Religion vs. Spirituality

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading is from American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and Davide E. Campbell. Putnam is professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Campbell is professor of political science at University of Notre Dame.

“…[D]uring the 1990s Americans of all ages became increasingly uneasy about mixing religion and politics. It is not surprising that younger Americans, still forming religious attachments, translated that uneasiness into a rejection of religion entirely. This group of young people came of age when ‘religion’ was identified publicly with the Religious Right, and exactly at the time when the leaders of that movement put homosexuality and gay marriage at the top of their agenda. And yet this is the very generation in which the new tolerance of homosexuality has grown most rapidly. In short, just at the youngest cohort of Americans was zigging in one direction, many highly visible religious leaders zagged in the other.

“Given these patterns, it is not at all surprising that when the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asked a large national sample of nones why they rejected religious identification, their objections were not theological or scientific. Instead the new nones reported that ‘they became unaffiliated, at least in part, because they think of religious people as hypocritical, judgemental, or insincere. Large number also say they became unaffiliated because they think that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality.’”

The second reading is from a 2010 translation titled The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. This translation is by a group of progressive scholars who are known for not sticking to Christian orthodoxy, but instead trying to get at the original meaning of the text. This if from a translation of the first letter by Paul of Tarsus to the religious community at Thessalonica in Greece.

“Concerning your relationship with one another: I don’t need to add anything to the God-given precept that you should love one another. You are already practicing this precept in your dealings with your fellow believers in Macedonia, but we urge you, friends, to do this extravagantly. As we’ve urged you before: live a quiet life, mind your own business, and support yourselves, so that outsiders might respect you and you might be self-sufficient.”

Sermon: “Religion vs. Spirituality”

In the late 1990s, when I was working as the religious educator at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, I gave a sermon in which I said that I didn’t think much of Paul of Tarsus, the person who wrote the second reading this morning, in addition to writing several books of the Christian scriptures. In that sermon, I pointed out that Paul of Tarsus was sexist — he made a special point of chasing women out of leadership roles in the early Christian communities;, and it was he, not Jesus, who said that women should be subordinate to men. I also said that Paul of Tarsus was responsible for the anti-gay sentiments that we were then hearing from the Religious Right, many of whom quoted Paul’s letters to support their contention that Christianity could not tolerate same sex relationships. I was, in fact, one of those young Americans that we heard about in the first reading this morning, who as the 1990s progressed became increasingly uneasy about the toxic combination of the Religious Right and politics. Like many younger people in the 1990s, I thought of the Religious Right as hypocritical, judgemental, and insincere. And I blamed much of the Religious Right’s hypocrisy and insincerity on Paul of Tarsus.

One of the people who heard this sermon was a remarkable man named Dan Fenn. Dan was the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of Unitarian ministers, but he chose to go into politics instead of following in the footsteps of his ancestors. He was deeply involved in Massachusetts politics in the 1950s, while he was teaching at Harvard Business School. He then served on the staff of the Kennedy presidential administration, and later he became the founding director of the JFK presidential library.

After hearing my sermon sermon, Dan invited me out to lunch. He gave me a good lunch, and then explained to me, in his polite erudite way, why Paul of Tarsus was worthy of my respect. Dan contended that without Paul’s organizational and political skills, the movement that was beginning to coalesce around the followers of Jesus would have died. True, Paul was guilty of sexism and homophobia. But it is wise to remember that no human being is perfect. And, as Dan Fenn pointed out, it is wise to remember that Paul was trying to maintain the fragile organization of the Jesus followers (I call them the Jesus followers because early on they probably didn’t call themselves Christians) during a time of growing repression by the Roman Empire.

This opened my eyes to a very basic fact. The social organization of religion does not happen by accident. The social organization of any religion is the product of human striving and human effort. And the social organization of religion matters, because in the real world religion does not exist without a social organization. The big difference between religion and spirituality is that spirituality is something you can do by yourself. Your spirituality might affect your immediate family, but most people’s spirituality won’t have an effect much beyond family and close friends. By contrast, religion is social in its very nature, and it can have quite a large effect on the outside world — for good or ill.

Dan Fenn made me think better of Paul of Tarsus, because of his leadership skills. I still don’t like Paul — he was rigid, and he held grudges. But I can admire Paul. I can hear in his letters how he cared about the people who were part of the loose network of Jesus followers. In addition to caring for others in the movement, he wanted to hold them accountable to the highest ideals they had been taught by Jesus: in his letters, Paul constantly reminds his fellow Jesus followers that love is their highest purpose, that they should do what Jesus taught and love one another as we love ourselves.

This reveals another major difference between religion and spirituality. Since spirituality is your own personal way of being in the world, no one is going to hold you accountable if you don’t live up to your ideals. Perhaps you will try to hold yourself accountable to your highest ideals, but most of us human beings are pretty good at deceiving ourselves, telling ourselves that we are much better than we really are. In a religious organization, by contrast, we can remind each other of what our highest ideals are. We can reflect together on whether we are living up to our ideals.

In our culture today, this is not a popular approach. We want to maintain our individual rights. We no longer want to be part of a social group that upholds certain standards. We have reason to feel that way when it comes to religion. In the United States in the twenty-first century, many conservative Christian groups are sexist, or even misogynistic, and they ask both for the unquestioning obedience of women, and unquestioning obedience to their religious dogmas around sexism. These same conservative Christian groups tend to be homophobic as well, and they ask for unquestioning obedience to their homophobic religious dogmas. Because these conservative Christian groups have loud voices in the public square, they are what we think of when we think of religion.

