June 12, 2013 I Am Not “Spiritual,” but I Am Religious

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by Sarah Oelberg

I claim to be religious — not just spiritual. Spirituality is nice – it can be comforting, awesome, beautiful and sustaining. But it is a lonely endeavor. I choose religion so that I can continue to stimulate my mind and continually ask and try to answer important life questions; so I can be a member of a religious community that gives form and structure to my belief system and enables me to work together on the problems and challenges of the times; so my family can partake of rites of passage and celebrations that fit with our beliefs and values; and so I can enjoy the support and companionship of people who share similar beliefs and values.

I’m not spiritual – at least not in the way many say they are …

Spirituality is a word and concept I have largely avoided, thinking there are better ways to describe what is important in the human condition. One reason is because it means something different to everyone, so it is not a word which gives clarity to conversation. The old chestnut is true: if you ask ten UUs what “spirituality” means to them, you will get dozens of answers. It is hard to put a finger on what this spirituality is that so many profess to seek, believe in, or to be – as in “I am not religious, but I am very spiritual.” It has come to be something of a garbage word, possibly signifying just about anything from astrology to Zen Buddhism.

Part of my (and many Humanists’) resistance to the concept of spirituality comes from some of the meanings it holds for some people – meanings which do not speak to my experience. For example, to some, spirituality is an act, such as accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To many, it is the equivalent of theology and metaphysics. Traditional notions of spirituality deal with a nonphysical realm of the world separate from earth and its inhabitants – a realm full of gods, spirits, ghosts, and the like.

It is also used to refer to some transcendental spirit or figure which is supposedly understandable to those who believe in it, but unavailable to the rest of us who don’t buy into their particular views, or have not shared the kind of ethereal experience which has given them this belief. I tend to be suspicious, even to resent when persons or groups try to claim exclusive knowledge or ownership of something, which they say is wonderful, but which is not made accessible to others.

I have also noticed that the word spirituality is often applied to everything lumped into the category New Age: i.e, crystals, guardian angels, channeling, entities, various divinations, out-of- body experiences, ritual transformation, psychic healing, trance states, etc. As a humanist, I have difficulty with these fanciful non-material notions. I have also noted that the spirituality peddled in bookstores and at retreats and on TV talk shows tends to be kind of wispy and misty and rich in appeal to narcissism. You know – if it feels right, or is something that one instinctively knows or which makes them content, then it is spiritual and good – at least for the person experiencing the feeling.

In my experience, the “very spiritual” people who hold forth in these venues are often not the kind of folks who join with others to staff homeless shelters or carry out other works of love; they often despise organized religion, preferring personal evanescence, and many “don’t play well with others.” I know that one’s system of beliefs is supposed to be a very personal thing – didn’t Jesus say that we should pray alone – but I don’t think he meant that our beliefs should remove us from being involved in society. I think he wanted us to contemplate the state of the world, so that we can more effectively enter into it. It is not about us as individuals; it is about how we move and live and serve in the world around us. I am not convinced that much of what passes as “spirituality” does that.

In fact, I sense that, for some, “spirituality” serves as a form of escapism. It seems not to be grounded, at least not in the real world; not in what we know in our time about the nature of the world and the nature of the universe. It appears, often, to be a retreat into some pristine, past, foreign or imaginary world. And it seems to me that an authentic spirituality would require us to boldly and bravely face our world, the world of our

time, the world as we know it today – to face it and embrace it.
I also find that some use the word to express their disaffection with organized religion. They’ll say, “I’m

not religious. I don’t go to church or synagogue, but I’m very spiritual!” I think this might mean: “I have had a bad experience with organized religion, or I think it is all suspect, but I enjoy feeling a sense of awe beneath the stars by myself.”

I think everyone is religious in some way. The religious impulse is, apparently, embedded in our very being. Yes, we find different ways to express it and nurture it, but it is there. And the fact that these church- avoiders often have a need to find some other kind of group to fulfill their need for meaning and companionship – like a twelve-step group, or a Course in Miracles, or a Covenant group or study of angels class – tells me that the human need to be part of something beyond themselves is also very strong. It is quite apparent that, for many, these “alternative” groups have become the equivalent of church, and their teachings a form of religion.

But some claim spirituality in ways I could live with…

Despite problems with using the word spirituality, I find it does not have to be negative. There have been many wonderful things written in the name of spirituality. I especially like one from humanist John Dietrich, which I found long ago in one of the many of his sermons in my attic, and have used many times since: “there is an energy which springs from the heart of humanity. What it is we do not know, any more than we know what electricity is. How it works we cannot say… but that it is real, that it produces results, is as certain as that we can breathe.”1

“Spirituality” might be an acceptable word to point to an indescribable happening like the smell of a rose, walking alone in a quiet wood, being in love, being moved by a beautiful poem or piece of music, or the sense of awe when we see or experience something wonderful. It might be how astronauts have felt when they looked down upon the earth from space, and drank in the glory of what they saw.

