A growing number of people in the United States define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Study after demographic study shows that this segment of our population is rising steadily, as people growing up in a pluralistic society reject the rigid dogma that they associate with “religion.” Maybe you’re someone who has claimed this title for yourself.
I’d like to make a case for religion.
To be clear, I, too, reject rigid dogma. I reject narrow-minded thinking that groups together only people who believe very specific things into one “religion.” What I embrace, however, is the notion that spirituality practiced alone is missing something. It is missing the relationships that are necessary for human growth and development. The relationships found in religious community.
Too often, I talk to people who substitute a solitary spiritual practice for religious community. Sometimes, those people think they’re practicing a religion. I ache to let them know what they’re missing.
Meditation on a cushion in the corner is a fine thing to do, but it’s not Buddhism. Prayer—whether you pray by kneeling at your bedside or walking through the woods—is a wonderful way to center yourself on the spirit of life coursing through you, but by itself, it’s not Judaism, Islam or Christianity. All of these religions require something more: the relationships built in communal practice, the accountability of having others who are practicing their spirituality with you, the opportunity to learn and grow based on the experiences and thoughts of another.
Religion requires community. And this is a good thing. The word itself comes, it is widely thought, from Latin roots meaning “to bind together again.” Religion requires being bound to something beyond yourself—it requires relationships.
And human beings are meant to be in relationship with one another. We are not meant to be solitary creatures—we have evolved to need to be part of a group. Again—a good thing.
And religion requires only the binding together of people into a group based upon spirituality.
You wouldn’t know this from the ways in which the word “religion” is used in our society. All too often, “religion” is defined as the way in which one believes in a supernatural God. This is not what religion is.
My colleague the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed writes that “the central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.” It’s not about teaching one right way of looking at the world. It’s not about a specific theology. It’s about understanding our intimate and unbreakable connection to everything else in existence.
Religion is about connection. It is about community. It is about accountability. Religion is about having people to share your spiritual experiences with.
Religion is not necessarily about dogma. My chosen faith, Unitarian Universalism, is a creedless religion. We believe it’s more important for people to be in community with one another than to agree—even about the big things like God or death or salvation.
We learn from one another. We challenge one another. We support one another. Sometimes, we even irritate one another, and our response to that irritation teaches us how to live in the world with people we don’t necessarily like.
But we wouldn’t have any of these things—the good, the bad, the uplifting, the challenging—if we chose the path of individual spirituality.