Often people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Understandable. Religion, after all, has some notorious drawbacks. Intolerance, divisiveness, sanctimoniousness, irrationality—to name a few.
But what does it mean to be non-religious? I’ve just started reading Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” and came across his intriguing definition:
Tentatively, I propose to define religions as social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.Interesting. And persuasive to me. Not least because this definition by a professional philosopher meshes nicely with my “turn on or tune in?” distinction.
Turn-on’ers believe that through prayer, worship, penances, meditation, or other practices it’s possible to ring some sort of cosmic doorbell and grab the attention of a higher personal power. Once you get that being’s approval, you’ve got it made. Next stop, heaven! (or paradise, nirvana, etc.)
Tune-in’ers, by contrast, consider that if there is a higher power beyond the physical, it is universal, not personal. Just as you only have to tune to the right frequency to hear what’s on a radio station carried on public airwaves—no winning of approval from the broadcaster required—so is God believed to be on an open channel (the trick is to find it).
So, following Dennett, there’s a simple test for telling whether you are religious: are you seeking the approval of a supernatural agent or agents?
This could be a god who hears people’s prayers, a departed incarnation of divinity such as Jesus, a living guru with miraculous powers, an angel who watches over you, or any other godly being with whom you believe it is possible to have a personal relationship.
Now, I’m not saying that it is a mistake to be religious in this sense. There may indeed be some higher power who is aware of human petitions to him, her, or it, and who dishes out rewards (and punishments) accordingly.
However, I’m betting against this in my own philosophy of life. For since whatever created creation left us with laws of nature that operate the same everywhere for everyone, it seems that this entity is much more likely to be universal rather than personal.
So I’m much more attracted to Buddhism and Taoism, which essentially are non-religious, than to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which by and large are religious. Meaning, the goal of the former is union with universality, while the latter aim at a personal connection with God.
I’m not out to feel special. I used to believe that, in line with Sant Mat teachings, I was among the “marked souls” who enjoyed a unique relationship with God. It eventually dawned on me that I shared that belief with just about every other religious person on Earth.
Now I’m not religious. And I’m glad for it. I prefer the reality of being part of the human crowd to imagining that I’ve been singled out by God for special attention.
Like so many others these days, I feel that the further I flee from religion the closer I come to spirituality.