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In Defense of Religion

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Everybody seems to be spiritual these days - from your college roommate, to the person in the office cubicle next to yours, to the subject of every celebrity interview. But if "spiritual" is fashionable, "religious" is as unfashionable. This is usually expressed as follows: "I'm spiritual but just not religious." It's even referred to by the acronym SBNR.

The thinking goes like this: being "religious" means abiding by arcane rules and hidebound dogmas, and being the tool of an oppressive institution that doesn't allow you to think. Religion is narrowminded and prejudicial--so goes the thinking--stifling the growth of the human spirit. Even worse, as several contemporary authors contend, religion is the most despicable of social evils, responsible for all the wars and conflicts around the world.

Sadly, religion is in fact responsible for many ills in the modern world and evils throughout history: among them the persecution of Jews, endless wars of religion, the Inquisition, not to mention the religious intolerance and zealotry that leads to terrorism. There is a human and sinful side to religion since religions are human organization, and therefore prone to sin. Frankly, people within religious organizations know this better than those outside of them.

Some say that on balance religion is found wanting. But I would stack up against the negatives the positives: traditions of love, forgiveness and charity as well as the more tangible outgrowths of thousands of faith-based organizations that care for the poor and promote social justice. Think of generous men and women like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
Speaking of Dr. King, you might add Abolition, women's suffrage, and civil rights movements, all of which were founded on explicitly religious principles. Add to that list the billions of believers who have found in their own religious traditions not only comfort but also a moral voice urging them to live selfless lives and to challenge the status quo.

By the way, atheism doesn't have a perfect record either. In No One Sees God, Michael Novak points out that while many atheist thinkers urge us to question everything, especially the record of organized religion, atheists often fail to question their own record. Think of the cruelty and bloodshed perpetrated, just in the 20th century, by totalitarian regimes that have professed "scientific atheism." Stalinist Russia comes to mind. On balance, I think, religion comes out on top.

Still, it's not surprising that, given all the problems with organized religion, many people would say, "I'm not religious." They say: "I'm serious about living a moral life, maybe even one that centers on God, but I'm my own person."

But there's a problem. While "spiritual" is obviously healthy, "not religious" may be another way of saying that faith is something between you and God. And while faith is a question of you and God, it's not just a question of you and God. Because this would mean that you're relating to God alone. That means that there's no one to suggest when you might be off track.

We all tend to think that we're correct about most things, and spirituality is no exception. Not belonging to a religious community means less of a chance of being challenged by a tradition of belief and experience, less chance to see when you are misguided, seeing only part of the picture, or just wrong.

Consider a person who wants to follow Jesus Christ on her own. Perhaps she has heard that if she follows Christ she will enjoy financial success - a popular idea. Were she part of a mainstream Christian community, though, she would be reminded that suffering is part of the life of even the most devout Christian. Without the wisdom of a community, she may gravitate towards a skewed view of Christianity. Once she falls on hard times financially, she may drop God, who has ceased to meet her personal needs. Despite our best efforts to be spiritual we make mistakes. And when we do, it's helpful to have the wisdom of a religious tradition.

Religion checks my tendency to think that I am the center of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.

But religious institutions themselves need to be called to account. And here the prophets among us, who are able to see the failures, weaknesses, and plain old sinfulness of institutional religion, play a critical role. Like individuals who are never challenged, religious communities can often get things tragically wrong, convinced that they are doing "God's will." They might even encourage us to become complacent in our judgments. Unreflective religion can sometimes incite people to make even worse mistakes than they would on their own. Thus, prophetic voices calling their communities to continual self-critique are always difficult for the institution to hear, but nonetheless necessary.

It's a necessary tension: the wisdom of our religious traditions provides us with a corrective for our propensity to think that we have all the answers; and prophetic individuals can moderate the natural propensity of institutions to resist change and growth. As with many aspects of the spiritual life, you need to find balance in the tension.

Religion also reflects the social dimension of human nature. Human beings naturally desire to be with one another, and that desire extends to worship. It's natural to want to worship together, to gather with other people who share your desire for God, and to work with others to fulfill the dreams of your community.

Experiencing God also comes through personal interactions within the community. Sure, God communicates through private, personal, intimate moments - as in prayer or reading of sacred texts - but sometimes God enters into relationships with us through others in a faith community. Finding God often happens in the midst of a community - with a "we" as often as an "I." For many people this is a church, a synagogue or a mosque. Or more broadly, religion.

Overall, as Isaac Hecker, the 19th-century founder of the Paulists, a Catholic religious order, said, religion enables you to "correct and connect."

Being spiritual and being religious are both part of being in relationship with God. Neither can be fully realized without the other. Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community.

That's what I'm warning against.

The Rev. James Martin, a Catholic priest, is culture editor of America.

This essay is excerpted from his new book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything
An extended version of this essay can be found on

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