It’s time to recalibrate: we dissect the gray area between being spiritual and religious
Despite being Catholic-born and raised, my siblings and I tend to skirt around the topic of religion at the dinner table. One would think that politics or love lives would be the most difficult thing to talk about, but presidents with anger management issues, senators with questionable moral compasses, suitors and boyfriends––all of that is easy to unpack with our parents. Agreeable. Zero friction. But religion is a whole different animal: the elephant in the room left unaddressed.
Perhaps the day when I can clearly lay out the full, unfiltered truth about my aversion to organized religion in front of my rosary-carrying, church-going mother will come. Until then, I’ll keep grinning and bearing it, attending mass weekly while sharing lengthy rants about yet another problematic homily or holier-than-thou, religion-backed comments I saw on a Facebook post.
Sorry, Mom. On most days, it feels like a simple enough task. On others, it feels like I could star in a Netflix documentary about living a double life.
“I haven’t subscribed to Catholicism since I was a teenager,” expresses May*, a fellow Filipina in her mid-twenties. “I attended a Catholic school, would go to Sunday service––essentially all the stuff our parents teach us growing up. It wasn’t until I got out of high school that I realized I didn’t like what the Church stands for.” She pauses, then corrects herself. “Or maybe it wasn’t so much what it stands for, but the way people use its teachings to condemn.” Now, May simply believes in the existence of a higher being (God or otherwise), smudges to center herself, meditates.
Unlike May, I still practice Catholicism. However, I do identify as spiritual but not religious––or what the internet has so conveniently condensed into the acronym SBNR. I’ll admit I didn’t know SBNR was a thing until I prepared to write this piece, and to be completely honest, the abundance of Facebook groups dedicated to this like-minded crowd makes me feel a little like a subconscious bandwagoner. Is ditching religion really just another cool, fleeting young person thing?
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I’ve found that there is an interesting divide in the way spirituality is defined. There’s the Merriam-Webster school of thought, which I believe frames my mother’s perspective rather accurately. Spirituality and religion are interdependent, the former a facet or product of the latter. The act of being spiritual rests on the tenets of organized religion: a church, a community, a call to grace.
And then there’s the Apple Dictionary school of thought, which for the most part severs ties to religion. It isn’t atheism, no; instead, this definition fixes its focus on the soul and self, zeroing in on the dealings of one’s heart and mind. Religion and spirituality can coexist and intersect––but neither is dependent on the other.
Despite what the dictionaries tell us, there’s still plenty of gray area when it comes to the concept of spirituality. It’s freeform, which is perhaps why it’s such a puzzling idea to wrap our heads around. Where organized religion carves out unflinching divisions for what makes a good follower, a sinner, a person worth excommunicating––spirituality bends to the will of its wielder.
All of this makes a tough case when viewed from the lenses of charity and community. How do we ensure that being spiritual is enough to bring good into the world? How does a sound soul equate to helping the poor, feeding the sick, clothing the naked?
To put it simply, we can’t. With no definitive covenant to hold people to, there’s no assurance of charity or good deeds. There’s no list of commandments to keep us accountable for our actions or care for those who have less, no sermon to remind us to be on our best behavior and keep ourselves in check, only our own compasses pointing wherever we deem North to be.
“[Spirituality] is abstract, but ironically enough, it affords me clarity,” shares June*, a non-practicing Christian who identifies as SBNR. “There are no rules, only my emotions and what feels right to me, so it urges me to listen closer and pay attention to what I find important instead of what scripture tells me should matter.”
*Names of interviewees have been changed for this article.
Words Cessi Treñas
Art Alexandra Lara