Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Elephant in the Room: Religion and Spirituality

We all see things differently and we all experiences life differently and we often use language differently to describe what we see. Who amongst us gets the full picture and who amongst us views a situation as it really is? As for the six blind men, each man perceived a portion of the truth. Too bad they couldn’t have combined their experiences to gain a broader idea of the true nature of an elephant.

Every Tuesday morning I attend a meditation group, which describes itself as “spiritual”. It begins with a time for meditation followed by a period where we share about the spiritual dimensions of our lives. For me this weekly ritual is deeply religious, although I know that many of the others attending don’t see it that way. They would be horrified to think that what they are doing could be described as religious.

Many folk describe themselves as being “spiritual, but not religious”, I used to but not any more. I see myself as both spiritual and religious. It seems to me to be either one without the other is to miss out on so much.

I recently discovered this column “Ask Pastor Paul”on For those of you who have never heard of it is an internet site dedicated to conversations about faith, spirituality and inspiration. It explores everything that could come under this broad umbrella. is where I first discovered Unitarianism.
“Ask Pastor Paul” is written by Paul Rausenbush, Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University. Paul is an expert in multi-faith work and offers advice on matters of faith and spirituality to teenagers.
Here is one such dialogue:
Dear Pastor Paul,

I have a good friend who plays with me on the tennis team. I invited him to youth fellowship at my church, but he told me that he was "spiritual, not religious." I have heard this before, but I don't really get it. What do you think the difference is between spiritual and religious?
Dear Friend,

"Spiritual, not religious" is a common phrase among people who may have a belief in God or a higher power; who see the importance of meditation; or just feel the power of nature, but who don't see any benefits to organized religion. There is distrust on both sides of the spiritual versus religious issue. Religious people think those who call themselves spiritual are somehow false, weak or unable to commit to their beliefs. On the other hand, spiritual people are interested in a personal experience of the spirit, and they find that the rules, regulations and rituals of organized religion don't do anything for their own spiritual experience. They think that "Religion is what is left when the Spirit has left the building," as Bono has said. My feeling is that religion and spirituality are better together than either one is alone. Religion can give you a community and a well-considered path to help you along your spiritual journey. However, if religion is lacking in individual spiritual experience, it can become just a habit and be empty of meaning. So you can tell your friend, "I am spiritual and religious"—but only if that is true of you and your youth group.

 I agree with Pastor Paul when he states: “My feeling is that religion and spirituality are better together than either one is alone.” To have one without the other means missing out on something so rich and fulfilling. That said so many people still happily describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”

In 21st Century Britain, interest in traditional religion is decreasing and yet at the same time people appear increasingly interested in matters “spiritual”

The UK Christian Handbook on Religious Trends 1999/2000 notes that regular Church attendance in Britain fell from 4.74 million in 1989 to 3.71 million in 1998; a drop of more than 20% in ten years. Rather less than 8% of the population are likely to be in church on an average Sunday.  On the basis of these statistics some commentators have predicted the virtual disappearance of the churches during the course of this century.

Meanwhile there seems to have been a dramatic increase in reports of religious and or spiritual experiences. "Understanding the spirituality of people who don't go to church" by David Hay and Kate Hunt found that this had increased from 48% to 76% between 1987 and 2000. These figures suggest slightly more than three quarters of the national population are now likely to admit to having had a spiritual and or religious experience. 

These studies do seem to support that view that people want spirituality, but without what they see as the shackles and confines of organised religion. So is religion finished, has it had its day? Should we instead embrace privatised spirituality? Does religion kill spirituality? Is Bono right when he states "Religion is what is left when the Spirit has left the building," I for one do not think so. I am spiritual and I am religious.

I believe that the problem stems from our perception of religion, which is the fault of organised religion by the way. It is seen as unbending, dogmatic, which of course it can be. That though is not true of all religion and it is not my experience of the free religious faith I have become a part of.

Spirituality is about attempting to connect to the core of life and religion is about tying that together with the way we live our lives.

Kent Nerburn says, about spirituality:  

“It is the sense that comes over us as we stare into the starlit sky, or watch the last fiery rays of an evening sunset. It is the morning shiver as we wake on a beautiful day and smell a richness in the air that we know and love from somewhere we can't quite recall. It is the mystery behind the beginning of time and beyond the limits of space. It is a sense of otherness that brings alive something deep in our hearts.”

But is this really enough, surely we must express this in our daily lives in order to experience it fully. I am not convinced that this can be achieved alone. This is why I believe we need  religion. True religion is not there to suppress or control this natural spirituality that we are all capable of experiencing. The purpose of religion is to help us to find a way to share these experiences with one another and to express them in our lives.

We all understand and articulate these experiences differently, therefore if we didn’t share them we would never be able to form a clear picture. Instead we’d just end up like the blind men describing an elephant as a wall or spear, or rope, or fan, or tree, or snake. How can we hope to make sense of it alone? I’m not certain we can really understand in community, but so much is gained by engaging in such conversation.

For me to be religious is to practise spirituality in community with others.

We are communal animals and we need each other. Religion, communal spirituality has so much more to offer than individualised spirituality. For one thing it offers us support, human support, on our spiritual journeys together. Our Prime Minister talks about the “Big Society”, but does 21st Century Britain encourage community, let alone society big or small. We humans need community without it we cannot really live full lives, we miss out on so much of what human life offers. It seems that 21st century spirituality mirrors this with its rejection of religion.

I am spiritual and I am religious. One without the other seems empty and meaningless. That said in the big scheme of things does it really matter what words we use to describe who or what we are, people will interpret from their own perspective in any case.

What really matter is how we live. As the Dalai Llama states “kindness is my true religion... Love, compassion, and tolerance are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. If you have a particular faith or religion, that is good. But you can survive without it if you have love, compassion, and tolerance. Deep down we must have real affection for each other, a clear realization or recognition of our shared human status.”

What really matters is how we behave towards one another, how we treat each other and how we live out our spiritual experiences and religious beliefs, always remembering that what we believe and experience really depends on which part of the elephant we are touching.

David Whyte says:
   It doesn't interest me if there is one God or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world with its harsh need to change you. 
If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.
I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, 
with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of sure defeat.
I have been told, in that fierce embrace, even the gods speak of God.


  1. Wonderful post, Danny. I agree that (liberal) religion is spirituality in community. I wrote a blogpost about spirituality and religion a while back, which was partly in response to someone who disliked "organised religion".

  2. Great post Yvonne

    I particularly love this

    "I believe that the religious life is a shared spiritual journey towards greater communion with the cosmos, where Spirit descends into matter rather than escaping from it – but this communion does not involve the effacement of individuality; rather it is the celebration of diversity and the quest for authenticity, because the "divine" (the vision of ultimate worth) is the potentiality of all life to share in mystical communion. But we must expand our compassion to all beings, not just to those whose values we share, and we do this by engaging in social action – caring for the poor and the oppressed, protecting the environment, standing up for human rights, and promoting freedom, peace and justice."