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You know that phrase people use when they’re trying to create distance between themselves their beliefs and organized religion; it’s pretty common, they’ll use it because they want to establish that there is a sense of the mystical in the world but they just cannot quite rationalize adopting certain parables that are represented in the Bible, the Qur’an, and/or the Torah, this phrase seems to allow the keynoter the disconnect they might feel they need in their lives, however, I would suggest that not only is there a fine line between-, but there is really no intellectual account for one being “spiritual, though not religious.”
Granted, I have, in the past, used that phrase, even recently, in order to try to best express my belief system but only because it, unfortunately, does provide context for a person, depending on their understanding and background. Nevertheless, I wish there were an equally swift and more relevant way to reveal that particular sentiment; seeing that I don’t necessarily see a difference between being spiritual and being religious, except to distance ourselves from personal stigmas that stalk our dogmatic antipathy.
Why don’t I think there’s a difference?
Well, I think there are a number of reasons. One simple, yet not especially profound reason is that if we are quote/unquote religious we are also spiritual; religion does not define how we believe it—kind of, only (in an anthropologically customary way)—defines what we believe, which is to say that spiritual people might still practice a specific religion (save the “appeal to _____” argument; argumentum ad populum). I think the most practical point is that being religious and spiritual are more similar than they are different, so using one belief system to explain ‘our’ belief system is only impartial if it was so simple as to define an individuals beliefs as either religious or spiritual.
I spent a great deal of time at Sunset Coffee in Sandy, Utah, a conurbation of Salt Lake City, and on occasion I would sit with Neil, Sunset’s founder/owner, after hours and we would talk about creed and spirituality and religion, about his religious upbringing and my religious upbringing, as well as other ideas and systems.
I remember one interaction in particular, and one that I’ll continue to elicit for years to come, and long after it reformed my purview.
Do you know those interactions that provide a moment of insight that are, kind of, an Aha! moment for you, but no one else seemed to have acknowledged how profound it may have been? Well, this interaction offered something significant for me, and seemingly nobody else.
Neil was non-denominational at this point in his life, although he wasn’t raised that way, there was a very particular core set of understandings and beliefs that he was fostered; I, on the other hand, was not raised with a specific set of dogma. My dad was raised Southern Baptist and has spent the majority of his life Agnostic, my mother was raised Catholic—she spent twelve years in Catholic School—she loosely practices a religion called Eckankar, when I was younger, however, she was actively practicing. She gave my sister and I the option to go with her to service or, the alternative, which was to stay home and cultivate some sense of spiritual awakening in whatever recourse: reading about religion, meditating, praying, etc., my sister, at the time, was attending Baptist youth classes with her friends, so she was covered, I, however, spent most of my time playing basketball; so I would, on occasion, join my mom at service, and on occasion I would read, eventually I got to the point where I started visiting other churches: I’d go to Catholic mass with a friend of mine or an LDS service with another friend or the Methodist services or I’d discuss doctrine with Witnesses of Jehovah, and read about Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Islam, Paganism, Ásatrú, Yorùbá, and others. The study of theology became, kind of, a hobby.
One of the first things I discovered was how similar these religions/philosophies actually were, they were far more similar than they were not, and somehow people started to focus too much on the differences. It really annoyed me. And I developed stigmas towards religions whose followers were more focused on the differences than the similarities, and no that is not all religions, it tends to really only be the three major religions. I stopped listening to people try to argue why their religion was better when what we should have been talking about was our own spiritual development and awakening, regardless of the different parables and stories and avenues and itineraries that might exist in their doctrine.
In this particular conversation with Neil almost ten years ago I mentioned that “I don’t necessarily believe that God is the creator, but rather the act of creation.” And Neil nodded, and said “Yeah.” So, somewhat confused, I said “What do you mean?” and he said, “I share those beliefs.” I looked at him and said, “But...you’re Christian.” and he nodded, and said “That’s right.”
All at once, though it only lasted a fraction of a second, I was thinking:
What is happening right now?
Suddenly, it was all so simple.
We have all become so consumed by the assumptions that we make about religion based on the stereotypes and our stigmas or triggers that we’ve forgotten how deeply personal being spiritual is, and that our relationship with God develops through our experiences, and whether we accept the core dogmatic beliefs of a particular denomination or religion over another really has little to do with our spiritual development and how we actually relate to God.
Our relationship with God is matured by our relationship with ourselves and our surroundings; while the stigmas that we foster are based on a misunderstanding of an idea that isn’t even our own, and therefore we cannot truly understand or relate to it.
It is just as arbitrary and biased to blindly shame a person for their beliefs as it is for them to shame you, for yours, because they are, regardless of your conditioned viewpoint, the same.
The difference remains entirely in the same existential dilemma that we all collectively see the exact same shade of green when looking at a particular image, how we do know, really?
We don’t necessarily have the tools to negotiate our understanding of your shade of green vs. my own, so we just, kind of, accept it.
Different religions have established a set of parables and stories that allow us to pass the experiences of others down so that we might be able to share in those experiences, in a way that is most relatable to us and our own experiences. Aside from establishing belief systems that are relatable that also provides us with a different axiom, and the tools necessary to apply that perspective to what will forever be my shade of green, making it much for difficult for us all to share in a relatable experience by helping to create numerous shades of God.