I have been asked, a couple of times, for my opinions about current events by a national polling company; the name of which I agreed not to publicly divulge. After each telephoned interview, they have asked my religious affiliation in the form of a multiple choice question. There are only a few choices: 1. A member of a protestant Christian church 2. Roman Catholic 3. Muslim 4. a follower of an Eastern religion 5. agnostic or atheist and 6. spiritual but not religious. My answer, both times has been spiritual but not religious.
The spiritual but not religious category is misunderstood and derided by both the religious and the atheist camps. Some believers dismiss this current category as another way to say “I hate labels.” Some non-believers claim that spiritual but not religious people are actually closeted agnostics and atheists.
This category has increased the level of dispute in the already very contentious subject of religion. There is a notion that spiritual but not religious is some sort of collective subculture or social movement. Some religionists claim that spiritual but not religious people are merely religious dillitantes. This is an easy deduction since people who identify with this category are often members of younger demographics.
The way I see this category is simply that spiritual but not religious is just a fancy way of saying “miscellaneous”. There are people who really do not care one way or another for religion or spirituality. For some reason, the social conditioning just did not “take”. There are other people who practice some sort of non-mainstream religion or aboriginal spiritual belief system. There are many who are agnostics or atheists but do not want to deal with the harrassment from religious true believers.
Although I have taken refuge in Vajrayana Buddhism, my path is more nuanced than that. It seems, more and more, that spiritual but not religious applies to me, as well. I do not feel unconditionally welcomed by the larger Christian nor Islamic belief systems. Even though I investigated Judaism for a few years, I was not born into the faith nor are there many practicing Jews in my part of the country. I’ve investigated non-traditional religions and the New Age movement but, in the end, they were unsatisfactory, too.
Through the eons of time, most religions claim that individually, they are the one true path to salvation, or liberation, or paradise. Many are so convinced of this, that they harm or kill people who disagree with them or have open minds. These days, we see this happening in the various theocracy movements at home and abroad.
It is because of these and other reasons, that I have come to the conclusion that it is unwise for me to self-identify with any particular religion or “wisdom tradition”. All I need to do is observe the Earth’s geological structure, climate, weather patterns, living organisms, people, and the clear night sky to understand that our efforts to define or enforce particular beliefs is limiting and destructive.
No matter how strictly people adhere to particular belief systems, at our cores, we are still ourselves. One can change belief systems or “see the light”, yet that self, whatever it is, remains. A fixed belief greatly limits our capacity to grow. A fixed belief becomes a filter, through which one views the Universe.
There is an old saying that says, in effect, a person is wise to ride a raft across a river and is wise to not carry the raft, anymore, once the river has been crossed. I take this to mean that belief systems can be good tools to use in life, but we must not lose sight of the fact that they are tools. I discovered that equating my identity with any particular belief system was a seriously disempowering mistake.
The belief system filter is only a filter. Each filter allows us to view life in some important way. If I identify with only one filter, I cannot identify with people who identify with other types of filters. My understanding of other people and myself is greatly restricted by identifying with only one filter. Attachment to viewpoint limits my ability to authentically connect with people who view life through different filters. Hence, attachment to view curtails my personal power.
The temptation to self-identify as a believer in religion X or political alignment Z is overwhelming. Whenever I have succumbed to any particular belief, my life became less satisfactory, my choices were dictated by “belief correctness”, and I lost objectivity while observing the Universe.
Instead of saying, “I am a Muslim” or “I am a Christian” or “I am a libertarian”; I can say, “I understand the precepts of Islam” or “I understand Christian theology”, or “I have learned the objectives of libertarianism”.
When someone asks if I am a Christian, or a Buddhist, or a liberal, I sometimes reply that the question doesn’t make any sense. I am a conscious being, not a religion or political belief. I have had deep personal experience with these belief systems, but they are only filters. I can place a filter over the lens, that focuses my vision to help me see where somebody is coming from. I can then remove that filter and use another filter to see where yet another somebody is coming from.
Having plenty of filters in my “camera bag” increases my ability to understand and to work with other people. If I say or write, “I am a Buddhist”, it is because I use the sentence as a convenient aspect of language. It is not what I “really” am, deep inside.
In other words, I have tapped into more inner power. This inner power enables me to encounter that deeply frightening thing, true freedom. I can temporarily use whatever filter I need instead of being restricted by the most popular or the most coercive filter. Then I am free to put the filters away, then open up to the clear vision in front of me.
So, no, I do not hate labels. Labels are convenient tools to help us communicate in a coherent manner. Labels are just another way to say “filters”. I just do not mistake filters for who I am.