I always wonder what people mean when they say they are spiritual but not religious. I think a lot is going on beneath the surface when people use this phrase.
Religion and spirituality aren’t mutually exclusive; I think they are complementary. Healthy spirituality helps us connect more with the Self, others, and the divine. Religion provides us with doctrine and rituals, which carry deep meaning once you understand their meaning and purpose. Why, then, are people so ready to ditch religion?
The number one reason that people give for leaving religion, in my experience, is that they have been hurt by people of faith. This leads to the impulse to abandon the religious institution associated with the negative experience. That’s understandable. Separating from a toxic situation is a positive thing to do, but it takes discernment to know whether or not the situation is actually toxic. If we pause before reacting we give ourselves the time to explore the situation more deeply. Is it the institution that is toxic or the person who hurt me? What was my part in the situation? In many instances, the church or temple isn’t toxic at all; it’s a particular situation that needs to be resolved. Maybe you have an underlying belief that manifests as a victim stance, blame, or even anger toward God. If so, it’s difficult to pause and look deeply at hurtful situations. I’ve found that issues that arise between people in the church may trigger things that have happened in an individual’s family of origin. Without pausing, we repeat those negative relationship dynamics.
There are other reasons that people reject religion. Bad experiences with people of faith in everyday life might cause a person to reject religion. I remember a situation when someone said that they dreaded seeing a certain pastor from the community come into their place of business because the pastor was rude and demanding. None of us are perfect, but if we are going to be open about our faith it’s also important to live the example of Jesus (for Christians, at least). It’s a mistake to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people, but it happens, especially when someone is hurt. Going to religious services out of a sense of duty can also lead people to reject religion. Maybe, at times, rejecting religion is an unconscious way of attempting to avoid God. Are some religious institutions toxic? Absolutely! Are all religious institutions toxic? Absolutely not!
There is another reason for rejecting religion that isn’t necessarily negative. If you have grown closer to God and developed a more mystical approach to spirituality, you might want to practice your beliefs in a setting that allows for more expression of the Spirit in your practices. Growth is important and, hopefully, life-long. Sometimes growth requires us to move to a different setting, but it requires discernment and listening for God’s voice to lead you to where you need to be.
When I think about the spiritual and religious beliefs that I’ve had over the years there has been an evolution of thought. There has also been an evolution in my spiritual practices and the way I try to live out my faith. I used to be fairly dualistic in my thinking; God/Satan, good/bad, saved/unsaved. The closer I’ve grown toward God, the more open my heart has become. I’ve come to realize that there’s no reason to continue with dualistic thinking because we are all one. I want to sit in silence with God because I know that my mind will never be able to truly comprehend God. I love life, yet much of it has become unimportant to me because there are deeper things to explore. Organized religion isn’t as important to me either, although I continue to attend church. What is important? It’s the inner life, spoken up by Thomas Merton, St. Teresa of Avila, and many more mystics, that has become my inner compass. These people model a healthy spirituality that I can cultivate every day and, even more so, when I’m not feeling as healthy spiritually or emotionally as I’d like to be.
I see myself as both spiritual and religious, but view these labels as much less important than actually turning inward and focusing on God’s Spirit. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to experience God as distant, attend church as a matter of obligation, or include spiritual practices as merely part of a “to do” list.
I don’t want dead religion any more than you do. Give me passion, excitement, and a heart that cries out for the goodness of God to be experienced in this world.
Deborah Haddock, © 2022
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