Can we be spiritual but not religious?

by February 20, 2013

Answer Summary: Yes, if by ‘spiritual’ we imply open-mindedness and by ‘religion’ close-mindedness. No, if by ‘spiritual’ we refer to a state of consciousness and by ‘religious’ a process to achieve that state of consciousness.

Answer: The intention underlying this desire to be ‘spiritual-not-religious’ is laudable, but its application is questionable. Usually the intention is that we should be broad-minded, not narrow-minded. That intention is fine, but is the underlying implication true? Is it true that spirituality makes us broad-minded and religion makes us narrow-minded?

These two terms “spiritual” and “religious” have so many connotations that without specifying their meaning, we can’t have any productive discussion. Let’s focus on what these words normally connote in the ‘spiritual-not-religious’ usage: ‘spiritual’ usually refers to the experience of the higher, deeper aspects of life, whereas ‘religious’ refers to the adherence to certain beliefs and rituals given in a specific tradition. The implication is that spiritualists are open-minded because they are open to higher experience, whatever be the way they get that experience. But religionists are close-minded because they stick only to the way given in their own religion and deride or dismiss the ways given in other religions.

The Vedic wisdom-tradition points to an intriguing relationship between spirituality and religion. It explains that spirituality is meant to help us develop love for God. This is done through a harmonious combination of philosophy and religion, which constitute the two rails on which spirituality runs. The philosophy aspect of spirituality involves the study and understanding of matter, spirit and the controller of both, God. And the religion aspect involves the following of certain rules and regulations that help us realize and experience higher spiritual truths.

These two aspects of spirituality are strikingly similar to the two aspects of modern science: the theoretical and the experimental. Science’s theoretical aspect involves formulating hypotheses to explain the observable phenomena within the universe; it is similar to the philosophy aspect of spirituality. Science’s experimental aspect involves the following of certain rules for regulating the laboratory environment so as to verify the hypotheses; it is similar to the religion aspect of spirituality. Thus, spirituality can be considered to be a higher-dimensional science – higher-dimensional because it deals with a reality higher than that dealt with by material science.

Let’s see how this understanding of spirituality as a combination of philosophy and religion illumines the ‘spiritual-not-religious’ issue. Just as science requires some kind of experiment to be complete, spirituality requires some kind of religion to be complete. That is, spiritualists who want higher experiences need some process to get those experiences consistently. And that process would be their religion. So, to be spiritual, one would have to be religious in some way or the other.

Does this imply that one can’t be ‘spiritual-not-religious’?

Literally yes; essentially no.

In essence, the desire to be ‘spiritual-not-religious’ is the desire to be ‘open-minded-not-close-minded.’ The Vedic wisdom-tradition acknowledges that there are various ways to gain spiritual experiences, culminating in the experience of love of God. The philosophy aspect of the tradition help us sees the various great religions as authorized ways of progressing towards love of God. So, although it requires seekers to be religious if they want to be truly spiritual, it does not mandate close-mindedness but encourages open-mindedness.

The Health Analogy

Let’s use the analogy of health to understand this. The Vedic wisdom-tradition states our present materialistic state of consciousness is a diseased state, referring to it as bhava-roga. It recommends various processes like chanting the names of God that can take us back to our healthy spiritual state of consciousness and refers to these processes as cikitsa, treatment. The tradition is clear that the healthy spiritual state is not some vague misty feel-good experience, but is the steady state of being in which one loves God undistractedly. And the diseased state is the state of loving anything other than God. Significantly, love of God is also the universally accepted common goal of the world’s great theistic religions. The Christian saint St Augustine puts it well in one of his prayers: “You have made us for you, and the heart never rests till it finds rest in you.”

In this health analogy, the philosophy aspect of spirituality explains what the healthy spiritual level is and the religion aspect provides the means to rise from the diseased material level to the healthy spiritual level. Srila Prabhupada states the inter-relationship between these two aspects: “Religion without philosophy is sentiment, or sometimes fanaticism, while philosophy without religion is mental speculation.”

Let’s take a closer look at the three parts of this statement:

  1. Religion without philosophy is sentiment: When there is religion without philosophy, people don’t have the intellectual framework to know what the actual spiritual level of consciousness is and to check whether they are factually experiencing it. So, they may stay sentimentally satisfied with whatever practices they have acquired from their present culture or past tradition, even if those practices don’t actually make them spiritual. A common result of such sentimentalism is the naïve acceptance of all ways as more or less equal: “You have your way and I have mine. There are as many ways as there are people.”
  2. Religion without philosophy is sometimes fanaticism: Just as people can be healed by different treatments, people can become lovers of God by practicing different religions: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, for example. The decisive test for a religion is whether it enables its followers to become spiritually healthy, to become lovers of God. In this light, religious fanatics are like narrow-minded proponents of a particular medical therapy who are ready to destroy the books and the infrastructure associated with other therapies. Worse still, they are even ready to kill those taking and giving other therapies. Religious fanaticism is a titanic and tragic misunderstanding that arises from the lack of a proper philosophical understanding.
  3. Philosophy without religion is mental speculation: The objective standard of love of God as the goal of religion enables us to choose among various religions just as we would choose between various medical treatments. But it doesn’t make religion per se optional or dispensable. Without taking treatment, we will never become healthy. Similarly, without practicing religion, we will never develop love for God. The Bhagavad-gita (9.2) confirms that religion (dharma) brings about such realization (pratyakshavagamam).

Many people merely read a lot of spiritual books, either as a hobby being uncommitted spiritual explorers or as a profession being academic scholars. But they don’t practice any religion. Consequently, they rarely realize, or experience as a reality, the subject that they are reading. By their refusal to practice any religion, they deprive themselves of such realization. So, their thoughts and talks about spirituality remain airy mental speculations without tangible connection with spiritual reality.

This discussion on ‘philosophy-without-religion’ applies to our discussion on being ‘spiritual-not-religious.’ If those wanting to be ‘spiritual-not-religious’ deliberately avoid religion in terms of not adopting any religious practices, then they will remain mental speculators. They may occasionally get experiences that they consider ‘spiritual’ but they will gain no lasting transformation of heart and so will not find enduring fulfillment in life.

However, if they want to avoid the close-minded mentality associated with being religious, then they can adopt those religious practices that allow them to be open-minded about other religious practices. Krishna consciousness certainly encourages that open-mindedness. So, in that sense, Krishna-devotees are ‘spiritual-not-religious.’

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  • Sudha Mehta
    February 20, 2013 at 10:03 pm

    Wonderful explanation Prabhuji. Often people in social circles are heard quoting “better to be spiritual than religious”. Your logical explanation rubs out all the doubts that are stocked up in head. Haribol. Hare Krsna

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