Can you be religious and not belong to a religion? Of course. In fact, I believe this is the only way to be genuinely religious—to give up religion.
This seems contradictory, but one non-religious “religion,” Buddhism, already has proven that it can be done. I’m referring to original Buddhism, that of the Buddha himself.
After the Buddha died, it wasn’t long before his teachings were turned into a traditional religion. However, Huston Smith writes in “The World’s Religions” that few traces of six normal features of religion can be found in the Buddha’s message.
These features are authority, ritual, speculation, tradition, grace, and mystery. Smith says that the Buddha wanted to clear the ground of a Hinduism that had become overgrown with weeds of ritualism and superstition:
The consequence was surprising. For what emerged was (at the start) a religion almost entirely devoid of each of the above-mentioned ingredients without which we would suppose that religion could not take root.
So if you aspire to being spiritual without being religious, the Buddha’s original teachings are a fine model for a “faithless faith.” Huston Smith shows how Buddha turned upside down each of the six features of typical religions.
(1) Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority. He challenged each individual to do his own religious seeking.
“Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. Be lamps unto yourselves. Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the topmost height.”
(2) Buddha practiced a religion devoid of ritual. He argued that “belief in the efficacy of rites and ceremonies” is one of the Ten Fetters that bind the human spirit.
(3) Buddha preached a religion that skirted speculation. He didn’t want his disciples to be diverted from the hard road of practice into fields of fruitless speculation. A disciple observed:
“Whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or not, whether the soul is the same as the body or whether the soul is one thing and the body another, whether a Buddha exists after death or does not exist after death—these things the Lord does not explain to me.”
(4) Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition, urging his followers to slip free from the burden of the past.
“Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings. When you know of yourselves: ‘These teachings are not good: these teachings when followed out and put into practice conduce to loss and suffering’—then reject them.”(5) Buddha preached a religion of intense self-effort. No god or gods could be counted on, not even the Buddha himself. Every individual must tread the path himself, through self-arousal and initiative.
(6) Buddha practiced a religion devoid of the supernatural. Dallying with paranormal powers, he said, amounted to looking for shortcuts, easy answers, and simple solutions that could only divert attention from the hard, practical task of self-advancement.
“It is because I perceive danger in the practice of mystic wonders that I strongly discourage it.”It’s amazing, really. The Buddha, acknowledged as one of the world’s great religious leaders, never set out to found a religion. More than that: he actively discouraged his followers from accepting the usual tenets of religion.
No authority. No ritual. No speculation. No tradition. No grace. No supernatural mystery.
No, no, no, no, no, no. What remains is an emphatic “Yes!” Smith says that the Buddha said Yes to…
Experiencing truth directly
Investigating cause and effect scientifically
Finding pragmatic solutions to life’s problems
Examining the human psyche, not abstract theology
Espousing equality between the sexes and classes
Emphasizing individuals, not social collectives
“Therefore, O Ananda, be lamps unto yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast as a refuge to the Truth. Work out your own salvation with diligence.”