Everyone is Spiritual and Religious

We’ve all heard it, right? “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” And most us can understand some of why a person might say something like this. The word “religion” has developed a lot of baggage, some of it fairly, some of it unfairly. The biggest organized religions have done a lot of fighting with each other and politicizing…well, just about everything.

But still, every time I hear this statement about being spiritual but not religious, I try not to cringe outwardly. In that moment, it’s probably not the time or place to quarrel, but maybe my blog is :).

I would like to suggest that it’s impossible to be spiritual without being religious. And I will go a step further: everyone is both spiritual and religious. Stay with you here; let me tell you what I mean. We have to start with definitions, and you’ll notice I define these words broadly.

I think at one time or another in life, every person asks — either explicitly or implicitly — the following three questions:

1. How did I get here?

2. What do I believe?

3. How then should I live?

It does not always happen this sequentially or even consciously or rationally, but I do think the inquiry occurs, one way or another. Some people answer these questions with a lot more confidence than others, and of course for many of us, the answer to these questions shift over the course of a life.

Regardless, the answers (or lack thereof) are spiritual ones. We place our faith in something; we choose to worship something. Some answer the question traditionally, which is to say they place their faith in God, Jesus, Allah, Jehovah, etc. Others reject that those figures exist (or are good), so they come up with other forces to place their faith in. These forces might be Nature, Energy, Uncertainty, Nothingness, Science, Big Bang, Randomness, Humanity. Or even President Obama, the Republican Party, or Lebron James.

Those out there who place their unending faith in Science may take issue with my use of the word “belief.” Maybe some only want to deal only with “facts.” Unfortunately, that’s impossible. To make a claim like “The scientific method is superior to other ways to knowledge” is an assumption that cannot be proven. It’s a statement of faith. The scientific method, by the way, also finishes with an interpretive conclusion. We cannot get around it: we all have to think, to sift through the mess. We all start in the same place at least in the sense that none of us have access to anything better than imperfect and partial information. We cannot see the whole picture.

History itself is not fully scientific. We know history through some science, sure, but we also know it through story and tradition. We cannot touch history (though we can touch documents), and we certainly cannot replicate history in an experiment. Then there is the existence of emotion. We have to interpret ourselves and the people around us just like we interpret the world. Try loving someone — or expressing that love — based only on facts. Impossible. Science is important, but it has its limits. All questions and issues are not scientific ones. Nevertheless, it does become a kind of god for some people who want it to be perfect and all-knowing.

Response to one’s belief is the religious part. This is why we are all religious: we have to act from our place of imperfect knowledge. How will I treat my neighbor? How will I engage in politics? What will I read? How much emphasis will I put on work? What about service? How will I spend my money? People live out and into whatever decisions are made about faith internally. This religiousness does not indicate goodness or evil, necessarily, and I also am not suggesting that every one’s spirituality and religiosity is somehow equal. But I am arguing that a degree of spirituality and religiosity exists within everyone.

Another way to understand this is to consider the Greek words telos and praxis. Several years ago, I was a student at the American Studies Program in D.C., where we studied these words. Telos, like spirituality, is the why of our lives, the place you are going or your purpose or direction, however confusing that might be for you at this present moment. Praxis, like religion, is the active part, the part that lives, the how of your life.

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