Published Oct 10, 12 PM
By Trish Tillman
I’ve seen my fair share of annoyingly self-important sayings from the world of New-Agey pop-spirituality—most likely, you have as well. We could even compare notes. But the other day I saw, emblazoned on a T-shirt, a saying which for me, personally, took the cake:
RELIGION IS FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE AFRAID OF HELL. SPIRITUALITY IS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE ALREADY BEEN THERE.
This made my eye twitch, for several reasons. First off, the dichotomy between religion and spirituality is an old one in the literature of New-Age Lite. Inevitably, it goes:
RELIGION = BAD.
SPIRITUALITY = GOOD.
One problem with this is that it’s comparatively easy to define what a religion is, but almost impossible to define what “spirituality” is. Organized religion entails, for the most part, belonging to a community, paying literal or figurative dues, and formally saying, “Yes, I am this.” Spirituality, on the other hand, could mean almost anything.
I understand that not everyone feels drawn to organized religion.
Some have already been burned by bad experiences from childhood religion, and some have been raised in a secular environment with general moral and ethical guidelines, and don’t “get” why we need religion. When it’s good, religion can feel like a supportive, embracing community; when it’s bad, religion can feel like a claustrophobic array of laws and restrictions.
This T-shirt’s breezy oversimplification of the whole religion vs. spirituality debate is what bothers me: spirituality can be a liberating and category-free way to explore the big questions in life. Or, as in this case, it can be an easy catchphrase to give you feelings of superiority over the unenlightened masses who cling to organized religion. To modify the famous saying, a little spirituality is a dangerous thing.
The idea that spirituality and religion are two separate, mutually-exclusive categories is also false.
Most of the world’s religions have compendious and profound spiritual and mystical traditions attached to them, the result of many generations’ personal experience of the absolute. Arguably, it makes just as much sense to attach yourself to one of these traditions as it does to strike out on your own. To put it in academic terms, why not take advantage of pre-existing research?
Furthermore, this T-shirt snidely implies that those who are religious only practice their faith out of fear of hell. I wonder if the author of this slogan imagined Haredi Jews dourly washing their hands before meals, or Catholics resignedly going off on Ash Wednesday to have a cross daubed on their foreheads. If only they could be free from their dogmatic straitjackets, then they would really live it up, one imagines the author would say.
This T-shirt also indulges in heinous overgeneralization by suggesting that personal trauma somehow promotes spirituality.
In fact, individuals can respond to trauma in very different ways: some people lose their faith after a traumatic experience and become atheists, others seek out alternative modes of spirituality, and still others return to their original faith with increased passion and intensity.
My biggest grievance against this T-shirt, however, is that it devalues other people’s experiences, while putting those of the wearer on a pedestal. It presupposes that the wearer’s suffering has given him or her some kind of searing, personal gnosis which has enabled them to grasp the deeper meaning of the universe. What about those who have gone through difficult, maybe even horrific experiences, but have arrived at other conclusions regarding religion and spirituality? Are they still among the ranks of the unenlightened? Furthermore, as someone who studies twentieth-century history, I can tell you that it’s the height of insensitivity to wear a T-shirt which proclaims that your suffering is the real suffering, while others have somehow failed to grasp the point.
For the most part, I appreciate both religion and spirituality, but that only makes this T-shirt more aggravating.
I don’t like to see things which can be deep and profound and meaningful turned into winky slogans designed to bolster the wearer’s self-esteem. Whatever your belief system, or lack thereof, virtually all of us (myself included) could stand to cultivate a little more humility—and humility is precisely what this shirt lacks.
About Trish Tillman
Trish Tillman is an adjunct professor of history, grad student, yoga teacher, and Gracie Jiu Jitsu purple belt in the Washington, DC metro area. She was nicknamed “Hateful Trish” by her jiu jitsu teammates, but is, generally, fairly good-natured while off the jiu jitsu mats. Check out more of her thoughts at http://postpostmodernpish.wordpress.com