The Problem with Just “Being Spiritual”

The reputation of traditional organized religion has become so stained and tattered that we now commonly hear many people reject all religion, or describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”

Study after study has confirmed that overall attendance at religious services is on a steady decline, overall membership is collapsing, and secularism is rising. Higher and higher percentages of people say they have no religion. Some observers even predict that organized religion is on its death bed. Scandals, profiteering, sexual abuse, and doctrines that promote hatred, intolerance, or oppression have further besmirched several religious institutions.

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Given all those circumstances, it should not be surprising that many thoughtful, reflective people now describe themselves not as “religious,” but instead as “spiritual,” which seems broader, more flexible, and a less toxic term for their feelings of transcendence.

Amit Ray, a well-respected Indian author and lecturer on meditation and yoga, perhaps best summarized the situation in his book Enlightenment Step by Step: “Religion is the path of divisions, boundaries and narrowness,” he wrote. “Spirituality is the path of love, light, beauty, and oneness.”    

What makes the “spiritual” concept attractive is that it is personal and adaptable. In practice, though, “spiritual” means whatever a particular person chooses it to mean. So, for one individual, being a vegetarian and not eating meat is the definition of a spiritual act. For someone else, treasuring and relying on a set of pretty stones as holy objects used to bless and govern a lifestyle is equally spiritual, and just as valid.

The term “spiritual” has become so elastic that, arguably, even Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi regime that slaughtered millions of Europeans during World War II, including six million Jews, asserted that he was spiritually motivated: “… today, I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord,” Hitler wrote, in all seriousness, in his autobiography Mein Kampf.

So the problem with the concept of “being spiritual” is that it is so undefined, so all-encompassing, and yet so individualistic that there can be no commonly-accepted standard for how it impacts and influences human behavior. Spirituality itself has become such a broad concept that it embraces a wide range of ideals including compassion, justice, decency, honesty, fairness, dignity, and humility, and much more.

Here is where religion plays an important, meaningful role. Religion provides a unified world view as a framework and a delivery system for a humanistic message – and most crucially, it gives an essential context for the spiritual impulses latent within all human beings.

Spirituality is an individual impulse; while religion helps shape that instinct into constructive social action and common community through a system of shared beliefs and values.

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For example, the Baha’i Faith’s message of the oneness of humankind, equality of status for men and women, and abolition of racial, religious, and national prejudices focuses individual spiritual motivations into global social goals, held jointly among people of all classes and countries who work for their realization to elevate and improve human society. 

Abdu’l-Baha, speaking in Paris in 1911, said that:

… Religion should be the cause of love and affection.

Religion should unite all hearts and cause wars and disputes to vanish from the face of the earth, give birth to spirituality, and bring life and light to each heart. If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion. All the holy prophets were as doctors to the soul; they gave prescriptions for the healing of mankind; thus any remedy that causes disease does not come from the great and supreme Physician.

In reality, then, spirituality and religion are inseparable. They form a mutuality, a situation where each part benefits the other and they become entirely interdependent.

Without a grounding in spirituality, religion decays into a set of ritualistic practices and dwindles into mystical theater. But without the structure and revelatory principles of religion to guide it, spirituality loses its focus and rides off in all directions at once, dissipating its energy and effectiveness.

That’s why, the Baha’i teachings say, religion must be renewed re-invigorated in each new stage of human development:

As each succeeding Faith and Law became revealed it remained for some centuries a richly fruitful tree and to it was committed the happiness of humankind. However, as the centuries rolled by, it aged, it flourished no more and put forth no fruit, wherefore was it then made young again.

The religion of God is one religion, but it must ever be renewed. …

And this is clear: a power above and beyond the powers of nature must needs be brought to bear, to change this black darkness into light, and these hatreds and resentments, grudges and spites, these endless wrangles and wars, into fellowship and love amongst all the peoples of the earth. This power is none other than the breathings of the Holy Spirit and the mighty inflow of the Word of God.

The world’s Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, has come to fulfill that purpose.

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