Sense and Sensitivity: Spiritual but not Religious

11 December 2014

Online Features Columnist, Sarah Wood, explores the similarities and differences between spiritual and religious belief.

There is no doubt that the subject of religion is a sensitive one. Our religion, or our beliefs can be defining and we can construct our lives based around one belief system. There is no doubt that our religion and our identity share an intimate relationship. Yet, in a recent poll by YouGov results suggested that 77 per cent of people who were asked did not identify themselves as religious, this statistic seems shocking considering how often I hear people describe themselves as ‘spiritual’.

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I have always thought that a spiritual person is religious by some definition. However, upon researching online it has become increasingly clear that a lot of religious groups would not consider a ‘spiritual’ person as necessarily religious. Whilst I do not affiliate myself with any particular religion, I would still identify myself as a spiritual person. An identification that has and I’m sure will continue to attract turned noses and heated questions. For clarity I think a definition of ‘religious’ is suitable here. By definition in the OED being religious is believing in a particular system of faiths and worships, especially concerning the worship of a controlling power or god.

Is spirituality not the essence of religion? I mean I may not worship god but I am still concerned with elevating my higher self, as religious groups also are. Perhaps the problem for me is that there is no one religion whereby I have whole faith in every belief of that system and therefore find it difficult to commit to a way of life or set of rules that will distract me from my interest in spiritual inquisition. By this point, I suspect religious readers will have certain questions in mind such as “how can you be spiritual but not acknowledge god?” or “is SBNR (spiritual but not religious) merely a term for agnostics or atheists in denial?” Both are questions I welcome fully, but I also want to defend spirituality as a way of life.

Spirituality is certainly not an alternative term for atheism. Whilst defining oneself as ‘spiritual’ may be troubling because of the lack of definition or clarity of what this actually means. The belief in personal transformation through practices such as meditation is an example of a spiritual practice that can be spiritually elevating whether the meditation is directed at god, or not. Choosing a spiritual life is choosing to live according to certain virtues, choosing to live within certain moral parameters, and choosing to be self-aware.

I often find myself returning to the same questions when I discuss spirituality, the most frequent being, can spirituality be considered as a hybrid of religion? Is it more ‘fashionable’ to be spiritual in the current culture? It is certainly very problematic and bound to offend (which I do not want to do at all). However, I cannot help but suggest that spirituality is becoming attractive because of its subjective focus, it doesn’t feature rules. For example, whilst I do not communicate with god, I do choose to practice mindfulness whereby I communicate with my body, and my mind, both of which I believe are connected to a higher unseen self. Rather than worship, mindfulness is merely a personal spiritual activity I find more useful. Through this dedicated introspection I am able to spend time with concepts such as empathy, fear, regret, good, evil, etc. My body is my temple, and my ‘worship’ is directed at the breath. Meditation is perhaps a lesson in the value of spiritual practice. For example meditation encourages gratitude, and compassion.

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In a bid to get away from the ‘battle’ between religion and spirituality I want to bring attention to the principle that the two have in common: love. Both religion and spirituality are concerned with compassion, togetherness, empathy, and encouraging morality and kindness. Whether this is love for nature, love for the body, the mind, the soul, or love for god, love is a beautiful and essential binding concept for both religion and spirituality. Whilst some may interpret spirituality as not trusting the institution of religion, or (something I’ve genuinely heard) being ‘afraid of commitment,’ if being a spiritual person means your decisions and actions are conducted with love, is it really such a catastrophe to identify yourself as spiritual but not religious?

I fully respect and appreciate all religious groups, and it is upsetting to see or hear SBNR groups or individuals being accused of being an atheist in denial. Whilst we may adhere to different spiritual philosophies and practices, ultimately we are still seeking righteousness; we both find great value and importance in consciousness and seek to promote meaningful contemplative activity. The tension between spiritual and religious groups may well be the fact that one considers judgement being delivered by the self and the other by god. However, whether the spiritual judgement is from the self or from god, if it leads to us improving each other and ourselves (call me naïve) but the warrant for so much tension is hard to gather and grasp. We do not need to let the conflict exhaust us the way it does. With that in mind I leave you with a sentiment from Mahatma Gandhi “Honest disagreement is often a sign of good progress” and hope that whether you are religious or spiritual that you take a moment to meditate upon the beauty in the beliefs that make you strive to encourage and hold onto the infinite love and forgiveness you are constantly nurturing through worship, meditation, prayer, or other spiritual practices.

Sarah Wood, Online Features Columnist

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