Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
What is religion? What is spirituality? Are the two at odds with one another? Or can a person be both spiritual and religious? And can a person truly be one without the other?
Earlier this month, Amy Julia Becker wrote a piece for the Huffington Post in which she eloquently and persuasively lays out the reasons why religion and spirituality are not at odds with one another. She explains that she needs the freedom of spirituality and the authority of religion in order to “remember or discover meaning and purpose” within her day-to-day life.
“[R]eligion and spirituality are not opposed to each other,” she says. “Rather, they are two poles on a continuum, and both reflect the human need to know God’s presence and to experience the deep rest and purpose that comes from that knowledge.”
I can’t help but notice, however, that religion is frequently portrayed as the bad cop to spirituality’s good cop in the religion versus spirituality debate. Religion is the rule-setting parent; spirituality is the free-loving older sister. Religion is standardized tests; spirituality is an independent study course. Religion is a curfew on prom night; spirituality is trustful permission and keys to the car.
Discussions about religion and spirituality tend to focus on religion as a structure of rules, judgment, rituals, and inconvenience, and certainly some religions do prioritize these components of their theology. But what these characterizations miss is the fact that, at its heart, religion is about community. It is about accountability to oneself and one’s community, not just to God. It is about support and friendship and love given from one’s religious network, not just from God. It is about respect and faithfulness to one’s neighbors, not just allegiance to God’s will.
Groundbreaking studies revealed in the book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us show that religious Americans are generally nicer, happier, better citizens. Religious Americans tend to be more generous with their time, talent, and resources to both religious and secular causes. They are more likely to join volunteer associations, attend public meetings, and respond more compassionately when others wrong them.
But, perhaps, the most startling revelation in the book comes from studies showing that good neighborliness and happiness is attributed not to theology, but rather to religious communities. According to the book’s authors, Robert Putnam and David Campbell, data reveals that “communities of faith seem more important than faith itself.”
Churchgoers are not hardwired to be more generous and nicer people; instead, being part of a religious community promotes altruistic acts. Religion fosters accountability, not through God-fearing rules or antiquated rituals, but through supportive and encouraging faith communities.
A strong faith network affects neighborliness and generosity even more than the frequency with which one participates in religious activities and spiritual practices. In other words, it is a faith-based social network formed through simple things like making friends at church, chatting at coffee hour following church service, joining a small group, or even discussing religion or theology with friends and family that is a far greater contributor to the level of generosity and altruism that person exhibits than the frequency with which a person attends worship services. In fact, according to Putnam and Campbell, an atheist who is socially involved in a church community is more likely to volunteer than a believer who worships in isolation.
Religious communities – like all communities – have their drawbacks and my own faith in organized religion is frequently called in doubt. But accepting a religious community requires the recognition that a religious community is flawed, just as each of its human components is flawed. It is not the commission of mistakes, but the response to the mistakes, that matter.
Religion is not about regular Sunday church attendance. Religion is not about making the sign of the cross or genuflecting or saying the “Our Father.” Religion is not even about a devout and unwavering belief in God.
Religion is about deliberate and intentional behaviors and practices within a faith-based community that allow grace, compassion, love and forgiveness to thrive. Religion is about drawing on the support of God through the presence of a supportive community. Religion is about the awareness of the things in our life that may be out of sync with living a graceful and grace-filled life, and purposefully trying to correct those flaws.
By refocusing religion on the communities that it creates, we can rid ourselves of the characterizations of fear, judgment, and rigidity that many of us have come to associate with religion. We are free to create our own definitions of what it means to engage in spiritual practices within a religion. Spirituality and religion need not be “two poles on the continuum,” but spirituality and religion can be part and parcel of each other, each of which is sustained by a vibrant community.
Religion is often associated with regular church attendance and, for some, worship services are a crucial part of their personal religious and spiritual practices. For others, religion need not be so narrowly defined. For the past four years I have been part of a small faith group – there are about five of us – that meets monthly over dinner to talk about God and social justice, personal struggles and work stress, emotional failures and successes, spirituality and religion. Some of us go to church on a regular basis, many of us don’t. Some of us believe in God, some of us doubt. What we lack in rules and rituals, shared beliefs and theology, we more than make up for through our supportive, intentional, contemplative, and grace-filled community. And it is in that community, that our group is religion.