Religion vs. spirituality

The women with their certificates for completing the course.

I took part in a workshop yesterday at the Colectivo with a group of women who have been doing a learning series on moving towards a new spirituality – one that is inclusive and grounded in feminist principles. We focused on discussing the difference between spirituality and religion.

We were asked to answer the question: What is spirituality?

The answers were beautiful:

Spirituality is the way in which we connect with the divine, in whatever form that may be.

It is that which we cannot see, but that we can feel.

It something that we all have within us.

It is the path towards god.

It is the internal conscience of each person.

It is a practice that connects us with faith and helps us follow the right path.

It is based in justice, respect and equality.

Universal: the golden rule.

Spirituality is personal, isn’t based in doctrine and isn’t dependent on belief in a God. Religion, on the other hand, is organized, is structured and is based in rules and set belief systems. Religion is about hierarchy and power. Many women were prohibited from attending these workshops and from coming to the Colectivo altogether by the pastors of their churches who deemed our work “corruptive”. By the end of the series the group was half the size as when it started. This is what organized religion (often) does, it tries to control people, it is afraid of losing its power, it is afraid of the marginalized becoming empowered and it is afraid of diversity of belief and opinion. Organized religion must have the absolute hold on truth.

This workshop made me think of my own journey, which also could probably best be described as moving from religion towards a new form of spirituality. In high school my rebellious phase was unconventional. Coming from an agnostic, borderline atheist family, I found myself being drawn to Christianity, introduced to a local Christian youth group through a summer camp. I liked the community it offered and the idea of a higher power that loved me and had control over my life. It was comforting that there were guidelines to live by and the world no longer seemed so unknown, so scary.

After high school ended I went to Australia and took part in a missions training school with a very conservative international Christian organization. While there my belief system was uprooted and I found that I could not reconcile myself with their teachings and world views. They believed that homosexuality was a sin and that women were responsible for men’s sinful, lustful thoughts and actions, so we were prohibited from showing our bra straps, from wearing bikinis and short shorts. They believed men were the natural heads of the household and they believed in the literalness of spiritual warfare – that there are demons trying to influence us, tempting us with alcohol, sex and bad thoughts. We were told that the natural disasters happening throughout Southeast Asia, the floods and tsunamis, hurricanes, death and destruction was punishment for the lack of “true belief” in these countries, for the dominance of Buddhism and eastern religions. I do, of course, recognize that these views are not held by all Christians nor by all churches.

As part of this course I spent two months on a mission trip in Papua New Guinea, where we would stand on street corners and profess the miracle of the gospel and that these people just needed to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and their lives would change. I was responsible for keeping a journal recording how many lives we “saved”. I felt troubled. I felt like a farce. I knew they didn’t need a bunch of white, privileged young people telling them they needed our God. They needed better infrastructure, clean water and a comprehensive and accessible healthcare system. They needed a practical and effective means out of poverty. And their own beliefs, in their tribal gods, were no less valid than ours.

It is difficult for me to write about this experience, because my years spent as a Christian and as a missionary are ones I try to distance myself from, afraid of the assumptions and judgements people will make about me if they find out. But looking back I realise how formative these years were, they helped shape who I am today. The teachings of Jesus helped ignite within me a heart for social justice. I left Australia and went on to study religion at a secular university in Canada and continued to be fascinated by the way religion influences us, though from a historical, political and social perspective. From there I completed a Masters degree in Human Rights and continued to travel the world developing a career within this field.

Today I no longer call myself a Christian and I do not believe in the literalness of the bible. I don’t believe in a God that acts in the world and that performs miracles or affects our daily lives. I do not believe that heaven or hell exists. Despite that, I believe in spirituality and in the existence of the divine. I experience it when I sit on my porch here in Nicaragua, looking up at the vast night sky. I felt it when I walked down the aisle towards my husband, holding each of my parents’ arms. I see it in the way my Grandfather selflessly and lovingly cares for my Grandmother.

The workshop at the Colectivo reminded me that spirituality is fundamental to the human experience; it exists within and around us. In a country where there is not much diversity of belief and where Catholicism is so influential and generally not conducive to women’s rights, it is important that the differences between religion and spirituality are discussed. Women need to know that disagreeing with the Church does not mean they need to abandon their spiritual life or their belief in God, however they may conceive of him/her. I am proof of this.

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