What may it mean to be religious?

Many individuals . . . balk at the word religious
because they take it to imply conformity
with institutionalized teachings and practices. . . .
Loyal Rue
We are not suggesting that our readers
agree with or adopt our meanings,
but only that they understand them.
Ursula Goodenough
and Terrence Deacon

What is the difference between a religious attitude toward the world and a nonreligious attitude?
That is hard to answer because . . . people who use the concept do not agree about precisely what it means.
      Ronald Dworkin 

We can begin by contrasting “religious” with “religion”.
Loyal Rue proposes that a religion is a cultural entity, grounded in meta-narratives indicating how things are and which things matter, which offers personal wholeness and social coherence to its adherents.
A religious person . . . may or may not self-identify with a religion.
Rather, a religious orientation encompasses three spheres of human experience:

(1) The interpretive sphere (a.k.a. theological, philosophical, existential) describes responses to the Big Questions, such as, Why is there anything at all rather than nothing? Does the universe, or my life, have a Plan? a Purpose? How do I come to terms with death? Why is there evil and suffering?

(2) The spiritual sphere describes such inward personal responses to existence as gratitude, awe, humility, reverence, assent, transcendence, and at-oneness.

(3) The moral sphere describes outward communal responses such as care, compassion, fair-mindedness, responsibility, trust, and commitment.
            Ursula Goodenough

I regard a religious or spiritual person to be one who takes ultimate concerns to heart.
The important difference between religious (spiritual) persons and nonreligious (nonspiritual) persons is a matter of attitudes.

The difference between a religious theist and a nominal theist is that the former takes God to heart.

Likewise, a religious naturalist differs from a nonreligious naturalist by virtue of his or her suite of attitudes: the religious naturalist takes nature to heart. . .

Items taken to heart have significant potential for changing something fundamental in a person’s life. Taking something to heart suggests that the thing is being treated as vitally important, that something is being put into play as a central element. If I take something to heart I invite it to have some measure of transformative power, I take active ownership of it, or I defer to it at a deeply personal level. Items taken to heart become part of what one apprehends as wisdom . . .
      Loyal Rue

We come to life in this world, marked by our evolutionary history and heavily influenced by impulses we do not fully understand and by contexts we cannot fully control. And it is in these circumstances that we strive to discover meaning and purpose in our lives; to build creative cultures and secure societies; and to realize the good, the true, and the beautiful.
These are religious and spiritual activities, and we work out our salvation, our liberation, and our enlightenment as we pursue them.
      Wesley Wildman

When one has ‘visited’ (seen) a wide range of religious life, from all parts of the world and throughout human history, it becomes apparent that religion is a way of life that involves many processes – all of which, in different ways, are directed to a common end. The goal is to reach a state of being that is conceived to be the highest possible state or condition. Religion is the general term for the various ways by which people seek to become changed into that highest state. We understand religion as a means toward ultimate transformation. By this we are not claiming that every activity you think of as religious will transform you ultimately. It means that any reasonably specific means that any person adopts with the serious hope and intention of moving toward ultimate transformation should be termed “religious”.
      Frederick Streng, Charles Lloyd, and Jay Allen

Now what are the feelings and needs that have led men to religious thought and belief in the widest sense of the words? . . .

With primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions – fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death.
Since at this stage of existence understanding of causal connections is usually poorly developed, the human mind creates illusory beings more or less analogous to itself on whose wills and actions these fearful happenings depend. Thus one tries to secure the favor of these beings by carrying out actions and offering sacrifices which, according to the tradition handed down from generation to generation, propitiate them or make them well disposed toward a mortal. In this sense I am speaking of a religion of fear. . . .

The social impulses are another source of the crystallization of religion.
Fathers and mothers and the leaders of larger human communities are mortal and fallible. The desire for guidance, love, and support prompts men to form the social or moral conception of God. . . . The religions of all civilized peoples . . . are primarily moral religions.

