Even a stone cold atheist can feel profound awe as he or she stares up at the stars. Atheists especially understand the scale — tiny human on a rock at the far edges of a galaxy in the middle of a billion galaxies feeling both his insignificance in the greater scheme of things while also being keenly aware that he “is” and therefore can “experience” this feeling of cosmic scale. That awe is spirituality. It’s abstract. It’s a riddle. It’s a quest.
But not everyone wants to go on a quest. They just want to live their lives and leave the heavy thinking to others: Just tell me what to believe and I’ll believe it. THAT is religion. It’s NOT about a journey or a search or an exploration. It’s about following rules. It’s about crowd control.
I grew up in a Conservative Jewish, deeply Humanist culture. That’s the middle ground between rule-following orthodoxy and total rule-rejecting reformed Judaism. In my house we rejected most of the rules. We didn’t keep kosher. Didn’t do any of that whatsoever. We went to shul on an occasional basis (for sure on the High Holidays). Though the ten commandments are a cornerstone of the faith, they’re not complicated. As rules go, they’re straightforward. Don’t do this, don’t do that. One thing we didn’t do — as a religion or culture — the institution (the synagogue) was not set up as your over-seer. Unlike the Catholic church, a synagogue never demanded that you confess every last bit of your dirt to it — so it could hold that dirt over your head in perpetuity.
THAT is how religion works.
Jesus was pretty clear in his message: Do unto others… suffer the little children unto me… the meek shall inherit the earth. He didn’t preach about how he wanted his church hierarchy to be structured because Jesus wasn’t about building churches. He was about teaching spirituality.
I mention this because Jesus is kinda the Poster Child for what happens when a spiritual message gets religion. Doing unto others requires a spiritual connection with the rest of humanity. Confession requires that you feel guilty mostly for just being human.
Isn’t that the whole point of “original sin”?
The Church’s genius — dark genius though it was — was to convince all those billions of people that being human wasn’t good enough. That instead of a spiritual journey, its followers needed to be locked in a box — like a veal being fattened up for slaughter without ever having seen the sun. The greatest threat overhanging any church member is expulsion from the group. Excommunication.
No one, it seems, gets excommunicated for diddling little boys. Question the church’s authority though and you’re gone.
A religious person looks up at the stars and wonders where their imaginary friend lives — and is that imaginary friend spying on them? A spiritual person sees a life-long journey of discovery, all to answer one question: how do I fit into that? How can I make my brief time as a sentient being more meaningful? How can I fill every moment with meaning? How can I…?
Spirituality is the freedom to explore. Religion is its diametric opposite.