It’s a question I hear quite often. People will tell me that they like their “everyday” friends more than their spiritual or religious friends. They can easily relate to the former, but the latter – even for people with advanced formation in things spiritual – are hard to be around. They say or do things that are odd, or they act in ways that seem inconsistent with their beliefs. They are overbearing, intrusive, or engage in any of a number of less than well adapted behaviors. We tend to assume the problem is spirituality or religion. In truth, the problem is your friends and their religion or spirituality.
As I approach the twentieth anniversary of my ordination and enter into my thirtieth year studying world religions and spirituality, I can tell you without hesitation that none of the great religious traditions contains a teaching that says, in effect, “go forth and be an obnoxious fool.” Despite that, we have more than enough self-identified pious folks doing precisely that. What’s the deal? Who is to blame? Are religion and spirituality the problem, or is something else at work?
The truth is that religion and spirituality aren’t objective truths. There is a lot of wiggle room in both, and both are tied to human development. In other words, they can be understood at the developmental level in which the individual currently resides. It’s perfectly appropriate for a child to believe that Jonah was really in the belly of a whale. It’s problematic when adults believe that to be literally true. We also know that not every adult achieves the ability to process abstract thought. This means that a fair amount of what passes for religion or spirituality in our world today has little or nothing to do with any of the historic traditions.
Whether we are talking about more traditional expressions of religion or the more recently born expressions of spirituality, there are charlatans on every corner. Most of them are out to empty your wallet. Their methods differ, including overtly sexualizing their spirituality, claiming special powers or some advanced level of attainment (especially enlightenment/awakening), self identifying as a guru, seeking to charge people for having lunch with them at their request, and a host of other similar scams. If we just step back for a moment and look at their actions objectively, we can see through them quite easily. If we wouldn’t accept certain behaviors from the person who does our taxes, we shouldn’t accept them from a spiritual or religious leader! The fact that I claim to be following the teachings of a spiritual tradition doesn’t mean that I actually am following those traditions. Con artists, including those who con themselves, exist in every corner of life.
The truth is that every last human being is spiritual, whether or not they identify as spiritual. Even your “secular” friends are spiritual (in that they are trying to find meaning in life), the difference is they don’t run around carry on about how spiritual they are. To paraphrase a popular meme about depression, before you dismiss all spiritual and religious folks, be sure you aren’t surrounded by assholes. They often hide in spiritual clothing.