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On the Spectrum of Spiritual And / Or / But Not / Religious

"Our unique perspectives, principles, and practices can create a rich and colorful menagerie of devoted living.”

At the center of our identity - as individuals, communities and even as a species - is our system of belief. Whatever we believe, we can allow our convictions vis-à-vis religion and spirituality to either divide us or unite us, as human history has continually proven.

In the 1960s, the anti-establishment movements challenged our social norms, economics, and politics. And, to a degree, religions. Then, following the 2000 release of author Sven Erlandson’s seminal work, “Spiritual but Not Religious: A Call to Religious Revolution in America" progression towards personal and anti-institutional faith expression markedly advanced. Millions of people have been opting-out of mainstream religion each year, though the phenomenon has not been contained to the U.S. alone. In fact, the bulk of the world’s unaffiliated population resides in the Asia-Pacific region with rising numbers worldwide, especially in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. (Pew Research, 2015)

This widespread trend has triggered provocative discussions and debates on what it means to be spiritual but not religious. It has also resulted in “homegrown religions” and “do-it-yourself spirituality”. People borrow from or modify the components of traditional religions as well as more esoteric forms of devotion to suit their needs. Thus, perhaps, what has evolved is more representative of the many possibilities available as spiritual and/or/but not/ religious.

There are as many ideas of what constitutes being spiritual or religious as there are people on the planet. From theological scholars to spiritual bloggers, an agreement is rare. People who sit next to each other in a church, synagogue, or center often have different interpretations of the same sacred texts they read together each week, let alone share the same, singular definition of such broad scope yet very personal terms. But our different viewpoints do not have to be contentious points of separation; rather, our unique perspectives, principles, and practices can create a rich and colorful menagerie of devoted living. So how do we identify with today’s multi-faceted options for a faith-centered life?

What's in a Word

What does it mean to be spiritual? Generally, in the context of personal belief, to be spiritual is to be aware of an activating principle or essence of life. However, there is a wide array of ideas of what defines that essence, its qualities, and its appearance in the physical world as well as the course of study, practice, and veneration. Being spiritual also implies autonomy from the politics, bureaucracy, and abuse of power too often found in organized religion. For many who consider themselves to be spiritual, the path of faith is inclusive of many traditions, texts, and rituals.

What does it mean to be religious? A common opinion is that to be religious is to agree with and adhere to a specific doctrine, deity, and form of worship. But within the mainstream religions are various sects which focus on particular interpretations or practices, though adherents typically commit to one respected community, style, and place of worship. Being religious also infers fortification from the self-indulgence, magical thinking, and manipulations reported with self-proclaimed gurus. Numerous people who identify as religious find great comfort in the status, structure, and constancy a formal religion provides.

“It is through diversity we find our way to unity.”

Within these broad-spectrum descriptions, the lines of definition can be very blurred. We can be religious in our spiritual practices and spiritually uplifted in our religious truth. The label of “religious” feels restrictive, outdated, and un-relatable to some while the label of “spiritual” feels untethered, newfangled, and unholy to others. But for the majority of us who are somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum, dropping the semantics and focusing on the center point of it all is what really matters – the system of belief that helps make sense of life and provides a guidepost for living as the most authentic, heart-centered, and abundantly good people we can be. We do not all have to agree on what words or ways work best for everyone, and likely, we never will. Thank goodness! For it is through diversity we find our way to unity. One can be as devoted to a rock as to Ra; as committed to the path of a yogi as the path of Yahweh; or as inspired by Kabbalah as Christ. The love we find in the many names of I AM - Allah, Buddha, Jesus, Shiva, the Universe, and so many more, cannot be defined by words alone.

Whatever choice we make in our own personal world of worship, the importance of it all lies not in the terms we use but in the truths we believe. And wherever we are on the spectrum of religion and spirituality, there is room on this big, beautiful planet for all of us to practice our particular path of faith with the boldness of freedom, love, and respect.


© Nancy Noack and Mighty Oak Ministries International, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author and/or this site's owner is strictly prohibited.

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