In Defense of Religion

“I’m spiritual, not religious.”

We hear this everywhere these days, particularly from Millennials. In fact, over one-third of the one-fifth of adults in this country who are religiously unaffiliated say it.

Spiritual-not-religiousers typically aren’t very specific when it comes to explaining what they mean by “spiritual.” They most often appeal to a rather vague belief in a transcendent reality of some sort or a diffuse sense of awe at the majesty of the cosmos.

They’re much clearer about what they mean by “religious.” For them, the word refers to “institutionalized” faith traditions that, they contend, demand unwavering acceptance of certain tenets, prescribe narrow codes of conduct, and practice ritualistic rigmarole. They believe that religion as practiced in churches, temples, and mosques enchains the mind with formulaic doctrine, burdens life with joylessly puritanical norms, and belabors the spirit with incomprehensible liturgy.

I get and even partly sympathize with the point spiritual-not-religiousers wish to make. No honest religionist can deny that religious institutions are capable of spiritual atrophy, arrogant intolerance, arcane ritualism, and heart-breaking scandal. Institutions, religious or otherwise, are human artifacts, and thus always susceptible to corruption.

Still, despite the fact that religion can go bad, I’m unwilling to throw it over for the sake of an amorphous spirituality—much less one that, as I point out in my book Giving up god…to Find God, runs the risk of being little more than a projection of personal desires and prejudices. Embedded within religion at its best is a depth and richness that’s folded into the word’s very meaning.

The English word “religion” is derived from the Latin “religio,” which for the ancient Romans denoted ritualistic obligations to God. But etymologists are split over “religio’s” roots, debating whether it derives from “relegere” or “religare.”

In his On the Nature of the Gods, the pagan philosopher Cicero favored “relegere,” which means to ponder, examine, or peruse. The Christian theologian Augustine, on the other hand, plunked down in his City of God for “religare”: to bind, fasten, or tie together.

Although a lot of ink has been spilt since Cicero’s and Augustine’s day on this etymological debate, it seems to me that religion in its most authentic form is a marriage of both “relegere” and “religare.” Recognizing this might make spiritual-not-religiousers a bit less dismissive of religion, and religionists a bit more appreciative of the inner meaning of their traditions.

The “relegere” dimension of authentic religion invites us to ponder the wonderment that fills us when we contemplate the starry heavens above and the moral law within. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why am I here? What kind of person ought I to be? These are the core musings that fuel religion. They impel us to dare to dive below life’s shallows, plumb its depths, and draw ever nearer to the Divine Mystery.

Religious creeds, which spiritual-not-religiousers dismiss as inflexible dogmas, are efforts to express our human ponderings about the universe and the God who created it. They don’t pretend to be exhaustive. How could words ever capture the ultimately unknowable essence of God? They are, instead, guideposts.

Creedal ponderings are essential aspects of authentic religion, but they’re not sufficient. The human soul isn’t just curious about God and God’s work. It also yearns for total, unqualified connection with the divine Source that pulsates at reality’s core. As Augustine said, our hearts are achingly restless until we rest in the God of love. Otherwise, we’re incomplete.

This is where the “religare” dimension of religion comes in. Authentic religion facilitates the loving connection with God that we crave. Although distrusted by spiritual-not-religiousers, religious rituals tie us to God by reminding us, in concrete, lived ways, of God’s abiding presence in our lives. They help us bind ourselves ever more closely to the God who, in turn, gladly offers himself to us.

The “religare” dimension of religion also clues us into the all-important fact that our ultimate fulfillment requires a loving connection not just to God but to the entire community of believers as well.

Spirituality-not-religion is often radically individualistic. Religion never is. It keeps us mindful that we’re children of a common Parent who loves us all equally. We’re bound by the deepest of familial ties to one another and to God, a fact acknowledged whenever we worship together. Religious moral codes, which spiritual-not-religiousers see as stultifying, are efforts, subject to continuous pondering, to help us honor our connectedness by loving one another as God loves us.

So, to my spiritual-not-religiouser friends, peace be with you on your journey. I wish you Godspeed, and I’m sure our paths will occasionally cross.

But I’ll stick with religion.

Fr. Kerry

Fr. Kerry Walters

Holy Spirit ANCC (Lewisburg, PA)

This piece originally appeared in Huffington Post, January 2017.

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