A discussion of spiritual and religious
I walked into this. Tracy put on facebook this spiritual/religious delineation from Samuel Johnson. I posted I could bang on endlessly about it, and he challenged me to do so.
Just looking at Google search for spiritual, the Dictionary highlights why Samuel Johnson’s description of spiritual and religion is so arbitrary. Look at the second definition:-
relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.
"I'm responsible for his spiritual welfare"
synonyms: nonmaterial, inner, psychic, psychical, psychological; More
relating to religion or religious belief.
"the tribe's spiritual leader"
synonyms: religious, sacred, divine, holy, nonsecular, church, churchly, ecclesiastic, devotional
Further in the original post I also suggested that some religious people might be offended by Samuel’s delineations, I suspect that is true but would be very surprised if that was Samuel’s purpose.
Rather than semantically bang on academically, let me try to be constructive. I cannot know but let me surmise as to what Samuel was getting at. To me what he is drawing attention to is personal freedom, institutionalism and the blind following of dogma. I surmise again that over time from some kind of religious background he turned to what he and many call spirituality. On a personal journey he examines the benefits of a personal spiritual journey to the restrictions of a collective religious background.
But if we are to make some form of comparison between spiritual and religious, there is a strong element of bias to start with a tacit assumption that one is correct and the other is restrictive – if that is what Samuel did, it appears so. To make a comparison there needs to be measures so that we can make statements similar to - using this measure I think this is better.
To do this I need to step back, to detach myself to examine spiritual and religious; I am going to step back to the path. Without getting bogged down with semantics of what the path is, the following criteria for measurement could be used:-
1. Oneness/Harmony with Nature/Spirit/ Integration
2. Liberation/ Being Authentic/ Following the Path
4. Deep “spiritual or religious” experience/Insight
5. Sila-consciousness/ intrinsic moral integrity.
6. Worship of a God or Gods
7. Social Order
I could go on to try and complete a doctorate but let me stop with these. I know there is bias in my criteria as any attender of mass would attest. But even with my intended bias, rating for religion goes up.
But what if I add an important criterion – community, where is Samuel’s spiritual rating on this?
So what at first seems perfectly reasonable to me in Samuel’s article starts to expose bias, but more importantly ignores important religious functionality such as community. Let me leave these 8 criteria.
Now I want to step back and become a novice seeker; this is not a seeker who has recognised that institutionalised religion has little to offer, but a seeker who is just becoming aware that there is more than the conditioning that family and upbringing have given her/him. Where do they start seeking? The spiritual section of an esoteric bookstore? Their conditioning will turn them to institutionalised religion. What will such a seeker see in the religion, a bunch of facts and beliefs that I am going to call dogma. How informative is dogma for a seeker?
I would suggest that to begin with it is useful because it gives them a moral code and a way of behaving that is less harmful. Dogma can give you that. The dogma I remember was the 10 commandments. If I followed those 10 Commandments my behaviour would be reasonable although it would not help me find my individual path.
As the novice becomes more advanced they might seek greater wisdom. If I choose the catholic church as an example, there might be those advocating Thomas Merton, esoteric Catholicism, or some other more individual approaches to seeking. If a seeker looks only in religion they might move to Sufism, or turn to individual approaches within Buddhism or Hinduism. In such a way religion need not be restrictive as each religion is a broad church ().
There is one strength that organised religion has that spirituality does not and that is tradition. Buddhism (that I know more) for 2500 years has had people seeking and questioning the suttas and so on. Whilst this has led to a huge amount of proliferation, the tradition that is mainstream Buddhism is a safe place – even though it might not be a place to follow the path.
This is important because within what is classified as spiritual there is much that is charlatanism, and apart from the profiteering with charlatanism can come exploitation and abuse. What are the credentials of those who sell their brand of spirituality as self-help, wellness, and so on? I hear little of what happens in wellness sprituality, but when I find that some poor vulnerable woman has been abused by a spiritual teacher who cannot keep it in his pants it makes me angry. This of course is a problem in both spirituality and religion.
Now let me turn to criticisms of institutionalised religion, and here I am extremely critical of Samuel’s analysis. Religions have been guilty of horrendous crimes in history. What about the missionaries who were used as a vanguard and turned a blind eye to the colonial exploitation in Africa? I cannot ignore the role of the catholic church in the exploitation and indoctrination of indigenous peoples in the US, I am ashamed to say I know little about this. The very colonisation of the US and stealing of indigenous lands was covered in this veneer of English Christian arrogance, and is a common arrogance of indoctrination. How much are the Christian Right in the US connected to the wars for profit that underpin the US economy today? When you are critical of religions you have to begin with their contributions to war, you do not begin with ideological restriction whether your site is “Expanding Consciousness” or not.
To conclude I am back in line with Samuel. For me the teachings of spirituality and religion are concerned with an individual following their path only, everything else is institutional, egotistical and often manipulated by financial or state power. The teachings of institutions are not geared to the individual following their own path but into some form of institutional survival. Bible study, the study of the Quran, the study of suttas or the Upanishads have only one purpose – following the path. Individuals, whether Gods or otherwise, have an expressed purpose - following their own path, and religions have been built around them initially in order to facilitate that path-following. All paths are different so there could be multitudes of contributions to help us understand how to follow our own paths. Instead religions develop characteristics of institutions, in order to maintain their structures and the people their roles within them – promoting institutional survival. To me this is not religion but institutionalism, and the characteristics of this religious institutionalism are no different to characteristics of institutional survival in any field. Within different religions there are many people promoting this unity of purpose - path by many names, but their voice is often subsumed by the influence of finance and power within those religions. I am perfectly comfortable in accepting that the dominant ethos of religions is the power and influence that they serve, they are institutions that are part of the establishment – what I call the 1%-satrapy. But what religions are now, and how the great path-seekers envisaged them in the first place are vastly different. Religious activists need to work together to focus on the unity that exists in following the path but their voices are barely heard - and would be barely heard.
Tracy, this is the short version but it does begin to open up the questioning. Whilst I feel Samuel’s article might spark an enquiry, it is remiss in recognising religion's contribution to war and exploitation.