Like the "God" word, "religion" is a hot-button loaded with baggage. In the world I live in, the term "spirituality" generally substitutes for the term "religion."
As a writer and one sensitive and appreciative of the poetry and power of words, I feel that words ARE important. My thesis for this article is that there is more at stake than just rejecting religion with all of its baggage. There's no point in even describing why so many reject religion. We can assume we (who are reading this) already HAVE rejected it in its orthodox forms.
I have long suspected that the unfortunate consequence and too often unconscious reason New Agers have thrown the baby of "God" out with the bathwater of religion is that it gives so many an excuse to turn their back on God and embrace their own ego-centric lives.
For one thing, we live in an age of ego-affirmation. I've written other articles on this aspect of emerging consciousness. The rigid caste systems of the past centuries defined us by our birth, parentage, gender, skills, language, and social status.
The American experience symbolizes the emergence of the recognition of the value of the individual. This is a good thing, for sure. At long last eclipsed in this renaissance of individuality is the old forms of "tribe" wherein individuality was subsumed to the identity of the tribe.
But in the world where all things must balance, there has to be a counterbalance to the potential of rampaging egoism to shoot and bomb the human race out of existence. Thus we see in the movements and consciousness surrounding ecology, climate change, sustainable energy, wildlife conservation, concern for the preservation of all species, peace and nonviolence movements, yoga and meditation, and humanitarian efforts: a heightened sense of responsibility; yes, a sense of belonging. Some even use the term "tribe" (though for me it conjures up images of beating drums and stomping feet). But in this case even the tribes are conscious and voluntary associations whose motive power lies with individual initiative and commitment.
On the issue, then, of "spirituality" vs "religion" we can discover a need for balance. The former represents the importance of individual consciousness while the latter refers to our need to share with and/or receive from others.
Just as gender-neutral champions keep searching for words in our language that are neutral (like "staffing the booth" rather than "manning the booth"), so too spiritually minded people use the term "spiritual" instead of "religious." But something is lost in translation. It's not "either-or" but "both-and."
On an egoic level, one can can consider oneself "spiritual" AND also "share or be involved with others." But the deeper spirituality attested to since ancient times by the custodians of religion (the saints, masters, rishis and avatars) is that spiritual consciousness is ego transcendent.
Otherwise, if it is only the ego sharing spiritual practices or values it amounts to living the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have them unto you" is beautiful but it is little more than "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." It is reasonable but inadequate to lift consciousness beyond the ego.
The Golden Rule, being sufficiently demonstrable through logic alone, amounts to a contractual quid pro quo arrangement that fits rather too snugly the merchant-consciousness of our times and culture. The reason it is insufficient to save humanity from selfishness, greed and violence is that the Golden Rule breaks down when under attack by personal desire, addiction, stress and fear. Reason will never be enough except in times of peace and prosperity to re-direct "fight or flight" impulses into constructive channels.
What is needed, because our deeper nature craves it (not because it is imposed upon us), is contact with and communion with our higher, soul nature--which is divine; which is God in human form.
Thus it is that a world teacher, Paramhansa Yogananda, came to the West to teach meditation and the ancient (and universal) truths of Vedanta ("All is One; All is God"). So, too, the teachings of New Thought and many other wave-forms of consciousness.
What too many forward-thinking people have rejected in the name of their personal freedoms is nothing less than God. This is as true for those who might associate themselves with New Thought as it is for the Self-Help crowd. Thus what might be termed "liberalism" is all too often agnostic, atheistical or simply self-involved.
Humanistic ideals, absent attunement to the higher reality of Spirit, can sometimes be used as a psychological shield to keep God out of the picture. Humanitarian ideals and activities can become a kind of false god.
Jesus Christ clearly taught compassion and the importance of helping those in need; yet, he also said, "The poor ye have always, but Me you do not have always." Apart from what the "me" refers to, he is saying, to use his own words but more clearly for my purposes: "Seek ye FIRST the kingdom of God......and all these things shall be added unto you."
No quantity of enlightened living, hiking, kayaking, adventure travel, protesting, consensus building, or feeding the poor and housing the homeless will satisfy the heart’s need for the unconditional love and joy of God in our own soul. In the immortal words of St. Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
True lovers of God are few: Krishna admits as much in the Bhagavad Gita: "Out of a thousand, one seeks me." Nonetheless as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah attest, even one true devotee can influence the consciousness and karma of a large group of people. Paramhansa Yogananda asserts that the hallowed resiliency of India (the world's oldest and continuous culture and religion) is based on her unbroken line of saints and rishis.
"Saints," Yogananda averred, "are the true custodians of religion." But saints do not live in a vacuum. Like a rare flower, they "grow" in the garden of receptive hearts. A culture or a group of people whose united prayer is to know God magnetizes the appearance of saintly souls in their midst. Spirituality needs religion like plants need soil. The tragedy of religion in modern times is that religion is has lost touch with its true purpose: to bring God to earth so we can ascend to "heaven!" ("Heaven" meaning to resurrect our own soul's divinity in our consciousness.)
Quoting the words from the weekly Festival of Light ceremony conducted at Ananda centers throughout the world:
Who, with deep love, chose Thee.
For it is also an undeniable truth, that ultimately, the soul sheds the ego not in church but within: essentially, alone. This is the paradox of life that Jesus taught that God is not found outside ourselves, crying "Lo here, lo there, for the kingdom of heaven is within you!"
So divinity is found within, in the silence of meditation; yet, how do we get there: through teachings and teachers. And where do such come from? From religion and all that surrounds it.
When Paramhansa Yogananda complained that organized religion is a nest of troubles, his guru chided him, asking where would he be were it not for other true gurus dedicating their lives to living and sharing the divine teachings. Yogananda then silently vowed to dedicate his life to helping others as he himself had been helped.