Maybe it is how we connect with the source – whatever process made this universe and everything in it. Or perhaps spirituality is the feeling of connection we have to each other and to the all. It is the idea that we are never alone, really, that no matter how isolated and atomistic we might feel, we are part of a vast interdependent web of being; we are a small, but important, cog in the wheel of life. We are never actually separate from the very ground of existence, and what moves one part affects us all. The basis of spirituality, says Sam Harris, is that the range of possible human experience far exceeds the ordinary limits of our subjectivity.

Richard Erhardt suggests that spirituality is about how we live our lives. He asks questions such as: Are we focused or scattered? Are we continually challenging ourselves, our world views, our attitudes and outlooks? Or are we so afraid of being challenged that we hold on frantically against the tides of change?

The spiritual question is really, are we tossed about by every single wind that blows our way, or are we grounded firmly and calmly where we are? A person who is in touch with his own spirituality may say that there is an inner strength that keeps her centered and whole, when all around the world is trying to pull us into fragments.

So could I be spiritual?

My experience of what I might call the spiritual dimension of life comes out of my engagement with the natural world and my, albeit limited, knowledge of how that world works. It reminds me that just outside my normal range of vision there is a world of truth which I seldom seek, but which influences my life daily and wholly. The spiritual dimension helps bring together the different aspects of life, which it is all too tempting to keep separate. It reminds me that there are other ways of knowing, other ways of seeing other realities which have the possibility of changing us as we cannot deliberately change ourselves.

I would add that spirituality can provide meaning and values without a god telling us what is right and wrong. It may be a substitute for being godly – or maybe it is the same thing – being “goodly”! It

may be Kierkegaard’s “power of a person’s understanding over his or her life,” or Matthew Fox’s reminder of the tension between mysticism (awe) and the prophetic tradition, the struggle for justice. We must always balance that tension so that spirituality does not become an escape from working toward justice, or from the trials of living in the world.

And should I expect my minister to help with that?

One of the things that still bothers me about spirituality is that people expect ministers to “give” it to then. Often parishioners will say that they want “more spirituality” in services. I suspect that what they mean is that they want to feel more – feelings of connection, relief, forgiveness, belonging, contentment, joy, emotion. Sometimes it is a code word for the use of historic rituals and art forms such as prayers, litanies, special holidays, flower communion, bells, sacraments, choirs and hymns, vestments, candles – in short, everything sensual and colorful,

Farley Wheelwright, one of our oldest and most respected humanist ministers, would have nothing to do with this last idea, that disciplinary practices and liturgy have anything to do with spirituality. “It either happens to us or it does not… It is bred in the bones and defies translation or definition.”2 I agree. For me, insofar as spirituality exists, it does so when it becomes the better part of a good person’s life. I don’t believe it can be packaged in piety, or in meditation, isms, dogma or definition. Spirituality has no necessary connection to religious faiths; it has everything to do with humanity. Spirituality is that indefinable something which we all feel but cannot manufacture.

There are some expressions and definitions of spirituality in which I find some solace and meaning. I enjoy the lovely things of life as much as anyone; I experience great joy in art, music, literature, human kindness, and so on. I find a sense of peace when I connect with nature – stalking the wild asparagus or walking in the woods or prairie. I feel awe when I see a newborn child, or a cloud in a bright blue sky. These are wonderful things, and I am glad I can appreciate them. But for me, what passes for spirituality is not enough.

In all the various descriptions, definitions and explanations of spirituality, it is always very personal. It is an inner experience, which can be experienced only by an individual alone. It does not connect people, because everyone experiences things differently. It does not form community, but rather encourages separatism.

What then, do I want my minister (and church) to do, to help with?

From the clergy, from the ministries of the church, I need more than (and something different from) spirituality; I need religion. There is a reason why religion has been around virtually as long as humankind has existed; it fulfills a basic human need. From the beginning of time, people have needed a way to explain the world, to find answers to perplexing questions, to understand how the world works, where we came from, what is the nature of god and humanity, what happens when we die, how did life begin, and so on.

Many different answers have been found to these questions, depending on the times, the place, the needs of the people, etc. And so we have many, many different religions. But what they all have in common is that people derived them by trying to figure out answers to difficult questions. The Bible dictionary says that “religion may be thought of as a system of embodying the means of attaining and expressing in conduct the values deemed characteristic of the ideal life.”3

In other words, one’s religion is how one views the world and one’s place in it. It is the result of experiences, study, reason and thoughtfulness. It involves using one’s mind to come to an understanding of how to live. This is one of the major differences between religion and spirituality, but one which is very important, for we cannot live to the fullest only on instinct and good feeling. A.C. Grayling writes: “Religion offers something ‘higher,’ something overarching, something that seems to make sense of things, to organize the inchoate nature of experience and the world into a single framework of apparent meaning.”4