There is a third stage of religious experience . . . I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. . . .
The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. . . .
The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image . . . Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints.
            Albert Einstein

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.
To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.
      Albert Einstein

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude;
in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.
      Albert Einstein

There must be something solemn, serious, and tender about any attitude which we denominate religious. If glad, it must not grin or snicker; if sad, it must not scream or curse.
      William James

Different people are “religious” in different ways.
      Chris Schlauch

. . . consider Molly’s religious piety. It is likely that no one else has religious beliefs and experiences that are precisely identical to hers. . . If Molly is, say, a Christian, then her Christianity is like no one else’s.
      Loyal Rue

religion is very similar to music . . .
though all human beings can effortlessly recognize music and religious concepts, there are profound individual differences in the extent to which they enjoy music or adhere to religious concepts. The fact that some religious notions have been found in every human group does not mean that all human beings are naturally religious. Vast numbers of human beings do without it altogether . . .
      Pascal Boyer

someone . . . may be like what Max Weber called “religious virtuosi,” “great figures of religious history”, for whom religious or faith life is dominant, more or less constant and enduring. Such geniuses have what one might liken to a special gift, as a musician having perfect pitch.
      Chris Schlauch

The religious attitude . . . accepts the objective truth of two central judgments about value.

The first holds that human life has objective meaning or importance.
Each person has an innate and inescapable responsibility to try to make his life a successful one: that means living well, accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others, not just if we happen to think this important but because it is in itself important whether we think so or not.

The second holds that what we call “nature” – the universe as a whole and all its parts – is . . . something of intrinsic value and wonder.

Together these two comprehensive value judgments declare inherent value in both dimensions of human life: biological and biographical.
We are part of nature because we have a physical being and duration: nature is the locus and nutrient of our lives.
We are apart from nature because we are conscious of ourselves as making a life and must make decisions that, taken together, determine what life we have made.
      Ronald Dworkin

I shall take these two – life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty – as paradigms of a fully religious attitude to life. These are not convictions that one can isolate from the rest of one’s life. They engage a whole personality. They permeate experience: they generate pride, remorse, and thrill.
      Ronald Dworkin

Mystery is an important part of that thrill. William James said that:
Like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse [religion] adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.
The enchantment is the discovery of transcendental value in what seems otherwise transient and dead.
      Ronald Dworkin

The universe is no longer a mere It to us, it is a Thou, if we are religious; and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here.
      William James

My religious attitude connects me to the universe, to humanity, to all living and non living things. It informs how I go about constructing an ethical framework grounded in things like gratitude and humility, reverence and awe, compassion and tolerance.
      David Simonton

. . . the religious sensibility opens up an expansive and inspiring vision of the numinous world of which we humans are a part and for whose continuing well-being we have special responsibility. This special responsibility may not be a gift from God . . ., but it flows from our manifest human ability – by virtue of our intellectual capacities and technological competencies – either to do considerable harm to the other creatures of nature or make substantial contributions to their protection and support.
      Donald Crosby

Typical of religious outlooks and experiences are an openness to and grateful reception of unearned, unplanned, unexpected mercies and gifts . . ., a sense of forgiveness and self-forgiveness for past wrongs and new hope for the future; the eventual attainment of a strangely restful, deep-lying assurance, confidence, and joy concerning oneself and one’s role in the world; and the desperately needed but mysterious gift of empowerment for undertaking and seeking to realize pervasively important, life-defining goals and ideals for oneself and for others – and for being able finally to make significant headway in doing so in the face of the potentially debilitating seductions, menaces, and frustrations of evil lurking in oneself, in others, and in social institutions.
      Donald Crosby 

Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul. . . .
      William James

Spirituality begins in movement – away from what we come to see as unreal, painful, disappointing, trivial, or meaningless and toward the ultimate, true, vital, real, or sacred.
      Roger Gottlieb

As taught by virtually every religious tradition (though not always as their dominant message) and as embraced by countless individuals . . ., this is what we hear:

You are not who you think you are, and you do not have to live the way you think you do. You carry within yourself a capacity for self-understanding, acceptance of whatever life offers, generosity, spontaneous moral behavior, and love. These are the essential promises, the gifts, of a spiritual life.

However, in order to realize these gifts you will have to give something up, something which right now you seem to believe is the most important thing you have. Spiritual development is not possible without a transformation so intense that it may feel like a sacrifice of your very identity, a kind of death. Which, in some sense, it is.

