I also have friends who never use a prayer book and what I've noticed is, no matter how religious or spiritual they might be, their prayer language falls into patterns. Sometimes the language grates on my nerves. I find it hard to sit still when someone prays a "Jezus, we just wanna" prayer. But it's a formula, and it reflects a certain shared understanding of God, and that much I understand.

The point here is not that genuinely spiritual people don't use shared language and merely religious people do. The point is that if you have a genuine relationship with God and if you have any specific notion of who that God is, you will use language that falls into certain patterns, and you will pray in a lived, extemporaneous fashion.

Avoiding ritual is, in other words, no insurance that you will be deeply connected to God or necessarily spiritual in any sense.

It is also true that some people have been deeply hurt by ostensibly religious people.

First, let me acknowledge the pain, misery, and havoc. I am appalled by the way in which those who describe themselves as religious have brutalized others—and often, the most vulnerable in our society. It is disgusting and damnable.

I have no desire to make excuses for it. No desire to explain it away.

That said, there is no good cause or great purpose that has not been betrayed by predators, hypocrites, and charlatans. We can respond by cutting ourselves off from religion because there are those who have betrayed our beliefs. There is a certain definitive clarity about a choice of that kind. But truth be told, if we were consistent in our logic, then there is not a single aspiration, hope, or high ideal that we would not smother in cynicism.

The prophets didn't criticize priests for being priests. They criticized them for failing to be priestly enough. Jesus cleansed the Temple, not because he wanted to do away with the Temple, but because the Temple was not serving the purposes for which it was built.

It is easy to contemplate dealing with the failings of religion by rejecting religion outright. But Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Josef Stalin represent examples of cruel and corrupt leaders who were equally destructive, but lacking in religious conviction of any kind.

In other words, the problem doesn't lie with religion, per se, but with us—with our level of dedication and consistency. So, running from religion can be momentarily satisfying, but it hardly fixes anything.

The real problem, of course, is that if religion didn't exist, spiritual people would need to invent religion or something a lot like it—and they do, all the time.

The word "religion" is not a prescriptive term. Uttering it doesn't bring anything into existence. It describes something that already exists. And what already exists are the understandings of God, the patterns of our prayers, the ways in which we live and worship—repeated over and over again, captured and refined in language and behavior that we call "religion."

Why the patterns? Why religion? Religion exists because it is the only way that spirituality gets traction in people's lives and in history.

Without it, we could not discuss common experiences of God. We could not communicate with one another. And it would not be possible to pass those understandings along from generation to generation.

When ancient Christians began worshipping and living in the way that they did, they didn't say, "Let's found a different religion." In fact, they described what they believed and what they were doing as a "new way."

Conversely, a radically personal, private faith could not be passed along at all. The descriptions we gave would be nonsense, and its content would have no bearing on the lives of others.

So, when we reject "religion" in favor of "spirituality" we might be cutting ourselves off from things that are worth rejecting—things like abuse, hypocrisy, or leaden, self-serving bureaucracy. But we are also cutting ourselves off from the rich history of a spiritual way that cannot be captured and transmitted in any other form.

It's a bit like cutting yourself off from your family because you are sick to death of your crazy uncle and his abusive behavior. It can be satisfying, freeing, and cathartic. It can end-run the need to discriminate between the authentic, extemporaneous, life-giving relationships your family offers and those that are hypocritical, rote, and abusive. But it's still a matter of cutting yourself off from the relationships that gave and give you life.

In time, as you wander more deeply into a faith that is private and personal, you will find yourself asking, "How do I explain this experience to someone else?" or "How do I find help in understanding it?" And suddenly, you will be talking about "religion."