Defining Religion

In recent years many people have come to distinguish between "religious" and "spiritual". When describing their views, people may say something along the lines of "I am not religious, I'm spiritual" to convey their ongoing engagement with spirituality despite their disaffection with organized religion. This distinction brings up the issue of just what we mean by the term "religion" and how broadly or narrowly we use it. Does religion refer any attempt to engage existential questions? Or does it refer only to organized, institutional expressions of spirituality? This question was the focus of a vote by the Psychology of Religion division (Division 36) of the American Psychological Association, when its members voted on changing its name to explicitly include spirituality. The vote was close, with the membership almost evenly divided. Although the vote fell short of the 2/3rds majority needed to change the name, the fact that a majority voted in favor of the change suggests that many psychologists agree with others who see spirituality as distinct from religion.

Another way that the issue arises comes in the form of groups such as The Brights, who are interested in existential questions but find naturalistic answers more compelling than traditional religious ones. Go to this link where you can read a statement by The Brights and consider whether you would include brights as relevant to the psychology of religion. Do you think that psychologists have something to gain by studying individuals who take the brights' viewpoint? If so, what? If not, why not?


Michael Nielsen said...

A friend who visited was kind enough to tell me that the comment function wasn't working properly- he tried twice to comment on this post but without success. I think that I've found the problem and this is my test to see if it works.

My friend wondered how I define spirituality. Good question!

As I read and talk with people, there are 3 common threads uniting their visions of spirituality. The first has to do with connection. It might be connection with a divine being they see like a Heavenly Father; it might be a deep sense of connection they feel with the world's beauty and mystery; it might be a sense of connection they feel with a spouse or lover. Whatever form it takes, spirituality is about connection with something/one else.

The second is a sense of awe and wonder that touches one's emotional core. It is moving and profound. We lose our sense of self, being caught up in something larger than ourselves.

The third is ineffability. Even though they may be beautiful themselves, words simply come up short in describing spiritual experience.

The things that seem to affect people this way are broader than traditional, institutional religions, but these do seem to be common traits of spirituality. I'm not sure I could ever come up with a satisfactory definition, but in my attempts I'd include these 3 things.

What do you think? How would you define spirituality?

Or to bring it more to the topic at hand, in your opinion, what might be the consequences of including The Brights in the psychological study of religion? How does it help or does it hinder the field?

Looking forward to your comments....

levdtrotsky said...

I think it is important to note that when the vote to change the name of Division 36 occurred, only 150 people voted. Thus it may be a bit hasty to talk about the interests of "psychologists" in spirituality on the basis of such a turnout.

Konchok Yeshe Lhamo said...

In the years I've spent teaching and hosting spirituality related chats online, I've encountered almost unanimous preference for the word spiritual over religious. Many people understand religion in the institutional sense of the word, with all the negative baggage that use entails.

Discussion concensus of whether spiritual is synonymous with religious or not is again, nearly unanimous in the negative. In general, people seem to think that the two terms are often mutually exclusive. i.e. people can be spiritual without being religious and vice versa. I personally believe that a third option -- that of being both religious AND spiritual -- is also possible, and is the ideal melding of the two.

I have been informed (emphatically at times) by students, that spirituality is whatever they say it is -- whatever they believe it to be.

However, as an ordained Drikung Kagyu myself, with clearcut precepts and root vows, my personal answer must be that spirituality is what Root Lamas of my lineage say it is. My personal experience confirms and accepts this.

I have read a number of treatises debating whether Buddhism is a religion, because we do not believe in a supreme deity. I find this arguement very similar to what I assume is the question regarding the Brights' worldview. It is my belief that the heart of belief and practice of either spirituality or religion is to make one's world a better place, whether for one person, or for all sentient beings. The Brights' reliance upon and concern for natural things is not at all new, but has been a feature of many shamanistic cultures for a very long time.

Spirituality, I believe is a way for people to make sense out of an unpredictable, and sometimes unkind world. Religion is the method of organization by which the various systems are defined.

Just a note to address the article I read which mentioned a study showing that mystics did not rate themselves as highly on happiness as did other religious practitioners. The answer is very simple. At the level of the mystic experience, all emotional baggage has been left behind. Sorrow, anger, happiness, desire, or whatever, has been abandoned. With complete equanimity as the ideal state, Enlightenment is transcendence of the finite human mind.

David Johnston said...

You posed a very good question. I'll preface my answer with admitting that I'm an undergrad student in a religious studies program with a very limited background in psychology. All quotes are taken from the Brights' FAQ () unless otherwise noted.

Although I don't think you can classify Brights as being a religion, I do think there could be something useful in studying them and their view point. One thing I noticed in reading their website is that they define themselves as what they are not, supernaturalists, almost if not more times than they make a positive statement of who they are, naturalists. Even their definition of naturalistic cannot avoid being colored with a negative: "naturalistic: conceiving of reality as natural (not supernatural)." This makes them different from most major world religions, which tend to state their identity or worldview in positive statements such as creeds and affirmations of faith. However, the fact that one of their primarily concerns is identifying who they are, as distinct from other groups, and gaining recognition parallels what tends to be the primary concern of a newly formed religion: establish and maintain the group's distinct identity from the group(s) from which they separated. I'm not really sure where identity formation or group identity formation really falls into empirical psychological study, but I think it could be interesting to look at.