Why I Am Spiritual and Religious

There’s a new Pew Research study out on the rise of the religiously unaffiliated or nones – as in “none of the above.” The numbers are ominous for organized religions in general (though perhaps optimistic for liberal religions) and they’ve initiated analysis from all over the religious spectrum. They’ve also spawned another round of essays bashing the folks who call themselves spiritual but not religious – bashing that basically says “it doesn’t look like MY religion so it must be crap.”

I have nothing to add to the demographic analysis that’s already out there. I have previously expressed sympathy for those who can’t find what they need in orthodox religions and are genuinely seeking it elsewhere, even as I’ve pointed out that too many people use the “spiritual but not religious” label as an excuse for spiritual laziness. And I don’t think an essay on the historical meanings of the terms “spiritual” and “religious” would be particularly useful.

But I do want to talk about why I am both spiritual and religious.

I am spiritual because while work and the things work buys are necessary, they aren’t enough. As a Pagan, I believe the material world is good and should be enjoyed (respectfully and responsibly). But while you can live on a little rice and some vitamin tablets, it’s far more satisfying to sit down to a variety of fresh foods cooked well and shared with friends. I’ve been talking a lot about doing what must be done, but “what must be done” is the means, not the end.

Flattop Mountain, Colorado – Elevation 12,361 feet.  From 2004

I value education and one of my greatest yearnings is to know. But I am spiritual because intellectualism isn’t enough. It’s one thing to know the temperature drop and oxygen depletion at higher altitudes. It’s quite another thing to hike up the mountain and feel those changes for yourself. It isn’t enough to read about the gods – I want to experience the gods.

I am spiritual because I want to feel the connectedness between myself and my fellow humans, my fellow creatures, and every other thing in this Universe. Separation is an illusion and spirituality is the light that dispels that illusion.

Spirituality is fun and easy: it’s the warmth of the Sun, the light of the Moon, the softness of the cat as she curls up in your lap. Spirituality is the smell of the incense, the beat of the drum, the sound of the choir, and the hair rising on the back of your neck as the Bard spins a tale. Spirituality inspires us and sustains us. Spirituality is good and necessary.

But spirituality is not enough. I need religion too.

I am religious because I want to learn from those who came before me. Going back to the food metaphor, nobody had to teach me how to grill chicken. But if want to make lasagna, I’m going to find a recipe. There are a whole range of spiritual practices, traditions and stories from the remaining tribal religions, from the “Big Five” major religions, from the mystical and esoteric religions, and from the modern reimaginings of ancient religions. Some of these have been in use for thousands of years and they’ve been meaningful and helpful to millions of people. Why shouldn’t we explore these and study the ones that look promising to us?

I am religious because I want to be a part of something bigger than myself. As a UU I’m connected to the Universalism of John Murray, to the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and to the social activism of today. As a Pagan I’m connected to ancient shamans, to Greek priestesses, to medieval alchemists and to contemporary magicians. As a Druid I’m connected to the ancient priests and healers and poets, to the preservers and revivers of Celtic culture, and to the folks who gather around a fire to honor Nature, tell stories and share mead.

Denton CUUPS Beltane Circle – 2012

I am religious because I need support and accountability. The pull of the mainstream culture is strong and there is subtle but constant pressure to conform to its ideas of beauty and success. My religious traditions remind me that my values are different. Nature is to be revered, not exploited. The Divine is female as well as male. Enough, not more. My religious community reinforces those values and helps me live by them day by day, week by week, season by season.

Many people who reject religion do so because religious people have condemned them (implicitly if not explicitly) for who they are, who they love, what they believe or what they can’t believe. Others have become so enamored with spirituality they see no need for anything deeper. I understand both of those sentiments.

And religion is work. It takes work to study a tradition, to practice it long enough to truly learn what it has to teach, and then to live the way your values and your interpretation of the tradition tell you to live. It takes work to be in community with other practitioners of the same religion – practitioners who will inevitably see things a little differently than you see them.

But I need the connections you feel in your soul and the connections you make with your hands. I need experience and structure. I need the insight that hit me just today and I need the wisdom of the ages. I need to be alone with the gods and I need to be in circle with the rest of their followers.

That’s why I’m spiritual and religious.

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  • As always, I'm impressed with your insights and the quality of your thoughts and writing. Ever try and publish your essays? I think you should…

  • I am late to reading this post, but I wanted add a resounding AMEN! I agree with this, all of this. Well said.