My children, now in their mid-30s, have no religion in their lives. Like so many young people today, they have not been associated with a church since their early teens. Yet they claim to be spiritual people. Religion is a means to an end, they tell me. Spirituality is the end, and religion is not the only means. Sometimes religious devotion can even be an obstacle.
Chipping away at the encrusted views of their father, my children enjoy explaining to me the difference between religion and spirituality. Spirituality, they assert, is all-embracing, completely open, and welcoming every mode of experience. Religion creates boundaries: us-and-them boundaries, believers and nonbelievers.
All religions include a mission to convert, to spread their truth, to expand the populace. Some religions actually believe they can convert people with force. The impulse of the spirit, however, is present in everyone. There is no need to convert. The populace already includes everyone.
Religions include dogma, a set of ideas in which the religious must profess to believe. Spirituality is beyond ideas, beyond any activity of the mind. There are no holy books in the domain of the spiritual. Spiritual wisdom is intuitive. It is already present in all of us. If one person appears to be more spiritual than another, it is because that person has a longer, deeper awareness of what is present in all of us. That person has managed to quiet the needs of mind and ego and to rain kindness and caring on everyone.
Religions include laws and rules which historically have been applied to maintain social order, perhaps necessarily. In the spiritual domain, order and justice begin in the heart. Laws are unnecessary. A spiritual person would not think of harming another person or taking something that belonged to someone else or speaking falsely. The threats of earthly punishment and heavenly denial have no presence in the domain of the spiritual.
If religion is not their path to the spirit, then what is? Both my children spend a lot of time outdoors, hiking and camping in remote places. They tell me they feel the presence of God when they are in nature, in the silence of a mountain view or the stillness of the forest. They equate nature, the very thing most of us want to escape from or remold to our use, with God.
Another path to spirituality, according to my children, is seeking out spiritual people. I am consistently impressed with my children’s friends, young and old. They have surrounded themselves with a diverse community of people whose lives speak of compassion, patience, kindness, generosity, and attention to the world around them and to the world inside.
My children would not go as far as the late Christopher Hitchens who proclaimed that “religion poisons everything.” There is a place for religion. For some of us it is a way of deepening our awareness of the values that make us spiritual. But it is limited and not an end in itself. And it is not for everyone. Religious devotion is not the same as spirituality. Maybe the best thing religion, including Quakers, can do is strive to become that community of deeply spiritual people who attract other people and nurture everyone’s path to the spirit.