Collie Creating
Codex Firestarter

What is spirituality, as compared to religiosity?

by Collie Collier
October 2004 Firestarter column

First a few quick notes I'm very happy about. This is my One Year Anniversary Firestarter article -- yay! I'm very excited about that. Also, October is my birthday month, which is another reason I'm happy, as I really enjoy celebrating birthdays and holidays -- wish me a wonderful upcoming year, eh? Finally, I've got a big public and official Collie thank you to all the wonderful folks who've given me feedback over the last year!

Thank you!

The past year has been full of interesting people giving me much-appreciated feedback and editorial commentary on my Firestarter articles and book reviews. I can't tell you how much that means to me -- you're all wonderful. However, I'd like to take a moment to thank two people in particular, who commented faithfully on nearly every single thing I wrote -- wow!

Lou & George, you're both champs! Any published author would be proud to have editorial help like yours, which means I count myself incredibly fortunate to have you both helping out. A big hug and a cheer to both of you -- I hope you enjoyed the thank you gift from me! You deserve it, and I wish I could do more to show you how great you've been.


So, on to the spirituality/religiosity question! Let's start with a nice definition of religiosity, so we have some idea of what we're talking about here:

Religiosity: exaggerated or affected piety, which is: righteousness by virtue of being pious, which defines as: having or showing or expressing reverence for a deity, devoutly religious

Someone I know once asked me why I disliked Christians so much. It took me a while to answer, since I didn't feel it was really an accurate question regarding my true dislikes. Furthermore, my feelings on religion have been changing and refining throughout my entire life.

I finally answered by stating a version of the following, which I've cribbed from my final Firestarter article for the eZine Interregnum:

Succinctly, it is not Christians I don't care for. I know several intelligent and thoughtful Christians, just as I know several believers in Wicca, Buddhism, and Islam whom I find interesting, mentally challenging, and/or inspiring.

What bothers me is people who either expect or allow others to think for them. I have no respect for people like that, regardless of whether their parameter of mental laziness is ivory tower elitism, religiosity, or any other speculative framework designed to assign responsibility for their lives to anyone but themselves.

A little bit of history repeating

To be quite frank, I thought the original incarnations of Christianity, like most early versions of the "great" religions of today, initially showed fantastic potential in their promotion of tolerance and kindness to minorities, independent thought, and women.

Unfortunately in every major religion I know of, somewhere between the religion's creators and today, each of them took a sharp turn away from the original teachings and devolved into something unsurprisingly reflective of the extant status quo, and unpleasantly hostile to independent thought, women, and minorities:

A long-standing fascination for me has been how religion is frequently used to justify a society's institutions. Specifically I find myself... curiously examining how religion is often applied within a culture to justify objectivisation and oppression of women... a culture's religion, as interpreted by men, is used to keep women from power and to maintain the status quo, ... [I try] to discern if it is religion alone which is societally manipulated in this fashion, or if religion is perhaps manipulating society.

That's why I don't really care for any of the big religions of today, including (not just) Christianity. I don't like what all these formerly thoughtful, kind, reflective religions have become. For lack of a better term I refer to them as "organized religions."

Appropriating religion

What is an organized religion? It's when a religious sect or cult grows enough to become part of the power structure of a culture, and thus invested in helping maintain the status quo -- even if its initial charter was to change an unfair balance of power in that very culture.

It is an originally-sincere spiritual quest appropriated over time by society's leaders and twisted into something rigid and unforgiving, often hypocritically secular -- so that religious dogma must be slavishly followed even in defiance of common sense or integrity. It demands the sacrifice of personal honesty for public proclamations of, or tithes to, blind, thoughtless faith.

In sum, it is when a religion has become more a pillar of the status quo than an aid in the quest for individual enlightenment. For a clearer explanation of this societal trend, see my paper on Women & the Early Church, which traces this unfortunate progression in Christianity.

Two modern-day examples of the secularity of organized religion: President Bush recently asked the Pope (the leader of another nation) to put pressure on Catholic bishops in the United States to support Bush's presidential campaign by speaking out against same-sex marriage and encouraging a Constitutional amendment on marriage.

Will Bush be asking the leaders of the various European countries to try coercing Americans of European descent to vote for him too?!

At about the same time, some American archbishops tried scaring their parishioners into not voting for pro-choice politicians by stating (as the archbishop of St. Louis so clearly put it), "Catholics cannot vote for candidates or policies in support of abortion and be worthy to receive Communion." How disingenuous of the archbishop of St. Louis to claim he was not trying to influence the election in Missouri, but rather was just "teaching the faith."

What were these people thinking? Were they thinking at all?! Thank goodness there's at least someone saying this is a bad idea. The Reverend James Halstead (theologian and head of religious studies at DePaul University) should be commended for noting such behavior can only be called, "poor pastoring, counterproductive, and questionable theology."

