Can you be religious and not spiritual? Can
you be spiritual and not religious?
Clearly many people feel that the two are
not synonymous. As beared out by recent public polls in
the United States, which insist that there is a discrepancy
between being spiritual and religious. Many more people
categorize themselves as spiritual than those that see themselves
The obvious difference is due to the popular
view that religion is about ritual, which does not necessitate
one to be spiritual; “ritual” without the “spi”
preceding it. A person can be fiercely committed to performing
religious rituals to the tee, without feeling any inner
Conversely, many people feel that they can
aspire to spirituality – defined by an ethereal, transcendent
experience – without having to perform any rituals
By no means does this suggest that the two,
spirituality and religion, are mutually exclusive. Many
people clearly see themselves as both spiritual and religious.
However there still remains a strong enough dichotomy between
religiosity and spirituality to get our attention.
Is this split a true one? Undoubtedly, based
on the contemporary understanding of the meaning of religion
and spirituality. If indeed religion is driven by ceremony
and ritual, then it need not be spiritual to thrive. All
you need are committed individuals dedicated to following
– and educating their children to live by –
the strictures of their particular religious discipline.
As a matter of fact, there are quite a number
of people who practice religion – in dress and in
behavior – and they will be the first to insist that
they are anything but spiritual. They can even be highly
materialistic. Some would add that the discipline of religious
behavior (even with no spiritual feeling) is necessary to
counter the narcissism of material life.
On the other end of the spectrum, if spirituality
is indeed the gravitation toward transcendence, why would
one need to have rituals associated with this yearning?
Indeed, many free spirits actually shun the shackles of
any strict form of ritual.
This may also explain a bizarre phenomenon,
which we shall call “religious atheism” and
its diametric opposite, “atheistic faith.” There
are people who are religious by rote. They were brought
up in a religious discipline, but they either don’t
think about it too much, or (when push comes to shove) they
don’t believe what they practice. I even know a number
of so-called religious people who actually despise their
own tradition. They mindlessly follow it, out of guilt,
programming, fear or plain conformity, but if they had it
their way they would have chosen not to be born into it.
They therefore are utterly baffled by individuals who choose
the religious path. As one fellow incredulously asked a
secular friend of mine who turned observant later in life:
“Why?!” “You were living the life of a
free person, free of religious commitments and obligations,
why in heavens name would you choose to constrain your life
by taking on religious commitments?”
Then there are those individuals, at the other
end of the scale, that are deeply spiritual. Sensitive and
introspective; refined people who are committed to work
on improving their personalities and relationships. Yet
they do not consider themselves to be religious or believers.
Some call themselves agnostics or atheists.
What are we to make of this inverted reality?
No wonder so many of us remain skeptical about religion
and some even treat it with disdain. No surprise that extremism
spouts from both ends of the aisle: Religious radicals decrying
the profanity of the faithless; and fanatical secularism
mocking the faithful. Take the words of Nobel Laureate Herbert
A. Hauptman, who unabashedly declared that belief in G-d
is not only incompatible with good science, but “
is damaging to the well-being of the human race”!…
Richard Dawkins called religion a “disease.”
The conclusion we can draw from the religious/spiritual
incongruity is that perhaps we need to revisit our entire
definition of the words “religious” and “spiritual.”
Furthermore, as we shall see, these words may be ill conceived
in the first place.
No where in the Torah, for instance, do you
have references to the word “religion” or for
that matter “spirituality.” The Torah speaks
in matter of fact terms that G-d created heaven and earth,
shaped the human being in the Divine Image and charged man
and woman with the mission to “serve and protect,”
to refine and elevate the universe through a comprehensive
system of guidelines (mitzvot). There is no commandment
“be religious” or “be spiritual.”
Expressions like “sanctify yourself” and “be
holy” abound. “Stand in awe,” “be
aware,” “know,” “act,” “love,”
“emulate the Divine” these are the principles
that the Torah is comprised of.
Why? Because the core issue really comes down
to one critical question: What is the true, inherent nature
of the human being? What is the meaning of a soul?
If each of us is, as the Bible contends, created
in the Divine Image, then any word, “religious”
or even “spiritual,” is a distorted adjective.
Divine Image is not an adjective but a noun; not what you
do but what you are. Your state of being. Being spiritual
and religious is part and parcel – and actually the
essence – of being human.
