By Inas Younis
07 September 2018
Do you identify as spiritual but not religious? If so, you are certainly not alone.
According to a recent Pew Research report, one-fifth of the adult population describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. That’s a 15 percent increase from five years ago, and the percentage goes higher the younger you are. The “I am spiritual but not religious,” trend is the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S.
Metaphysical speculation coupled with the advancement of neuroscientific studies on consciousness, starting with the psychedelic experimentations of Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary in the early 1960, led even great traditionalists like Huston Smith to conclude that we are all essentially connected. Any serious practitioner or student of spirituality will tell you that identity and separation is a worldly accretion; a mere delusion.
At The Spiritual Level, Where Our Souls Reside, We Are All One.
This orientation towards existence, however appealing it might be, has become the impetus behind countless social movements designed to tap into our “true nature” where love is the ultimate and only reality.
The truth, however, is unfortunately a lot less romantic. Except for the brief and transient moments during intense prayer (an annual event at best, not to mention a private one), most of us do not live in the infinite spiritual space of a mystical reality where we are all One. And, our mind’s default mode is that of separation, not blissful oneness with the universe.
To be in a state of connectedness always is a full-time job properly reserved for the monastics. Most of us live and operate within the objective reality bound by natural laws that are pretty indifferent to our metaphysical speculations. A world where a solid identity, not cosmic energy, is the currency by which we negotiate our way through this world.
Ego and Identity
Identity is what separates us from one another. Ego makes us feel good about it. The co-dependency between these two psychological conditions is inescapable. We should not engage in futile attempts at obliterating either. The very attempt to do so can become a pathological act of egoism.
Worldly attachments to our identity and ego are a fact of nature that can only be mitigated through the mechanism of organized religious devotion, formulaic rituals and art; not through self-negation.
The holy Quran says in chapter two verse 31;
And He taught Adam the names of all things.
To name something is to give it an objective definition. It is to place limitations upon it, to in essence, DE-spiritualize it. God has one hundred names, of which only 99 are revealed to us, because God cannot be constrained by definitions. He has 99 concrete attributes and just one mystical and infinite name that cannot be pronounced.
Man, on the other hand, along with all of creation, was taught to name things and to define them, to individuate self from other. This is the status we are being assigned while on this earth. The need to access a higher consciousness is the celebrated greed of the mystic who loves God so much that he wants direct access to him, or that of the sceptic who wants proof of his existence.
But, we were designed to function in a finite limited space for our own good. When we are no longer faced with infinite possibilities and confined by definitions and laws, we are not only able to move more efficiently, but to do so with direction. Without these limitations, we might move into the farthest reaches of the universal consciousness but will get nowhere here on earth.
Going in all directions, obliterating the boundaries and impositions of religion in the interest of tapping into an ultimate reality can be psychologically suicidal. Spirituality unaccompanied by religion should be a phase in life, not a way of life. To be spiritual and not religious is not to be. This is my humble observation as someone who has not only immersed herself in these teachings but also enjoyed their short-lived effects.
To Worship the Divine
We all need to go through the various stages of spiritual growth. We all should freelance life, however briefly, before we make a firm commitment to a set of convictions, to a religion, a community — an identity. And, we all need a safe religious space to do just that. But, we must recognize that we cannot worship God as a non-entity, as spiritual being devoid of volition happily subscribing to the metaphysical world where “We and He” are one.
At some point, we must conclude with the soul searching and develop a sense of who we are. To worship the divine “We,” we must first become the mundane “I.” This is the only way to dethrone the ego and put it in its proper context.
As the world renown, religious scholar Huston Smith once said, “Organized religion is institutionalized spirituality. Institutions are messy, but show me a pretty government. Healing is wonderful, but the American Medical Association? Learning is wonderful, but universities?”
According to Smith, religion is more than a string of experiences. As someone who was both a universalist and an advocate of organized religion, Smith offers us a more balanced view. Religion he says, “…cannot be equated with religious experiences, neither can it long survive their absence.”
Inas Younis is a Kansas City-based freelance writer and commentator. Her opinion pieces and personal essays have been published in various websites and magazines. Inas is an active volunteer in several interfaith initiatives and serves on the board of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. She is also a contributor to a forthcoming 400-page community-led guide, aimed at mobilizing Muslims to take a stand against violent extremism and develop narratives of peace. Her work was featured in an anthology titled “Living Islam Out Loud.”