I don't know of a more clear mockery of Jesus' words than actions like these, which painfully demonstrate secular lust for power pimping religion for its own purposes.

Making god in man's image

For that matter, let's think about the religions themselves objectively: the deities of most organized religions are nothing more than romanticized versions of what the society idealizes. Worse, most deities have the manners of spoilt children. What does that say about us and our societies?

Now there's an interesting means to select a truly healthy, kind society for us to try emulating: we should examine how the society's deities treat each other and their worshippers. Those deities which allow no competition; which have no real need of their worshippers; or who crush millions without care or remorse (it's for their own good, really!), are probably ugly reflections of painful, vicious, or damaging hierarchies existing within the society itself.


All right, if religiosity bothers me so much, how do I see spirituality? Do I have a fluffy New Age definition, or something which excludes all the "great" religions?

Well, no. For me, spirituality is what all the organized religions started out as. It's trying to find honest Truth and personal integrity in your life, no matter how long the journey. It's actually searching for the divine, the inner Light, one's personal Truth, or whatever you want to call it; and doing so alone if necessary.

What religion you are part of is not as important as that you seek the path of enlightenment -- however you may define that personal search for apotheosis.

I suspect this particular search is a path less taken, but I also suspect the recompense can be far more rewarding. Almost every religion I know has some element or sect within it which allows one to individually and honestly seek enlightenment. Admittedly, it's viewed as heresy in places, but I suspect that small personal inner voice won't be denied forever, no matter how draconic the restrictions of dogmatic ritual and obsessive clergy.

Understanding ourselves

For completeness, let's look at a dictionary definition for spirituality as well. Doing so helped clarify religiosity; let's see if it helps here too:

Spirituality: concern with things of the spirit, which is defined as: a fundamental emotional and activating principle determining one's character; any incorporeal supernatural being that can become visible (or audible) to human beings [like god or angels theoretically can, for example]; the vital principle or animating force within living things

Clearly spirituality can exist anywhere someone is genuinely searching, and it encompasses personal integrity and building character. It lends itself well to individual exploration, even if you're a member of a huge religion. Rituals of spirituality, from what I can tell, are honest and individual, even if the ritual is originally of an organized religion. We all find meaning in different ways as we seek an inner Truth, and we all take our own paths towards that goal.

Searching for understanding

For some, spiritual enlightenment can be found in the beauty of a sunset; for others in artistic creation; yet others find it embodied in a church or temple. What is important is we pursue our own individual integrity, not that we slavishly follow any particular ritual we're told to follow.

These individually significant rituals take an infinite number of forms. Finding your personal rituals for seeking spiritual awakening will calm and center you, and help you deal sanely with life. Keep in mind, however, they're the means, not the ends, to apotheosis; their purpose is to prepare your mind or Self to find your own personal enlightenment. Mine had to do with horseback riding, oddly enough:

[H]orse-back riding was where I found and claimed my particular spirit, where my personal soul or deity could be found. It was just myself and a large, friendly mammal to carry me effortlessly into the countryside, where I could find inner peace in my contemplation of the horse, the team the horse and I made, and the lovely scenery around me. And wasn't a powerful part of this experience the ritual that led up to the actual ride?

True, sometimes I did not look forward to pulling on my boots, hiking out to catch the horse, cleaning and grooming it, tacking it up... but by the time I finally got out and was riding, didn't I somehow feel more 'right,' more in tune with the world around me? And conversely, wasn't the ritual of returning to the barn, untacking the horse, picking out its hooves and washing it down, a similarly slow but satisfying return to the concerns of the real world?

It was a surprising, pleasing realization -- riding horses out in the country was where I felt most at peace, most integrally a vital, connected part of the world. I wonder how often we dedicate ourselves, perform, and perfect our rituals... and never even realize it?

Internalizing understanding

That's the difference between organized religion and spirituality, for me. The former justifies and maintains what are often cruelly damaging cultural hierarchies, by stifling free thought or any questioning of the status quo. They deny truth, trample the inherent dignity of the human spirit, and refuse personal growth or honesty.

The latter -- spirituality -- is a sincere and on-going quest for enlightenment, nirvana, one's personal Light or Truth or Oneness with the All -- which requires oppression of none, but rather ennobles and sometimes uplifts its seekers-of-truth.

Sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky, doesn't it? ;-)


For the longest time I assumed an increase of reason and education would slowly but inevitably clear away the dusty, clinging cobwebs of stifling religious dogma. What I couldn't figure out was why it wasn't happening faster -- did people really want to be fleeced and herded thoughtlessly about by manipulative clergy claiming they had the only One True Way? What was wrong with us? Why wouldn't this pesky, short-sighted "god" concept just finally go away?