Which is why I was always repulsed by the
word “religious.” It always smacked of some
unnatural prop that is added to being human. There are normal
people and there are “religious” people. If
I can be human without religion, why do I need religion?
The religious person – religious as an adjective
– is an unacceptable oxymoron. If it is a superimposed adjective,
describing a certain type of individual, like saying a “happy
person” or “yellow apple,” then who needs and why should
we be in the least interested in an unnatural, appendage
that just places demands on us, as in “G-d commanding us”
to do this and not do that. At best, the choice remains
However, if our natural, inherent state is
Divine – the Divine Image – then being religious
or spiritual is not really a choice, just like being human
is not a choice. Yes, we have the choice to act human or
not, but that choice is basically whether we choose to be
ourselves or defy our own nature.
What then are we to do with words like “religion”
and “spirituality?” These words – like
all descriptive words (including “secular,”
“non-religious,” “scientific”) –
are superimposed adjectives that describe a type of person,
a choice, an option.
And therein lies its undoing. When selecting
a school, a career or a place to vacation – non-inherent
human experiences, or choosing from man-made menus, then
we have many different adjectives and options to choose
from. Being surrounded and inundated by so many such options,
we unfortunately apply the same attitude to the spiritual/religious
However the religious/spiritual journey is
not an artificial add-on. It is the search for truth –
for reality. And reality is not a superimposed state. Being
real is not an action but a state of being; not an adjective
but a noun.
So though there are numbers of people whose
religion is superimposed series of rituals (hence, their
puzzlement of someone embracing rituals they did not grow
up with), their behavior in no way accurately depicts the
Equally, the rejection of religion by many
progressive thinkers was due to their perception that religion
and G-d are superimposed states. As our good friend Marx
wrote: “The more man puts into G-d, the less he retains
within himself.” He sees religion and G-d as outside
forces, alien to mans’ individual sense of self. Or
in the cynical exchange of another Jewish luminary (Woody
Allen): A freethinking skeptic dismissingly asks her devout
grandfather, “Grandpa, if you had to choose between G-d
and the truth, which would you pick?” Without missing a
beat the grandfather answers: “G-d”…
Time to return not to religion, not to spirituality,
but to reality – one that has not been hijacked by
so called religious people or discarded by so called non-religious
people. Spirituality is not a ride on the cloud and religion
is not a religious act – both are an expression of
our inherent state of being.
The Torah is not talking about some superimposed
search, as in, “oh, let’s do a little bible
reading today.” It’s about the quintessential
search for you own true self. The mitzvot are not rituals,
as in mechanical disciplines, but profound instruments meant
to help you discover and “connect” to your inner
self – to your soul.
What the Torah is all about is that we each
have a soul in the “Divine Image”, and that
soul is the essence of your being. Every aspect of life
is driven by its inner energy. "Not on bread alone
that man lives, but by all that comes out of G-d's mouth."
So what’s the story: Are religion and spirituality
one and the same or not? Depends on how you define these
terms. If they are both the human discovery of self than
they are synonymous.
Spirituality in other words is not just for
the mystically oriented, just as living a Divine life is
not just for theologians. It is not only for the so-called
“spiritual types.” It is the journey of every
soul on earth, and it is experienced through the mitzvot
– soulful rituals. The difference between people is
how the journey manifests itself. For some it may take on
the shape of an overtly mystical/spiritual orientation,
for others the soul experience is through the arts. For
everyone the soul speaks through love. [The various manifestation
of the soul’s journey deserves a column of its own
– for a future date].
This is what I meant in last week’s
article by a “new religion;” new as in different
than the distorted, superimposed, unnatural version, that
we have wrongly embraced or rejected.
Perhaps that is the religion of yesterday
and that of tomorrow – one that is not an adjective
but a noun.
This is the challenge of our times; the challenge
facing the so-called battle between science and religion,
church and state; the moment of truth facing Zionism and
all the other isms as we enter the 21st century
and have a more sophisticated understanding in the nature
Above all the path to truth and reality has
always been through the vehicle called bittul
– humility, modesty and selflessness. That is a prerequisite
for all people searching for truth, scientist or layman,
religious or secular.
I submit that we rename the quest for transcendence.
Instead of calling it the religious journey, the spiritual
odyssey, the ethereal voyage, let us call it: The search
for REALITY. Yes just plain reality.
The polls should add a new question to audiences:
Choose from the following options:
I aspire to be:
That would sure put things in stark context.
Because reality is one or the other: It’s
either real or it’s not.