About eighteen months ago I read Alain Du Botton’s Religion for Atheists. I’m not an atheist, but I like exploring philosophy from different perspectives. It’s a fascinating book, and I recommend reading it. The most important thing is that it considers religion as a social phenomenon. What do religions do for people that atheists miss out on? What could atheists learn from religions? Good questions. That got me thinking about the relationship between religions as structures, and spiritual practice.
What is a religion? In essence, it’s an organised human response to the idea of divinity. Ways of thinking about deity, ways of relating to it, pleasing it, serving it and so forth accumulate around a religion. Habits of behaviour, ways of thinking about the world, dress codes and all manner of other things get drawn into the mix. Things that started as a way of connecting to the divine (I assume!) can turn, over time, into ways of participating in a system that is all about other humans and has precious little sacredness in it. When a religion becomes more about its own structure than about spiritual experience, something has gone wrong.
I’m fascinated by religions, by ideas and practises from all over the world. I’ve read widely, and been lucky enough to meet people from all kinds of backgrounds. I see quite often a disconnection between the spirituality of the individual, and the institution of the religion. Mark Townsend’s struggles with the Anglican Church are a case in point. Mark is a deeply spiritual man with a deep love of Jesus and a troubled relationship with the Church. One only has to look at Mark’s work to see the separation of belief from formal religious structure.
Religions offer us off-the-peg ways of expressing and exploring faith and spirituality. They make it very easy to show up and look the part without ever needing to engage meaningfully at all. In fact, the way in which spiritual experience takes power away from authority figures puts spirituality at odds with religious structure. If you can experience the divine directly, you don’t need the religious structure. There are financial implications to that. Big organised religions tend also to be financially busy, and independent believers are less likely to fund them. There’s a huge tension between the financial needs of a religious institution and the spiritual needs of the individual sometimes.
Whether your path is shaped by a formal tradition or not, I think to be spiritual you have to do a lot of figuring out on your own terms. You need to explore what it means to you. Spirituality is about experience and seeking the divine. You can do that in a religious framework, but entering a religious framework does not guarantee that you will be walking a spiritual path. If all you engage with is the surface, you’ll miss out on a lot, irrespective of which religion you are drawn to.
Following on from that line of thought, I set about trying to unpick what it is that religions do, from a spiritual perspective. How do they function? What does a spiritual person making their own path need to know? Most Pagans are, to some degree own-path folk and we don’t have the same structures as many religions, but we can learn by looking at them. There’s also a lot more diversity of religion out there than exposure to Judeo-Christian traditions might suggest so I’ve tried to give a sense of the range and plurality. There are many ways of being a spiritual person, inside a religion or purely on your own terms. If you feel some tools for deliberately working on your own path may be helpful, do saunter over and have a look at Spirituality without Structure http://www.amazon.com/Pagan-Portals-Spirituality-Without-Structure/dp/1782792805/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_1_pap?ie=UTF8&qid=1383822624&sr=8-1&keywords=spirituality+without+structure