I was raised an atheist. My parents were careful to explain the importance of respecting other people’s religious beliefs but they didn’t see the point in us knowing anything about religious practice. Certainly we never celebrated or ritualized our beliefs.
But the idea of religious practice fascinated me. I had beliefs that were important to me: evolution, environmentalism, love, respect for all individuals in their glorious diversity. I wanted to share those beliefs, I wanted to celebrate them with a community.
Over the years I have met many people who described themselves as spiritual but not religious. When I describe this desire to them, they get excited and say that I should do like they do. But generally what they mean by “not religious” is that they prefer to practice alone. And usually what they mean by spiritual is that they have invented their own supernatural entities to worship or commune with.
This is usually why they practice alone ; they want to claim their right to imagine the supernatural in their own way. That is exactly the opposite of what I have always wanted. To me a community of practice is central to my desire. But it is the supernatural that I don’t need.
I wanted a community of practice which would help me stay focused on living my values. I wanted a community of practice with which I could collaborate on projects which were meaningful to me. I wanted a community which would celebrate Life because we have so much to be thankful for. I didn’t want a community which would extole suffering in the natural world. I find dreaming about a better supernatural world to be an ugly ungrateful attitude.
The community that I longed for is exactly what I eventually found in the SolSeed Movement. When I found them shortly after Imbolc 2012, they had already developed a rich practice completely grounded in the natural. The practice was participatory, what Unitarians might call lay-led, and so before long I found myself leading services. I felt welcomed to suggest new practices. Together we continue to create a rich calendar of practices.
Our practices are designed to help us viscerally connect with the values we have chosen together. We needed a clear statement of our values so we wrote a creed. We settled on a call and response form which creates a feeling of social transaction, something our species responds to with loyalty. It begins with our most fundamental tenet, “Life is precious.” Often I have whispered that to myself when I have felt angry at some money grubbing power ; it reminds me to value the Life in them and to offer them a new path rather than oppose them with hatred.
We believe that “Life is precious” is a principle that can be applied at every scale. At the personal scale, it calls us to live a healthy, joyous Life. So as I write this I am also riding my stationary bike, training for the Yay Life Tri, a triathlon we run together to celebrate the Summer Solstice. Taking advantage of economy of scope we gave the Yay Life Tri a second purpose, to remind us of the preciousness of Life at the other end of the scale ; we arranged the events in an order reminiscent of evolutionary history. Swimming then running then bicycling reminds us of Life originating in the sea, emerging onto land and then inventing technology. We, humanity, are part of the body of all Life and so Life invented technology through us.
We needed to build a tightly bound community so we meet every Sabbath for a service. We involve all ages together from our youngest 2 year old member to our oldest, approaching 50. We have an opening ritual that varies through the seasons as we follow our Cosmic Calendar. Some of the actions that go with the words are designed to be meaningful to the youngest among us. But as the oldest member, I enjoy flapping my arms to celebrate the birth of flight. It feels like being a kid again and I can use the excuse that I’m only doing it for the kids.
We wanted our modern naturalistic traditions to taste of ancient tradition so we incorporated the best of other traditions into our practices. Our service is celebrated on the Jewish Sabbath. We encourage each other to practice daily meditation as in the Buddhist tradition. Our holy days fall on the same dates as the pagan holy days reminding us both of ancient tradition and modern astronomy as we travel through space on the Earthship. We use religious terminology with guilty pleasure to describe our naturalistic liturgy.
We didn’t want a religion that only looked to the past. We wanted a religion that dreamed and strived for a better future. We looked for the biggest difference we could make in the universe. We saw a universe where living worlds were rare and special amidst myriad barren worlds of ice and rock. We have created a vision together of bringing Life to those worlds. We don’t have the deep pockets or know-how of NASA yet but we are searching for little ways in which we can contribute to the larger space movement. Our practice includes that search.
A decade ago, the facilitator of a time management course encouraged me to look deep inside myself for my core-values. When I did, I found that I had a set of values distinct from those of my colleagues and friends. I found that with thought and time, I was able to create a logical whole out of the diverse values inside me. Then by stepping forward and talking about those values to strangers, I was able to find my way to a community that shared my values.
So I encourage everyone to look deeply inside yourselves and discover what it is that you value. Then do the work to find others who share those values and join with them to form a community of religious practice. As a naturalist, seek to be religious not spiritual!
Eric Saumur is a contributing member of the SolSeed Movement with a deep love for Life but especially for trees. He writes science fiction (mostly about forests) which he posts on the SolSeed wiki. He spends as much time as possible admiring wilderness and dreaming about the stars. He also helps coordinate a community garden and enjoys dreaming up rituals to celebrate the SolSeed liturgical calendar.
2 thoughts on “Why I’m Religious but not Spiritual”
“So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”
— Fyodor Dostoevsky
“When man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.”
— G.K. Chesterton
“There is a God-shaped hole in the human heart that only God can fill.”
— Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
Thanks for sharing your perspective Will. I think it is interesting to question whether the hole exists because of God … or God exists because of the hole.