The Revival: Spirituality vs Religion
I walk into the doctor’s office, nervous but prepared to be an adult, toying with the possibility of grabbing some Dunkin’ afterwards as a reward. The receptionist hands me a clipboard and points to the x-marked spots with her pink, painted nails as she picks up the ringing phone. I take the clipboard and choose a place to sit amongst the two-year old magazines and other quiet patients. While flipping through the paperwork, filling in my name four different times, paranoid that if I mess up, I’ll be accused of identity theft, my eyes fall upon a question that always stumps me: what is your religion? I look through the list: agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, Christian, it continues on. Years ago, I would watch my mother check off the Roman Catholic box and carry on. When I started to go to the doctor’s on my own, I just checked Christian. The time before this, I checked Other after toggling with atheist and agnostic for about five minutes. Now, I’m foolish to think I would find progressive Christian pluralist on the list. But, in the past few years, I’ve found a new selection on the list that stops me every time: spiritual but not religious. Growing up, I had always thought these words were synonymous. However, this is not the case.
Let’s start with religion. It holds a more concrete, yet almost bitter, placeholder in my mind. From what I know, religion is solid. It is made up of doctrines, prayers, rituals, men in garbs, incense, and golden chalices exalted on a marble altar. It is Latin chants and hymns sung over and over in hopes that the Spirit descends upon you one day. It is the fear of being sent to the fiery pit at the end of time or the fear of being alone with the righteous man of the church. It is an establishment of oppression, control, and self-loathing power to some. Religion is traumatizing to others. Religion scares many. I know better than anyone. I had shied away and coward at the idea of them knowing my true self, who I was and who I loved. I knew I’d be ostracized for my sexuality. But I knew, deep down, that this fear is not what God intended.
Despite all of this, we still see people sticking around in religion, our grandparents, our parents, young people with a new adoration for megachurches. I think this roots down to the sense of belonging, of a family and a community. When we branch to discover our own spiritual side, we deviate from that family, often leaving us alone and isolated, sometimes shunned by the family for it. That is what makes the journey so hard; it does for me to this day. Growing up in a Catholic family, attending Catholic school, and being an altar server, much of my life revolved around the Church. My childhood was a series of collective moments leading up to Sacraments, milestones in my head, defining huge chunks of my life.
My weekends were filled with church gatherings and school fundraisers and reading my religion book or new Bible that the Church had given us as gifts. I still remember the smell of the halushki cooking in the Brogan room of my parish, and the hearty taste of the potato pancakes my grandmother used to make. I thought nothing of it until I left it all. I realized I had taken that family for granted; it feels almost idealized in my mind, a warm feeling of a close-knit community. To this day, I often feel nostalgic or bittersweet when I think about it, even as I work through the trauma it caused. I miss it sometimes. Writing this is making me long for that family again though I know I can’t go back. So I think, though religion often hurts, it can also provide a family that many need, which is quite beautiful.
On the other side of the phrase, spirituality is where I must root this piece in order to understand. It is common to exchange religion for spirituality as well as the opposite. To many, spirituality is not as traumatizing as religion is. In fact, many people I know have explored spirituality in order to find the divine once again, away from organized religion. But why is that the case? It is not concrete, rather, metaphysical, more abstract, personal. I can walk into a church and say “this is religion,” a defined establishment of divine respect, built to control and gather, a throne room for God, per se. I can walk into the woods and say “this is spirituality,” a secluded place in the purest form of the divine. Both require worship and praise, a direct conversation with God. But where the difference lies is the values.
The values of religion are generational, congregational, and collective. They are passed down and often, many, including myself, don’t have a chance to see what else is out here. The values of spirituality, though, are within, personal, connected, unknown but meant to be explored and questioned. However, I concede that they are not mutually exclusive. I have met some wonderful religious people with deeply rooted spirituality and I admire it. I am not one of those people. Yet, in recent years, I’ve seen a boom of humans participating in yoga classes, or buying crystals, or lighting incense. All different ways to connect with the divine other than traditional church-goers. Are these new ways to connect back to the same thing? Different paths to the same destination?
At this point, you, the reader, might feel confused, unsure of where I am going with this. But, I present you with one more term often used in both religion and spirituality: revival. Growing up, I always heard pastors and priests speaking of a coming revival of the Church, how the youth will learn of God and the Church will become the Kingdom of Earth. And our job, as the youth, would be to take God’s Word, and spread it to the world. That is a lot of responsibility for six year olds. This scared us and it overwhelmed us. How were we supposed to spread God’s Word when we are never given the chance to understand our own?
In comes spirituality, a chance to navigate other forms of the divine through yoga, meditation, astrology, etc. According to Caroline Kitchener of The Atlantic, “because over 92 percent of religiously-affiliated Americans currently identify as Christian, most ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ people come from that tradition,” so this direct tie from religion to spirituality is not something that is uncommon. There seems to be a morphing from established religion to personal spirituality happening amongst a majority of young people in America. Kitchener goes on to say spirituality might “leave a crucial door open” for those searching in faith, almost a second chance with the divine. And I agree wholeheartedly. Therefore, could “spiritual but not religious” be the revival that organized religion speaks of? We all know empires do not last forever i.e. the Romans, the Ottoman, the Soviet Union. Could the establishment of religion be starting anew with a more personal interaction with the divine? Could this revival be not of the Church, but of oneself in faith?
I took a Philosophy of Religion course in the fall semester for 2020. Being cooped at home during a pandemic, doing ten hours of school work on the computer, then pushing carts at Lowe’s for four hours, my quality of life and ideas of what life meant were morphing and shifting every day. I felt worthless and useless, simply existing. Until, one day, during that class, my professor decided to discuss pluralism, the interfaith belief that there are many paths to the same destination, or many shores to the same sea. This lesson stuck with me. Could this realization that we lack the ability to know what the real truth is as humans be a key to moving forward in faith? The Book of Job clearly explains that our human minds are incapable of understanding the true power of God. So why are we all convinced that our own religions and spiritualities are correct? Perhaps realizing we can never be sure could be a way to find a mutual understanding, a tether between religion and spirituality, making them more synonymous than they are now.
There are a lot of questions that cannot be answered in this piece, nor do I expect them to be any time soon. However, one thing I do know is that a change is coming. Possibly a revival, possibly a convergence of religion and spirituality at the same destination. A new family is branching from both. More people are finding others in spirituality through social media and classes. Others are finding family within this new sweep of megachurches and worship. Despite these two ideologies, I doubt there will be a war between which is better, but, instead, a common ground where they meet, a place to move both forward together, or so I can hope. So the next time you see “spiritual but not religious” on a doctor’s form, don’t just check it as a cop out. Instead, as Kitchener explains, go through that crucial door. You may find something you lost in a church as a small child, a realization, a hope, a revival, a family.