Exploring the dichotomy of spirituality and religion

My friend Maaku Saru wrote an interesting response to my post ‘Land of Promise’ vs. ‘The Promised Land, to which I replied. The issue he addresses – the difference between spirituality and religion – is one which deserves more attention and writing space however. So, in regard to the Pagan Blog Project, I am about to cheat once more, for even if ‘exploring’ could be Pagan concept, this really is hardly the case here.

The main jest of Maaku Saru’s writing was that one can be spiritual without being religious, yet there was something else there that bothered me. His writing seemed to support the wider cultural assumption that spirituality is good, whilst religion is bad or unnecessary. Now, Maaku Saru did not literally say this in so many words. He did however associate the concept of spirituality with personal growth and exploration, and religion with moral restriction. Spiritual individuals make their world bigger through constructing meaning, whilst religion narrows the world through keeping people in check.

This is what we call a dichotomy or a binary opposition.

Religion                Spirituality
Control                 Freedom
Hierarchical       Non-hierarchical
Community         Individual
Traditional          Modern
The past                The future
Dogma                   Free-thought
Prayer                   Meditation
Literal                   Metaphorical
Heaven                 Earth

And not rarely, to one of the columns is added ‘good’ and to the other ‘bad’. At present it seems as if the right column is awarded the label of ‘good’, but we could turn things round easily. Perhaps religion is altruistic and spirituality egocentric, etcetera? Some Christians may (and do!) argue that Paganism is not a real religion, it is either made-up or misguided.

This habit of dualist thinking is deeply entrenched in modern culture. As John Micheal Greer writes here:

Many people nowadays divide up every situation into two and only two factors. This by itself isn’t necessarily a problem, but very often the two factors get portrayed as absolute opposites with no common ground uniting them, and this leads to trouble. Worse trouble comes when the opposites get moral labels, as though one is completely good and the other absolute evil.

But even if we do allow for common ground, I still have trouble with these words. Spirituality is often defined as common to humanity, as the seeking of meaning. Yet often ‘spiritual’ is used as an adjective. Instead of saying, I am interested in spirituality, persons may describe themselves or others as ‘very spiritual’. What does this say about people who do not claim this adjective? Are there non-spiritual persons? If spirituality has come to mean ‘living the good life’, than I rather use the latter phrase.

I suspect that Maaku Saru thinks of Christianity and Islam when he thinks of religion. He may think of institutions and rules, abuse and violence. And of belief in invisible beings and the afterlife. And thus the word ‘religion’ becomes tainted . In certain ways ‘spirituality’ has become tainted for me. Spirituality is often equated with New Age in this country, as such the concept is now associated with chakras, auras, Derek Oglesby, Char and other things I do not wish to associate myself with. So regardless of whether one chooses to call oneself spiritual or religious, outsiders will judge you according to the connotations these concepts happen to hold for them. So in the end, it comes down to personal preference.

I prefer the word ´religion´ for several reasons, even if I rarely use it.

  1. I do like gods, even if  I am not sure of their objective existence. But then, I think subjectivity is far more interesting and question if true objective objectivity exists anyway.
  2. Pagans and/or polytheists are religious too. I do not which to support the monopolist use of the word ´religion´ by monotheistic religions. Religion existed before the rise of monotheism, and it exists outside of monotheism (or monism) today.
  3. The word is the prettier of the two. It could mean ‘respect for what is sacred or reverence for the gods’, which I can support. It could be based on the Latin verb ‘to bind’ or ‘to connect’, an interpretation I particularly like. I wish to relate and to connect to the world and all its beings. I do not merely seek peace of mind for myself. I do not particularly care about private beliefs. I have a relational understanding of religion. Even if the origins of the word ‘religion’ are obscure, spirituality completely lacks a clear definition. It seems to heavily based on having spiritual experiences. However, Paganism shows that religion can be experiential as well. And what would be the difference between a religious and a spiritual experience? The lack of a clear framework  in which these experiences are to be understood? But as people try to make sense of their experiences, there is always a search for some framework, even if it is less specific.
  4. I enjoy ritual. I enjoy myth. I enjoy a  framework. I enjoy relating to the past, to the ancestors and their traditions. The word ‘religion’ seems to honour this continuity, even if it is an imagined continuity, and this commitment.
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