You need to surrender your attachment to what Taoists call the “ten thousand things,” meaning all the world’s attractive and repulsive physical objects and human relationships; what Buddhists call samsara, the illusion that getting what you want will make you happy; what Christians sometimes describe, not approvingly, as “the things of this world,” (1 John 2:15); and what we secular moderns might call your normal social self, ego, or personhood.
            Roger Gottlieb

In all these settings of suffering, disappointment, or emotional unease, we are instructed to practice what I call the “spiritual virtues”: mindfulness or awareness, acceptance and equanimity, gratitude and generosity, compassion, and loving connection to other people, nature, and God. The core spiritual belief is that these virtues are the only way to achieve enduring contentment and goodness in the face of life’s challenges and that they will benefit both the person who manifests them and everyone around her. Spiritual virtues have this power, it is taught, because they are in some deep sense right for who we are. As the oak tree needs a particular combination of sunlight, water, soil, and climate, as fish need the ocean, so human beings need spiritual virtues.
      Roger Gottlieb

There are countless . . . ways in which spiritual illumination may enter our lives. But despite the different circumstances in which they arise, they all share some common features:
…..acceptance of reality rather than resistance to it,
…..gratitude rather than greed for more,
…..compassionate connection to other people rather than isolation, and
…..a profound, joyous, nongrasping enjoyment of life.
If you have ever extended a simple kindness when you are suffering yourself, chosen to feel grateful rather than deprived, understood how much we share despite our differences of culture or ideology, then even if you have never used the word, you have a firsthand experience of spirituality, which simply is the manifestation of such spiritual virtues.
      Roger Gottlieb

Spiritual experience doesn’t count as a special way of knowing,
but rather a special way of being.
      Michael Battenberg

[Stewart] Guthrie understood that the cornerstone of any religious life is religious experience.
      Joseph Bulbulia

. . . whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances made in [science], is moved by the profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence.
By way of the understanding he achieves a far reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason, incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious in the highest sense of the word.
      Albert Einstein

It is . . . a feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe. . .
There is in this neither a will nor a goal, nor a must, but only sheer being.
      Albert Einstein

We feel centered, calm, and peaceful. We have confidence, clarity, curiosity, creativity and courage. We sense connection with that which is both within us and beyond us.
   Marjorie Hall Davis and Karl E. Peters

I had the sense that I was intimately connected to everything –
the sky, the trees, the grass, . . . the garden walls.
It was as if everything in the universe was in its proper place. . . .
I was filled with a sense of peacefulness that I had never known before.
        “Kevin” quoted by Anthony Newberg.

I was suddenly arrested . . . by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light. . .
I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There are no words to convey the moods of those moments. I dreamed that for a moment time stood quietly, and the vision of this actuality became but a shadow of the greater world . . .
      Ansel Adams

I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world . . .
      Fyodor Dostoevsky

Religious acts . . . are acts of intense commitment and resolute faith. They inform at the deepest level of one’s existence of how one conceives of oneself and the universe, how one lives, and what one aspires to become.
      Donald Crosby

A religious worldview can serve as “an action guide for a meaningful life”.
      Joseph Runzo

. . . to borrow a phrase from Jesus of Nazareth, we’ll be known by our fruit. . .
Our witness isn’t what we say we believe or even what we think we believe. Neither is it the image, pose or posture we try to present to others. It’s what we do, what we give, what we take and what we actually bring to our little worlds.
        David Dark

I am religious precisely because I make an effort to live and act in deliberate, reflective accord with my worldview.
      David Simonton

Although spiritual social activists . . . certainly want to win – pass the better law, overthrow the repressive regime, end discrimination – they also believe what they do has value even if they do not succeed. In standing for the moral truth as they see it, they have faith that they are embodying the same force of life and love that has brought them, and everything else, into existence. This sustaining force may be called God or the Tao, Nature or the Great mystery or the Goddess.
This faith offers no certainty of success or happiness. . . But spiritual activism is not about ease or happiness . . . Rather, it is about a vital affirmation of existence – that the painful combination of good and evil, justice and oppression, miraculous and horrific is worth loving and fighting for. Even if a particular campaign or battle is lost, even if the entire future is bleak, we will not surrender to the forces of cruelty and insanity. By some mysterious cosmic calculus, it matters what we do.
      Roger Gottlieb

Why bother about spirituality?
Well, why bother about love or beauty?
It is part of the richest flavor of life.
. . .
But you had better go into it with your eyes wide open –
somehow combine or alternate between the engaged and the skeptical attitudes.
Jerome A. Stone