No wonder, then, that increasing numbers of people consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. More and more people, when asked what religion they belong to, respond “None.” While these people do not want to be affiliated with organized religion, they still feel moved by religious impulses. Sociologists call them the “Nones,” but they might call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” The vast majority of them believe in the Christian God or some deity, and the vast majority of them pray or engage in some kind of spiritual practice, but they are turned off by religious organizations.

However (you knew there was going to be a “however,” didn’t you?), there’s a small problem with being “spiritual but not religious.” To help explain that problem, I’ll go back to the nineteenth century Transcendentalists here in New England, and in particular a poet named Jones Very.

Jones Very was the son of an atheist and freethinker who would have nothing to do with organized religion, but he became interested in Unitarianism, and became a Unitarian minister. While in studying to be a minister, he began writing poetry, some of it quite good. Through his Unitarian connections, he met Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former Unitarian minister, who ultimately agreed to edit Very’s poetry for publication. Bronson Alcott takes up the story:

“[Jones Very] professed to be taught by the Spirit and to write under its inspiration. When his [poetry was] submitted to Emerson for criticism the spelling was found faulty and on Emerson’s pointing out the defect, he was told that this was by dictation of the Spirit also. … Emerson’s witty reply [was], ‘that the Spirit should be a better speller,’ [and] the printed volume shows no traces of illiteracy in the text.” (Journals of Bronson Alcott [1938], p. 516)

Now think about what would happen if Jones Very were alive today, and if he were spiritual but not religious. As someone who is spiritual but not religious, he would maintain his individual rights, resisting anyone telling him to modify his poetry. He’d sit at home in solitude, posting his poems to Reddit, or publishing them through a Substack newsletter, or self-publishing a book on Amazon’s Createspace. He would refuse to compromise on his vision for his poetry, including the faulty spelling. People would think of his poems as illiterate, and ignore him; his poetry would disappear into oblivion.

In real life, Jones Very reaped the benefits of being a part of a religious community. He listened to feedback from his religious community, and his poetry benefited. While his was a modest genius, he did have real talent, and his poems are still included in most major collections of American poetry. [for a small selection of his better poems:]

I tell you this story of Jones Very to make an obvious point. We human beings are social animals. We need each other. We do better when we are around other people. If we have some talent, some genius, we need other people to hone our talent, our genius. If we have some religious insight, we need other people to tell us if it makes sense. It is too easy to delude ourselves. Jones Very deluded himself when he thought that even the bad spelling in his poetry was dictated by the Spirit; he needed Emerson to gently tell him that spelling and grammar do matter, because through such conventions we are able to better communicate with others. If we do not communicate with others, if we do not participate in wider communities, then we remain isolated and alone and lonely. If we do not participate in wider communities, we start on the path towards solipsism, where the only reality becomes what lies within the narrow confines of our own skulls.

Mind you, I do think that “spiritual but not religious” is the best option for some people, especially for anyone who was traumatized by some restrictive religious group that demanded unquestioning obedience from them. If you’re healing from religious trauma, you may have a real and pressing need to get away from anything that feels at all like the restrictive religious group you’re trying to escape.

At the same time, being “spiritual but not religious” cuts you off from one of the most powerful human tools for inquiry and self-knowledge. That powerful tool is the community of inquirers. As individuals, we human beings often make mistakes. But when we join together in community, we can help correct each other’s mistakes. This is the power of the scientific method. The scientific method is a communal process whereby individuals or small groups make observations of the world and propose hypotheses that might explain those observations. Then other individuals or small groups test those hypotheses, and subject them to critical analysis. Through the scientific community, we gradually increase our understanding of the world.

This goes beyond science. Any claim to knowledge, any claim to truth or to validity, including religious claims, should be tested by a critical community of inquirers. Nor is this a sterile intellectual exercise. We test these claims by seeing how they work out in real life. You may say that you believe in God or you don’t believe in God, but the real question is what your belief or disbelief in God causes you to do in the world. You may believe in God or disbelieve in God, but if you’re sexist and homophobic I probably won’t have much sympathy with your beliefs. On the other hand, you may believe in God or disbelieve in God, but if you’re a feminist and you support LGBTQ+ rights then probably you and I will be in sympathy, regardless of whether we agree about God.

In our culture, we can find many religious organizations that ignore this fundamental principle; we can find many religious organizations that resist any questioning of their worldview. Given these religious organizations that stifle inquiry, no wonder people become spiritual but not religious. No wonder people say, I’m not going to submit myself to some religious group that claims absolute certainty. No wonder people say, I’d rather go off by myself and have my own little spiritual thing going on. But the problem is that when you go off by yourself and have your own little spiritual thing going on, you fall into the same trap as the rigid religious organizations that claim absolute certainty.

And even for religious organizations like our own First Parish, we still have to go out and actually do something in the real world. Go ahead and have long intellectual discussions about whether you believe or disbelieve in God, but what I want to know is what your beliefs call you to do in the world. And this is the final, the most important function of a religious community — it is the religious community that calls on us to live out our beliefs in real life, it is the religious community that calls on us to do something.


Sadly, Dan Fenn died in 2020. The Cambridge Chronicle published an excellent article soon after his death detailing his involvement in local politics, and his commitment to education—