It took a long time for me to work out a personally acceptable, intelligible answer to those questions. First I had to realize the pleasure of mythic mystery, which could be appreciated on its own -- the interesting "truth" of a good story lies in its allegorical applicability to life, not in scientific cause and effect.

Then I had to learn the difference between organized religion and spirituality, thanks to a wonderful, fascinating series of classes on the bible. I also eventually realized religions didn't always have to stifle, thanks to the perceptive Bishop John Shelby Spong's wonderful and intellectually challenging books -- in particular Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism and Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

The final step was a book titled, appropriately, Why God Won't Go Away to finally show me what was actually happening, and why it was a very good thing indeed. You should read it yourself, of course, but in a nutshell, the book postulates spirituality is bred into us as an unexpected side-effect of an evolutionarily beneficial, socializing trait. Spirituality is our desire to feel an honest Oneness with the All -- and we can feel it by learning how to reach within ourselves.

So, in effect, our deities really are within. They always have been, waiting patiently for us to discover them and, through them, ourselves. The Greatest Journey Ever, the pursuit of the Magnificent Enlightenment, is still that most amazing, terrifying, confusing, wondrous, rewarding search of all -- the quest to Know Yourself.

As was said in the final strip of the lovely Calvin & Hobbes comic, "Everything familiar has disappeared! It's a magical world... let's go exploring!"

I can't wait to see what we find out.

Reader comments

08.03.04: Kathy's thoughts

(and some replies from me)

My searching has at least found a home base (I don't think I'll ever stop searching though; it's more of a journey than a destination). A bit more than five years ago I joined a Unitarian-Universalist church locally. The heritage is Christian, but the Unitarians broke free hundreds of years ago because they don't believe in the divinity of Christ and Universalists because they don't believe in Hell.

So we are "heretics" in both the religious and original (think for yourself) senses of the word. American UU's (the two churches joined forces early in the 1960's) are somewhat more eclectic than our European counterparts (adding elements of many other spiritual traditions), but the main philosophy is still "think for yourself." I describe it as "dogma-free" religion!

Okay, that makes sense. I always wondered where the UU's came from, but it was one of those "someday when I have time I'll try researching it" kinda things, you know? Thanks for teaching me something new! ;)

I think one of the main issues in most religions isn't that they are "organized" but that they have become a major part of an important world culture and thus have evolved into a "power player" so to speak. Most, if not all, religions started out as spiritual teachings, but morphed into some other beast as they gained more and more power.

The first priority of any powerful entity is to stay powerful, even if it means betraying inherent principles. (There may be a few exceptions out there, but not many.) And those who are most invested in keeping power are the most opposed to independent thought and allowing "others" (usually women & minorities) to have any power.

Hm. I've obviously not sufficiently clarified the nature of "organized" in the Firestarter article, then, since that's the most major part of it. Once the religion (or whatever institution) becomes part of the status quo, it's invested itself in helping maintain that status quo -- even if its original charter was to stop or change the status quo!

One comment I have to make is about your phrase "speculative framework designed to assign responsibility for their lives to anyone but themselves." I agree, in principle, with what you are saying, though in my experience there is a very fine line in there somewhere between that and "everything in your life is your responsibility." It has taken me too many years to learn to let go of issues that I have no control over and be able to trust that I'll be able to handle whatever comes. (And believe me, I'm still learning...)

Well, you do realize you've in effect disqualified yourself from your own argument, right? Here, let me walk through it and make sure I've got this right... ;)

A) If you believe everything in your life is your responsibility, then you have to take ownership of it.

However, B) if you believe there are some issues you have no control over, you cannot logically believe everything in your life is your responsibility, and you cannot take ownership of those issues you cannot control.

Therefore, C) you would seem to believe
some of the things in your life are your responsibility, and some of them are uncontrollable by you and thus beyond your responsibility.

This being the case, D) you don't have to worry about falling into the category of those who believe in a "speculative framework designed to assign responsibility for their lives to anyone but themselves" because you do take responsibility for those things in your life which you feel you can control!

How's that for a pseudo-logical exercise? Did it make sense or is it just silly? ;)

It is sad that so many people seem not to want to think for themselves... Simply too much effort? Or one of my pet peeves: too turned off of thinking from school experiences that often punish original thinking and are designed to foster conformity and acceptance of "one right answer" given to them by an authority figure...

I admit, I'm always freshly horrified when I find someone who's willingly -- sometimes even gladly -- handed over their precious free will to someone else. It's hard for me to believe anyone would be emotional sheep enough to do that, you know?

Admittedly, I don't have a lot of respect for those who think "free will" equates to "right to be an asshole" either, but at least they're
trying to think for themselves, even if only clumsily. Maybe they'll get better, but I doubt the emotional sheep will grow up, alas.

I can't personally speak to the issue with school experiences, though, for two reasons. First, I'm sick to death of whiney people who have deliberately stayed emotional children, who wander around bleating about how their miserable lives aren't their fault -- because they're the "victims" of the public school system!

