Religion is a four-letter word. Well, not really, but you know what I mean. Nobody wants to be religious anymore. Lots of people claim to be spiritual, but few claim to be religious. “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” “I’m very spiritual, but I don’t follow any particular religion.”
I don’t blame them at all; a lot of things have been done in the name of religion that any sane person would disavow. A lot, if not most, if not all wars have been justified by invoking some higher religious principle. Few politicians are going to come right out and say, “We want that land, so we’re just going to go take it,” or, “We need oil, and we’re willing to fight you to get it.” No, a higher principle has to be invoked in order to get the support of the populace, and religion is often used to justify what would otherwise be unjustifiable. We all ought to be offended by this, and people of faith ought to refuse to allow politicians to use religion in this way—or in any way, for that matter, like getting themselves elected.
But religions can’t cast too many stones, because there are plenty of instances where religion wasn’t merely used to mask the real reason behind some secular action but was actually the reason for the action. While much evil has been done in the name of religion, it is also true that religion is responsible for a great deal of evil itself. The Romans might have crucified Jesus because he was accused of leading an insurrection, but the Temple leadership wanted him killed because he threatened their religious tenets. And lest we Christians get all high-and-holy with regard to the Jews, we returned the favor tenfold by characterizing Jews as “Christ-killers”, forcing them into ghettos, and stigmatizing them. Christian anti-Semitism is a fact of history that only the most jaded revisionists can deny.
So if the word “religion” has a bad name, religion itself is mainly to blame. People who reject religion without rejecting spirituality are often affirming that there is something life-giving that is larger than themselves and outside the material world, but that there is something life-sucking rather than life-giving that they have experienced in religion. (To be fair, I suspect that some people who claim the “not-religious-but-spiritual” mantle pursue neither religion nor spirituality, and this is their way of not having to talk about it.)
A typical definition of religion involves a set of doctrinal beliefs as well as a set of ritual practices. The turnoff for some people is the idea that a God who is wholly Other can ever be contained in or defined by a set of propositional statements that can be understood by human minds, and, you know what, they’re right. I mean, there are some smart people out there, but nobody is that smart. All of our doctrinal statements about God are metaphors that can at best shine a dim light on the Truth but can never fully contain it, and to act otherwise is dangerous—literally so, because it leads to a lack of humility and the kind of pride that is willing to burn at the stake those who threaten our understanding of the Truth. (And while “burn at the stake” is now used as a metaphor of how non-adherents are abused by adherents, in Christian history it literally happened.) And often the rituals of religion—and all religions have them, including non-liturgical forms of “free-worship” Christianity—become empty recitations or rehearsals which are still performed even though the meaning behind the rituals has been lost. Life is too short to simply “go through the motions” in the hope that God is somehow still pleased that at least we made the effort. In this at least the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd is honest.
But is that what religion really is? I think we need to reclaim the word, because at its heart it’s a really good word. Brian McLaren, in his new book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, points out that in the etymology of the word, religion is about connecting. At the heart of the word is “lig”, as in the word “ligament,” which is the connective tissue that holds our joints together. The prefix “Re-“ means “again,” so religion that is truly religion connects us together again. It connects us with God, it connects us with each other, and it connects us again with all of creation. So Jesus was being religious when he said that the first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and that the second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, and in the Sermon on the Mount he said to love your enemies, meaning everyone is your neighbor. Love, forgive, have mercy, show grace, reconnect. This is what it means to be religious, and I wonder how an honest reading of the Bible can lead us to any other conclusion. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows [for they were cut off from society] in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world,” James wrote. And I think this is what a lot of people mean when they talk about being spiritual. Anything that does something else—anything that destroys connections, that separates people, that keeps people from God and from each other, that defines an “in” group vs. an “out” group, isn’t real religion. “Religion” that promotes conflict and selfishness rather than generosity and peacemaking, that teaches practices and beliefs that make some fear, dehumanize, and judge others—in other words, de-ligamenting rather than re-ligamenting, isn’t religion at all. It’s ‘de-ligion,” to use the word that McLaren coined and that I hope becomes part of our lexicon.
Maybe the day will come when religions can rehabilitate, not only their names, and not only their images, but also their practices in such a way that no one will ever have to pit “religious” over against “spiritual” again. I hope we’ll start hearing people say, “I’m not de-ligious, I’m spiritual,” and everyone will know what they mean.