In the introduction to his wonderful book, Religion is Not about God, Loyal Rue writes: “If Religion is

not about God, then what on earth is it about (for heaven’s sake?) It is about manipulating our brains so that we might think, feel, and act in ways that are good for us, both individually and collectively. Religious traditions work like the bow of a violin, playing upon the strings of human nature to produce harmonious relations between individuals and their social and physical environments.”5

As Sophia Fahs said, “one’s religion is the construct (or gestalt) of all his or her smaller specific beliefs. It is the philosophy of life that gathers up into one emotional whole… all the specific beliefs one holds about many kinds of things in many areas of life.”6 As a liberal religious educator, she advocated for children being exposed to many points of view, learning about nature and science, and using reason to decide what to believe. I and my children were raised with her wonderful curriculum. I guess that is one reason why I claim to be religious – I believe what I believe because it makes sense and seems reasonable.

As with all religions, however, I find that my beliefs, although unique to me, have some correspondence with those of many others, and I have found great satisfaction in joining with those of similar beliefs. This is another aspect of religion that people over eons have found compelling. There are many good reasons to gather together; a community can provide comfort and assistance when it is needed; a group of people with similar outlook and values can bond together to accomplish much more than individuals can. It is much easier to put one’s religious values into practice when you are doing it with others – and it will probably have a much greater effect.

Charles Vail suggests in an as yet unpublished paper that religion satisfies the basic human needs of congregation, communion, creed and covenant – people coming together, sharing their thoughts and feelings, seeking and formalizing a consensus of the ideals they share in common, and pledging themselves to honor those shared ideals.7 This is why I affiliate with UU churches – they provide a place where I can find people of similar interests and values, who work for causes and issues that meet my values. It gives me a community. I often say that my religion is humanism; my community is UU.

Even though we may no longer worship the supernatural, there is still value in celebrations, in meditations, in the use of the arts to extend and deepen our feelings, our sense of significance and meaning. The person who has no need of celebrations, whether sacred or secular, natural or supernatural, is a dull person.

Religious celebration that meets our individual needs but takes place in a community, is the most composite and complete of all the arts, being the full celebration of life itself. As we create and shape our ideal ends, we should be able to project them into the friendly and demonstrative forms of poetry, song, dance, drama, prayer and ritual. This is why I go to church, for I could never experience the quality and range of the arts by myself, no matter how spiritual I feel.

Religion also offers rituals and routines for dealing with the more significant of life’s transitions, from the arrival of a child, to marriage, to death – rituals which match the values and ideals of its members. In UU churches, we provide child dedications that are not based on a notion that children are born in sin; we offer coming of age programs that help kids wrestle with the issues and problems and challenges of their lives and decide what they believe, not what someone else tells them to believe; we perform weddings tailored to the beliefs and ideals of the couple; and we have memorial services that celebrate and affirm the lives of the dead and uplift their immortality in terms of their accomplishments and presence here on earth. Sharing a somewhat common lexicon and symbology provides a means of engendering wonder, and consoling explanations to ease experiences of hardship.

All of these are reasons why I claim to be religious – not just spiritual. Spirituality is nice – it can be comforting, awesome, beautiful and sustaining. But it is a lonely endeavor. I choose religion so that I can continue to stimulate my mind and continually ask and try to answer important life questions; so I can be a member of a religious community that gives form and structure to my belief system and enables me to work together on the problems and challenges of the times; so my family can partake of rites of passage and celebrations that fit with our beliefs and values; and so I can enjoy the support and companionship of people who share similar beliefs and values. My religion is centered in myself as a human being, but it also encourages me to be part of larger community outside myself.

So, as a religious humanist, I say, “I am not very spiritual, but I am very religious.” Actually, I believe everyone is religious, if it is defined properly, and not just connected to belief in god, or accepting certain

dogma, or being the property of one church. We can be religious without god; we can be good without god. But we all need community, celebration, and answers to life’s unanswerable questions, whether we claim to be primarily spiritual, secular, or religious.


  1. John Dietrich, from an unpublished sermon manuscript. I can no longer find the exact place where Dietrich said this – but I have it written down, and have used it enough as a quotation to be fairly certain of it.
  2. Farley Wheelwright, my written lecture notes, unknown date.
  3. Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller, Bible Dictionary, 1958, Harper Bros. New York, p. 608
  4. A.C. Grayling, from the essay “Debating Humanism,” in Humanism, Religion and Ethics, 2006, Oxford University Press, pp. 47-54
  5. Loyal Rue, Religion is Not about God, 2005, Rutgers University Press, Introduction, p.l
  6. Sophia Lyons Fahs, Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage: A Philosophy of Creative Religious Development, 1952, Beacon Press
  7. Charles Vail, posted on the Humanists list (uu lists) on July 20, 2012.

Taken from:  religious humanism volume xliii number 1 fall 2012