Yeah, riiiiight. If that's the case, how come they've not lifted a finger in the decades since then to improve themselves?

Second, from what I can tell, study after study shows the absolute best indicator of high grades and a good educational experience isn't anything to do with how rich or organized or suburban or whatever the school system is. The best predicator is, quite simply: parental involvement.

My parents were keenly involved in my education (sometimes to my dismay ;), and made sure I had access to the best education they could find for me. So my educational experience was really good, despite the huge variety of schools I was enrolled in through my life.

Here's a quote I think you'll like, though, about education and stifling original thinking:
By the time the average person finishes college he or she will have taken over 2,600 tests, quizzes, and exams. The 'right answer' approach becomes deeply ingrained in our thinking. This may be fine for some mathematical problems, where there is in fact only one right answer.

The difficulty is that most of life isn't that way. Life is ambiguous; there are many right answers -- all depending on what you are looking for. But when we think that there is only one right answer, we'll stop looking as soon as we find one.
-- Roger von Oech, A Whack On the Side Of The Head

Regarding education, I was fortunate, I guess -- somewhere along the line I was infected with the insidious meme of enjoyment of learning. Heck, let's admit it freely -- I
love learning cool new things! ;)

I will have to add those books to my (ever expanding) reading list. They sound very interesting...

Cool! I always love encouraging folks to read fascinating and thought-provoking books! ;)

08.12.04: Lou's thoughts

The Firestarters are generally more interesting to provide feedback on than the reviews. Most of the reviews are, "Well, yeah, it's a book review."

As usual, you'll probably need to have this and the article open to make sense of it, as I'm going to make commentary as I read.

  • One year anniversary: Wow, has it really been that long?
    Yeppers! Been an awful lot of fun. ;)
  • Birthday: Happy birthday, in advance. =)
    Thank you! ;)
  • Thank you: You're welcome!

It's very good that you've got a definition for religiosity there.

Hold on, I have to go read this again from the top. I'm not sure I understood it. From the comments at the bottom, it's clear that I'm missing something (this does not surprise me. I often have little understanding of "spiritual" things).

Okay. The section on Religiosity is perfectly clear and makes the problems with any organized group of power-wielders clear, be they religions or governments. Now to read the second half again.

You asked, "Do I have a fluffy New Age definition?" Do you think you do or not? "...searching for the divine, the inner Light, the Oneness..." that could sound kind of New Agey to me, but not excessively so.

It's hard for me to describe the beginning of a new cult, within its excessively-rigid home culture, without sounding judgmental. Sorry, this is as good as I get.;)

Of course, I may not actually understand the concept of what's being discussed here. I don't think I've ever had an experience like you describe. I'm not sure I even fully understand what it is that is being described. I've heard a lot of people in a lot of places describe similar things, and have only wound up feeling somewhat lost and confused. The words make sense, but the feeling they're trying to convey eludes me.

Having read it again, it makes as much sense as I think it will. You are clear in what you've found and what you believe and what you're trying to say. I don't think I completely grasp what you're saying, and my missing an important referent to it is not your fault. I don't know how to correct this, and occasionally it worries me. Usually I don't think about it.

10.01.04: Jonathan's thoughts

I've been reading your October Firestarter and one thing caught my interest. I'm wondering about this quote in particular:

"What then with the millions we have sent to hell if these norms were not valid?"

You found it arrogant, which on first blush I found arrogant as well, but I'm wondering if the context of the priest's comment might have been a different one.

Certainly to say 'What about all the people we sent to hell based on these norms?' would imply that the person is thinking that they actually sent people to hell based on those norms. But what if the context was subtly different? What if instead he meant that people were sent to hell because they followed those norms rather than did not obey those norms? Which is to say, what if because of those teachings, people who followed them were sent to hell? It casts the phrase in a somewhat sadder light, rather than one of pure arrogance.

However, me being who I am, I do not know the original context and the priest was probably bemoaning the fact that they had consigned so many people to hell already because of these norms, how would it look if we changed our mind?

That's a good point -- your 'twist' on the potential context of the quote is not one I'd thought of. However, while it makes the priest's statement somewhat more emotively tragic for the priest, I'm not sure it doesn't still contain the seeds of breathtaking clerical arrogance.

In effect, what the statement would seem to indicate is a belief that their god is so simple-minded that it can't figure out on its own whether or not someone should be sent to hell or not -- and so the clergy is necessary to somehow rubber-stamp approval on a soul so 'god' knows it's bound for heaven.

Is that not also incredible arrogance, even if of another sort?

Oh, on that I fully agree. Moreover I can't picture any deity giving that kind of power to fallible, temporal mortals, which is why I find the doctrine of excommunication so additionally baffling.

Hear, hear.