What if I am “spiritual, but not religious”?

A friend recently asked the question, “You know, I consider myself to be ‘spiritual, but not religious’. Your ideas for this intentional community are all really great, except for all this Gaean religion stuff. Why do you insist that people follow this religion? It seems to me that spirituality is a very personal thing, and people shouldn’t be told what to believe. What if I just want to do my own thing?”

We had a great discussion about this. The following is the gist of that conversation, reworked into something more readable.

The most important thing to understand is that The Gaean Way™ is not a religion in the conventionally understood sense. Pre-agricultural indigenous peoples have no “religion”, and neither do Gaeans. The Gaean Way is, however, a spiritual way of living.

Allow me to explain the difference.

The first religions were born after the Agricultural Revolution in city-states where the reliability of an abundant food-supply meant that the entire population need not be engaged in food production. A large percentage of the people remained farmers, fishers, and shepherds, but a significant portion of the population could specialize into other fields. Many focused on artisanal trades such as leatherworking, carpentry, smithing, or mason-work. Others became soldiers as inter-state warfare arose in this time. Some became full-time traders, plying the rivers, seas, and roadways. A few became a noble elite, possessing the wealth of lands. Some, however, became specialists in the spiritual life, and the priestly class was born. They supported themselves by the patronage of the nobility, to whom they gave divine sanction. They received the donations of the people, in exchange for promises of fertile flocks, fields, and wombs, as well as protection from natural and human harm. This is when spirituality entered the commercial-economic realm, becoming, as it were, a form of enterprise. These priests had all kinds of time on their hands to think, write, debate, and form elaborate theories and enforce societal moral codes. They became the custodians of the cultural norms and beliefs.

Prior to the development of agriculture, however, most of the hunter-gatherer tribes had no priest caste or class. While there are some exceptions, most seem to have had no castes or classes at all. Every member of a tribal group participated in the activities of gathering and preparing food. There was some soft-specialization, as those who were better at knapping stones or making nets or tanning hides spent more of their time doing that which they were good at, but no one did those things exclusively. The same is true of those who were good at approaching the spirits.

Everyone believed in the spirits– whether they were ancestral spirits of their forebears or the spirits of natural world around them. Their beliefs informed their lives. The hunter knew to bless his weapons– perhaps by bathing them in a special spring– and to ask for the spirits of the animals he hunted to grant him leave to slay one of their number to feed his tribe. Every child knew that you refrained from touching particular sacred animals. Every woman knew the rituals one should perform on their monthly bleed. These indigenous peoples were as ‘spiritual, but not religious’ as one can get. They lived and breathed their understanding of spirit as much as any fish swims in and breathes the water around it. When they chanted prayers as they pounded the hide of a recently skinned animal, they did not see themselves as being “religious”– it was merely what one does while one softens leather.

The “shamans” or spirit-talkers of the tribe were those who were especially attuned to the spirits of the world. When a special need was there, people might ask the spirit-talkers to ask the spirits about this or that. Some were also the story-tellers, who would memorize stories of their people. Their knowledge of the stories, and the natural wisdom about the plants and animals provided the tribe with knowledge of where to hunt, and when to pick up and move the camp, and many other practical things. Spiritual life was woven into every single aspect of living.

Religion drove a wedge between that which was sacred and mundane, taking exclusive ownership of certain aspects of life, and washing its hands of the rest. It created this boundary between the spiritual and mundane aspects of life. Religion is this separated domain, and became something that someone did on certain special days of the week, or certain festival days during the year. Even the word “holiday” comes from the idea of a “holy day”, or a day set apart from the rest of the mundane activities of living, to do something spiritual. Today, we complain about people who get all religious on Sunday (or whatever their weekly holy day is), yet act without morality or concern for others the rest of the week. We say they are not “living their religion”, when in reality, no one “lives religion”, except perhaps those who join a monastic order.

So, The Gaean Way™ is not a religion, but a spiritual way of living, in the same way that indigenous peoples live. We do meet together for holy days, but we strive to make every day holy, dedicating it to living more sacredly in relation to the Earth, our Tribe, and our Highest Self. The Gaean Way is itself “spiritual, but not religious”.

When considering the worship of Gaea, and other aspects of the Gaean spiritual life, please refer to the post entitled “What if I am an atheist?”

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