“I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.”

“I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.”

The phrase sends me into a very unchristian fit of rage, and it takes all I can muster to refrain from responding to it like this.

There is a widely held, but false, dichotomy between spirituality and religion which attempts to define spirituality as individual and unique against the monolithic, imposed system(s) of religion. My assertion is that the two cannot be divorced and, far from being opposed to one another, each is an inextractable element of the other.

At its base, my assertion is that experience of the sacred is the core of spirituality, while the understanding and expression of that experience, either personally or culturally, is the core of religion. Thus unless one’s experience of the sacred is somehow completely removed from one’s intellectual, emotional or social life, then they are participating in religion.

Quite opposed to my understanding, popular culture often defines spirituality against religion. In that view religion is that which restricts, that which is imposed from outside the individual. It is a system of rules and regulations. It seeks to mediate between the individual and the sacred. It seeks to regulate the individual experience of the sacred and send it through approved channels. In contrast to that, spirituality is defined as the anarchic, direct, unmediated experience and expression of the sacred. It exists outside of larger structures and retains more purity when not filtered through them. Spirituality in this view is highly individualized and personal. It does not rely on religious systems for its understanding or interpretation.

I can see these definitions’ usefulness, but I find them to be far too limited. This understanding of religion depends on an enforced rigidity and relies on a structure of control that simply does not exist in many religious systems. It refuses to take into account the way that religious systems grow out of their communities’ collective experiences of the sacred. Likewise this understanding of spirituality assumes that people experiencing the sacred are doing so outside the bounds of culture and philosophy. It is blind to the way that its assumed non-religious spirituality is shaped by the same forces that gave rise to religious systems.

Coming from a background in the academic study of religion, I’m the first to admit that defining “religion” is a tricky business. There are countless definitions, all with varying strengths and weaknesses. The best way to get an idea of what is studies in a religious studies program is to read a lot of them. ReligiousTolerance.org has quite a few. For the purposes of this writing, however, I’ll work from a limited number of definitions.

In their Religion, An Introduction T. William Hall, Richard B. Pilgrim, and Ronald R. Cavanagh define religion as “the human attempt to represent, signify, or give meaningful expression to what is perceived to be of the greatest conceivable value for humankind and the world” and as “the varied, symbolic expression of, and appropriate response to that which people deliberately affirm as being of unrestricted value for them.” source

Let me put this idea into my own words. There are things that we value, individually and culturally. These often include community, morality and ethics, wonder, meaning, self, stories, mystery, awe and what I can only think to describe as the divine. We experience those things and their value both in an individual way and as part of a larger culture. Given the ineffable nature of many of them, they become expressed in symbol, in metaphor and in art as ways of communicating the original experiences. That expression of these experiences is religion.

In this understanding of religion it is the experience itself which constitutes spirituality. Religion, rather than being an attempt to control spirituality, is rather its expression. These expressions can be organized in a way that is highly structured or they can be anarchic. Most often it’s some combination of the two. Meditation, prayer, awareness of divine presence, retelling of stories, all of these are religious actions whether they take place in a formalized religious system or not. Spirituality and religion, far from being opposed to one another, are inseparable parts of a whole.

The idea that spirituality can be divorced from religion requires a belief that people exist outside of culture. Any understanding of spirituality is formed by language, by a culture’s existing notions of the spiritual, by understandings of art, by systems of spiritual practice. Unless one is completely unaware of one’s spirituality, then along with it comes religion. To tell a friend of a spiritual experience is just as religious as participation in a tridentine mass.

We live in a culture that does not have one dominant religious system. Our world is characterized by plurality. The constant contact with multiple cultures has demonstrated to most of us through our whole lives that meaning is not absolute. Modernist Enlightenment era reason has fed on itself resulting in first existentialism, and then the postmodern understanding of the nature of meaning itself. And with this cultural awareness of plurality of constructions of meaning we inform our own religious impulse. We are less likely to identify fully with one religious system, pulling rather from many or from personal experience. We incorrectly claim then that we are nonreligious because we are outside of formalized religious structures. We also project backward into history and assume that there was ever a culture and religion that was built on uniformity and control, and use that projection to define religion.

Your spirituality is your own, just as it is for every person. What you do with it is your religion.

I am spiritual. I am religious.