Are you religious or spiritual? Both or neither?

Are you religious or spiritual? Both or neither?

Saul Levine M.D.

By Saul Levine 

You’ve probably heard someone say with some degree of confidence, “I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” If so, were you in any way enlightened by those assertive words?

Can a person be spiritual and not religious? How about religious and not spiritual? Can someone be both, or neither? How do you define yourself within this dichotomy?

We seem to agree on the meaning of the word religious, which, simply put, refers to a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, an omniscient and omnipotent God who somehow introduced humans to this planet.

The declaration, “I am religious,” implies a devotion to God but says nothing about a specific faith, the intensity of that worship, or one’s commitment to the “text” of that faith. And, it says nothing about being spiritual.

Many believers revere “pure” belief in their deity and in the sacred words of their religious text, whether the Torah, the Old Testament of the Bible, the scripture of the New Testament, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Theravada, the I Ching, or many others. Fundamentalists in each religion believe those words are factual and absolute truths.

Some contemporary religions try to incorporate current social values and norms in their liturgy and rituals, some embrace members who are equivocal in their beliefs, like agnostics and atheists, while others proselytize to convert nonbelievers to their faith.

Spirituality is different from religion. While it can involve the worship of God, it has more to do with sensory states involving mysticism and awe, beyond the physical self, society, or the world. Spirituality is said to encompass the ineffable (words can’t describe), the noetic (psychic enlightenment), and the metaphysical.

Many believers in God see religion as the source of their spirituality and question whether nonbelievers have the capacity to experience real spiritual enlightenment. Likewise, many nonbelievers feel their spiritual revelations are more authentic and meaningful. But this is obviously not a contest!

From archaeological, anthropological, and historical records, we’ve learned that human beings have always wondered about our origins and the purpose in our lives.

Humans have felt a profound need for meaning in their often challenging lives and have sought an understanding of their place in the infinite cosmos. They have asked existential questions like, “How did I get here?” “Why am I here?” “What am I all about?” Those questions have spawned beliefs in deities and the stories that compose religious scriptures.

Humans seek to understand their existence and many want (need?) to believe there is an overriding purpose in life beyond everyday commerce and consumerism. They look for meaning beyond the material in life, something uplifting, transcendent, even transformative.

Over the centuries millions have found solace in a Supreme Being, especially in times of crisis. They have found inner peace and security in their worship of and personal relationship with God.

But others have turned away from religion. Perhaps they recognize only the physical world, or they’ve heard of prelates who sinned or of brutalities perpetrated in the name of religion. If people cannot find spiritual answers in religion, they look elsewhere for fulfillment or meaning.

Spiritual enlightenment and feeling “at one with the universe,” can be achieved through contemplation and serenity on the one hand and via intense experiences on the other. These can involve evocative group activities, challenging physical accomplishments, profound music, romantic experiences, awe-inspiring art, magical scenic vistas, intense prayer, psychedelic drugs, and other sources which can induce transformative mind-altering states.

Searching for our place in the cosmos has a special impetus now because of the remarkable photographs from the Hubble telescope and other astronomical photographs. Aside from being beautiful and awe-inspiring, they show how we humans on “spaceship” Earth are infinitesimal particles in an incomprehensible vastness of countless galaxies and universes.

In these circumstances, if there is no all-powerful God overseeing our existence, then what is there, if anything? Even if there was the “Big Bang,” we wonder “What preceded that?” “How?” “Why?’ What preceded the building blocks of atomic particles, dark matter, and microbes, or that intense pack of energy that preceded that seminal explosion?

There are as yet no definitive answers to the existential questions from the sages of physics, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, or other spheres of wisdom. The newly aloft James Watt Space Telescope, much more powerful than the Hubble, is now seeking answers to these questions of our origins.

Ironically, both religious and nonreligious people are allies in pursuing these answers. Spiritual experiences of wonder and awe open our minds to other possibilities that might exist within ourselves or in outer space. This wonderment enables new ideas, perceptions, and rationales in our existence.

A sense of believing (one of the Four B’s, along with being, belonging, and benevolence) is an important determinant in evaluating the worth of our lives. Beliefs might be in a God or religious tenets, or in codes of ethics, humanistic values, or benevolent interpersonal principles.

Understanding the meaning of life may be beyond our comprehension at present and may ultimately prove unachievable. But the fact that we have an unending human need to study these elusive mysteries—of our origins, our purpose, and our worth—defines us as human beings.

This inherent need propels us into space, the laboratory, new inventions and discoveries, creativity in all the arts, and…

Read the full article in Psychology Today

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