The Religion Problem


No title really seemed to fit quite perfectly, but the "problem" of religion is as good a title as any for the concept of deciphering the issue with distinguishing between religious beliefs, religious practices, spiritual beliefs, and life philosophies. Many describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" or "believers in a faith, but disillusioned with the institution." There is a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed when a person is forced to contradict themselves in order to describe their belief in something, and that is the "religion problem."


The Advanced English Dictionary defines religion and faith using the same definitions, though faith also encompasses a couple of other definitions not included for religion. How is it, then, that we have grown to use the two as though they can be (and often are) mutually exclusive? Part of the issue lies in the inappropriate use of English in general, as we struggle to find a way to explain concepts that are difficult to grasp or define in everyday language. Part of the issue lies in the use of "religion" in a manner that encompasses more than just what the definition actually entails. Yet another part of the issue lies in trying to categorize everything as either a religion or a philosophy, without accepting that a lot of things are not quite so simple to categorize. Perhaps most concerning of all, though, is the apparent issue that religious institutions have created a divide among those who share their core beliefs.

Core Issue: Manifest Destiny versus Free Will

Most debates surrounding the concept of being spiritual or religious tend to center around the difficulty with believing that our story is written, from birth to death, for us. This debate takes a number of forms, and is further compounded by examinations of nature versus nurture from the scientific realm. Generally speaking, we tend to state that those who classify themselves as religious believe in an all-powerful, all-encompassing deity who controls everything about our lives. Traditionally religious teachings emphasized these aspects of God, rendering those who questioned manifest destiny uncomfortable at best or categorized as outcasts at worst. Those who identified with the concept of being spiritual tend to accept that there is a deity who is responsible for the creation of life, but did not accept the notion of manifest destiny.

Core Issue: Rituals versus Belief

Other debates take a more intimate approach and focus on the personal beliefs and feelings of each person. These debates tend to center around the idea that traditional religious organizations have become burdened with simply going through the motions and no longer try to examine and understand the doctrine associated with their belief. We see this all too often in typical churches, where there is a default structure of service and a message based on nothing but the reading and scholarly interpretation of scripture. Again, those who classify themselves as spiritual tend to question the personal application and interpretation of such teachings, wanting to form an understanding of the writings and their meaning instead of simply accepting what someone tells them is right or wrong. This same debate is seen in discussions regarding morality and ethical behavior; as society grows more aware of other views and attempts to become more open-minded in accepting cultural differences, we also tend to question things that are "preached" instead of "explained."

Personal Journey and Interpretations

While this is certainly not even close to an all-encompassing discussion of the topics, the background above should help understand the observations and thoughts that follow.

I grew up in a traditional baptist church, and over time I explored a number of other environments when I became disillusioned with the traditional teachings and views presented. Eventually I left traditional settings behind and pursued self-study, looking at various religions and philosophies from all around the world in search of something that made sense. During that time I began to accept that I fell into the "spiritual, but not religious" crowd and tried to understand what it was that made me reject the traditional notions of any deity, and I found that the primary issues I could not seem to resolve internally lay in the realm of disagreement with moral and ethical choices throughout life versus the concept of manifest destiny.

I've often used the example of describing two different people to provide a basic idea of this dilemma: person one who lives in a manner that most accept as good and just, trying to help others and live according to the teachings of their faith, and person two who lives in a manner that most would consider vile, doing everything possible to hurt others and satisfy their desire for destruction. Person one commits a single act of violence in defense of a loved one, and feels no remorse and asks no forgiveness. Person two lies on their deathbed and asks for forgiveness, seemingly wanting to right the wrongs they have committed over their lifetime. According to traditional views, person one would be condemned while person two would be saved, and this has always been a point of view I could not accept.

While there are many ways to approach the above example, and a number of ways to justify or explain either side, the point is simply to think about what it truly means to be spiritual or religious. It isn't to attend services at an institution or to preach to others at every opportunity; it isn't to proclaim that one person is right and another person is wrong, and it certainly isn't to judge or condemn another person. The true goal of any religious organization, and therefore the definition of what it should mean to be religious or spiritual, is the acceptance and understanding of a deity and their guidance on how to make the difficult choices we face. To this end it should be fairly obvious that there exists, on many levels, a fundamental problem with religion as we have grown to define it through various institutions.