Credit: Creative Commons/Muhammad Rehan
Credit: Creative Commons/Muhammad Rehan
Religious, not spiritual

If my less-than-ahead-of-the-curve Facebook page is any evidence of popular internet memes, in the last few weeks people have obsessively pinpointed stereotypes with “Shit People Say” videos, and contemplated the difference between “spirituality” and “religion” via beautifully produced spoken-word videos. True, my social network is half aging punks and half religious academics, but shockingly, the “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” spoken-word video was posted far more frequently by my non-religious friends than by the pastors in training. They preferred to post “Shit Seminarians Say.”

If I had a nickel for every time I heard the “I’m spiritual but not religious” response when talking to folks, I would be able to pay off the sizable student loan debt I acquired studying religion. The statement comes from folks who used to be religious and got burned out; it comes from folks who feel called to justify their lack of affiliation when they find out I go to church; it comes from folks who spend more hours per week at a church than I have in my life. It’s conciliatory, defensive and proud, all at once. So it doesn’t shock me that “Shit Seminarians Say” got the play it did. It encapsulates our wariness about religious institutions and our self-same desire to affiliate with something bigger than ourselves.

But so often, ‘spiritual but not religious’ signals this: I want to take the things that fill me and disassociate with the things that make me nervous or scared. As if “spirituality” contains the pure connection with ethics, values, peace, self-care, accountability, and religion is the baggage weighing down that enlightenment. “Spiritual” is the goodness of God, the Higher Power that gets you through the day, the connection you feel in your community; “religion” is the perversion of that goodness.


In a consumer world where we pick and choose the best of everything, it is only fitting that we would be able to select only the most wonderful pieces of ritual, only the most resonant practices. But I am reminded of a turning point in my thinking about white privilege when a friend told me that part of confronting whiteness was being willing to own, as my people, the white folks who were embarrassing or shitty or who just “didn’t get it.” The thought was hard to swallow, but it humbled my approach to the work I was doing, and it helped me immensely in the process of building alliances.

There is almost no “religion” that is free of historic - or current - problems. As my eloquent friend in the YouTube video points out, religion has started wars, turned the poor away, condemned and judged unfairly. As much as I would like to own only the grace and forgiveness I’ve learned from the Christianity I practice, I can’t. Christianity comes with a long, twisty history of oppression and bloodshed, too. When I take all of that in and make it my own, I can start the process of confronting the problems.

Should we have to take all or nothing when it comes to religion and spirituality? I don’t know. But I do suspect that fragmenting the whole and picking through the pieces leaves a distorted story-it does not erase the history of pain.


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Andie Lyons's picture

Andie Lyons talks about God, Politics, and Identity in a variety of forums, including print zines, cocktail parties, coffee shops and The Precarious.

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