Modern sense of “recognition of, obedience to, and worship of a higher, unseen power” is from 1530s. Religious is first recorded early 13c. Transferred sense of “scrupulous, exact” is recorded from 1590s.

    Notice, going back to the Latin, it refers to having a recognition and reverence for the gods, or for that which is sacred. If one holds the earth as sacred( “pantheism”,) that is as much a religion as Catholicism, as some of the more fanatic environmentalists have shown us.

    Given this, one can pick whatever one wants to deem as sacred,I suppose. I guess whatever you consider worthy of reverence, and your way of showing that reverence, would be your religion. For some people nature worship is a religion. For some people, sex is a religion. In today’s world, people treat all manner of thing as sacred.

    The word “spirituality” has become a cop-out. People do not want to be deemed “religious” so they say they are “spiritual.” Fortunately we have our atheist brethren in the world to call them on it, and point out that they are as religious as any Bible thumper. Some of these so called “spiritualities” (and I have been around the block with most of them) are as dogmatic as any organized religion I have ever belonged to, and their proponents as dogmatic as any Christian I have known.

    I think we need to stop being afraid of the word religious. All it really means is that we view something as sacred and approach with reverence, and do so in a very devoted way. Are we afraid to reveal what it is we consider sacred and so couch that fear under the umbrella of the “spiritual.” If Christianity (or Islam, or Judaism etc.) have co-opted the word “religion” it is because we have allowed them to. Buddhism can either be a religion or a philosophy, or both, depending on how you approach it. All religion really is is the philosophy of the divine.

    Aren’t we all spiritual? Whether we recognize “the gods” or not, we all are composed of spirit, whether one wants to use the word “soul” or “consciousness” or “energy.” There is even a book called “Atheist Spirituality.” The word “spiritual” has been so abused and overused that it has really become meaningless.

    I call myself a theosophist, and I do so “religiously.” It is the manner and method in which I approach the divine.

    I have become wary of those who tell me “I am not religious, I am spiritual”, because my experience has been that they are usually neither.

    We should not get too hung up on words. Those who call themselves “spiritual not religious” have only joined the so called “religious” in creating a separateness, and an additional “other” that we need to deal with. We already have too many of those “others.”

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