I’m religious, not spiritual.

I used to be fond of the phrase “I’m spiritual, not religious.” It seemed like a good way to indicate that I was interested in spirituality, but not Christianity specifically.

At a certain point, I realized it was a huge problem for me to use that phrase, or to use “religion” to refer to Christianity solely. So I stopped doing it, and started being more precise with my words.

Of course, realizing something you were doing was a problem and quitting means that when other people continue to do that same thing, it rubs you the wrong way even harder. You want to scream NO, THAT IS NOT HOW THIS WORKS, I LEARNED, WHY CAN’T YOU?

Shouting that really doesn’t work, though. It just makes people hate you because you’re a meanie poo-poo head who cares about accuracy.

But, okay, let’s talk about all some of the problems with the very idea that religion=Christianity/Organized Religion(TM) and spirituality=literally anything else.

(First, let me define Organized Religion(TM): when talking about this specific phenomenon, of pitting spirituality and religion against each other in a false dichotomy, people often use the term “organized religion” as a shorthand for “any big religion we don’t like.” Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are the usual victims, here, though the last one least often, in my experience. However, this is inaccurate, as organized religion actually refers to way more religions than The Big Three — it means any religion “in which belief systems and rituals are systematically arranged and formally established.” [1] Hence, I am using Organized Religion(TM) to differentiate between the actual definition and the “it’s big and we don’t like it” definition.)

  • Mentioned above, but being mentioned again: it creates a false dichotomy between religion and spirituality that posits the superiority of one over the other. Which one is superior depends on who you’re talking to.
  • Following that: when you set up spirituality as superior to religion, you make it impossible for non-Christian religious people to talk about their practices without being denigrated by people who should be their peers.
  • …and when you set up religion as superior to spirituality, you make it impossible for people who don’t consider themselves religious to talk about their spirituality without being treated like crap.
  • Codifying religion as Christianity erases the existence of religious non-Christians, and means they must constantly explain themselves for other people’s satisfaction.
  • Furthermore, codifying religion as Christianity means that discourse is impossible, as people feel free to say “These are the things I don’t like about religion!” before listing off a bunch of Christianity-specific items, and when they are corrected by religious non-Christian people that those things are not inherently part of religion, they will reply that said non-Christian person obviously doesn’t know their own religion very well.
  • …which, needless to say, is a dick move and leads to lots of anger and hatred.
  • There’s not actually anything wrong with considering yourself spiritual, but not religious — what it really means is that you’re interested in matters of the spirit, matters that are often covered by religion, but that you don’t necessarily follow any specific tradition or system.
  • …but when “I’m spiritual, not religious” is backed up by the belief that “religious” means “Christian” and “spiritual” means anything else, including other religions, and what’s more that being spiritual is better than being religious, because religion is icky! — then it’s a problem. It’s inaccurate to say you’re spiritual, not religious, if you follow a religious tradition. It gives power to the idea that religion is always bad, as well as giving power to the idea that people who aren’t religious are better or more enlightened than people who are. It also gives power to the idea that Abrahamic religions are the only real religions, which is a problem regardless if you see religion as a good or bad force in the world.
  • It perpetuates religious illiteracy.

Also, the complete non-understanding of the words “religion” and “spirituality” leads to bullshit memes like this:

A picture of the ocean with the text "Spirituality is a personal relationship with the Divine. Religion is crowd control."

Things that are wrong with this meme:

  • spirituality (and religion!) are not necessarily theistic, nor is there necessarily any understanding of “the Divine” within them.
  • spirituality is not necessarily about a personal relationship with anyone.
  • religion is not “crowd control” and saying it is is fucking offensive to people who are religious.
  • religion is a set of practices and/or beliefs that people follow that may be personal or institutionalized. it may be theistic. it might not be. it is a broad term referring to many different traditions.
  • religion is not Organized Religion(TM).

The ocean is pretty, though.

Here’s another bullshit meme on this topic:

A picture of a young child wearing a straw hat is overlaid with the text "Religion is belief in someone else's experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.", attributed to Deepak Chopra.
Man, the bullshit is strong with this one.

Things that are wrong with this meme:

  • religion is not belief. Religion is a set of beliefs and/or practices that one can follow in one’s daily life.
  • having your own experience is not limited to non-religious spiritualities. you can have your own experience in religion. it is not all relying on what other people say they felt. sometimes it’s informed by others’ experiences, but not always.

And the picture is an odd choice. Random landscapes I can understand for religion vs. spirituality memes. I don’t understand what the young child with the dove has to do with this. But anyway.

Why does this stuff bug me so much? Because it means I never feel comfortable discussing my practices or beliefs in many, many, MANY pagan groups. People are always sharing memes like this one, followed by a bunch of other people crowing in agreement. What does that tell me? It tells me if I talk about my religious practices or beliefs, I will be seen as a brainwashed sheep who needs to be saved.

Well, let me tell you, sometimes your brain needs a good scrubbing after the crap people fling at you. And sheep are awesome.

I’m not spiritual beyond the fact that, y’know, I have a spirit and I do work with spirits. Beyond that the word “spiritual” is kinda meaningless to refer to my life and practices, or at least redundant. While “spirituality” really refers to matters of the spirit and religious matters, I don’t really like to use it for my practices — hence the title of this post — because I find it too vague and, well, redundant. “I’m a spirit-worker who’s spiritual!” No shit, Sherlock. However, when I’m talking about religion, I’m also talking about spirituality, because again, spirituality refers to things that are related to religious matters — so that’s why I have a tag on this blog called “Religion and Spirituality.” I might not use the term “spiritual” to refer to myself, but that doesn’t mean that religion and spirituality aren’t connected.

I am religious, in several different ways. I have the religion I’m in the process of building based around worship/work with the Sacred Triad (Brighid, the Morrigan, Manannan); it’s unnamed, but that doesn’t make it less of a religion. And it might branch out to connect to my Hellenic polytheism, or my Hellenic polytheism might branch out to become more eclectic. I don’t know yet. I’m part of the Otherfaith. I’m working on creating my own version of D’Angeline Recon. I have connections to Feri and Reclaiming. I go to the ATC’s parties.

None of these are really organized religions, except the ATC, but they are religions. And there’s nothing wrong with that. They aren’t crowd control. They’re sets of beliefs and practices that you can follow. They have real-world and real-life implications (and any religion that doesn’t deal with your real, mundane life is pretty useless).

I have lost a lot of my patience for these types of memes and ideas being shared, and my irritation has been building around this for a while, which is what created this post. I was hoping to be less ranty and more coherent, but work has been eating my face for a week and a half and I am seriously low on spoons right now. So I apologize if any of this is less than sensical; I’m pissy and very, very tired.

Bottom line, spirituality vs. religion is a false dichotomy that only serves to hurt people, create a false sense of superiority, and perpetuate religious illiteracy and it would be really nice if we could stop with it, thanks.

~Morag


[1]. Definition from Wikipedia, which has its issues but is a pretty good place to jump off from.

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