THE BLOG
01/07/2016 05:02 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2017

What Does It Mean to Be Religious?

As more and more individuals self-identify as "Spiritual But Not Religious" (SBNR), we cannot help but notice the "not religious" as part of the identification. It is curious that a description of one's identity must rest on a negation. The identification of SBNR is both an assertion and a rejection simultaneously.

Perhaps the negation of religion in SBNR has essentially become the negation of what the term religious entails in society. Representations of the religious have become frightful and shocking. People don't want to be mistakenly categorized. "Not religious" sends a powerful message which is potentially coming to mean "not oppressor" and "not dogmatic" while at the same time implying a modern and open-minded mentality for those who distance themselves away from religion. We are in the age of definition and people are vying to define what words such as religious and religion mean.

In a post-9/11 world and an era of 24-hour media coverage, the word "religious" has become associated with negative connotations. The range goes from mockery to terror, whether it is the 2008 Bill Maher film, Religulous -- a derivation from the two words religious and ridiculous -- or most recently the Oregon militia, led by the Bundy family and not condoned by the Mormon church, which has cited Mormon scripture as justification for their feud with the government.

The recent terror suspect in the San Bernardino shooting, Syed Rizwan Farook, was described by his own father as "very religious." "He would go to work, come back, go to pray, come back. He's Muslim." Such a statement doesn't necessarily give "religious" a negative spin; however, Farook's religiosity as his singled out characteristic certainly does. When interest in a terrorist's religiosity is the only time the word "religious" becomes salient in a news story, then inevitably such a word will endure the stigma of pain, divisiveness, and intolerance.

The negative connotations associated with the religious also growls at us in historical American literature. In Fredrick Douglass' antebellum autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, an American Slave, religious identity is paired with the oppressive slavemaster. Douglass' complex spiritual identity develops in the American slave trade of the 1800s. His connection to God or his spirituality as a Christian was pitted against his experience with his religious Christian slavemasters. Douglass boldly pointed out the cruelty of the religious, "... I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst."

While not denying the cruelty and immense amount of pain which has been produced by these hands labeled religious, we must come to terms with the greater meaning of these expressions. By contextualizing events and terms, we should be able to come closer to the understanding and the definition of what it means to be religious. Does being religious necessarily mean oppressive, unjust and blinded to reason? Further, do the actions of the oppressor who happen to be religious define religion or the religious? I would argue no to both questions.

Religious communities align themselves with theological principles and ethical teachings that rest on religious principles which are meant to alleviate oppression and fight against injustice as well as to discover that which is beyond the mundane. Weekly or daily devotions at places of worship, practicing ethical behavior at home, and discovering the spiritual dimensions of existence should be paired with religious as well. In this process, the association of religious with acts that are not violent reaches a broader range far greater than the negative associations we have become all too familiar with in the media.

Throughout Douglass' narrative, the identification of the "religious" connoted cruelty and injustice where even Douglass himself felt that an appendix was necessary to relieve himself from the accusation of being anti-religion. It seems that Douglass saw contextualization of his narrative necessary to alleviate wrongful allegations against religion and the religious. He writes:

I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative that I have in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation... What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper.

Douglass adds context to his narrative in order to remove the oppressive gloom raised over religion and those who claim to identify as religious. Whether Douglass appended his narrative to appeal to a certain audience, as some would claim, or because he truly felt as if religion proper was demonized is secondary. Primarily we can see that he felt the need to contextualize his previous statements about the oppressive nature of his religious slave masters.

Contextualizing religion with education of what religion(s) is and understanding how a religious community operates is imperative. We are in an age of definition where hot-button terms such as religious are being defined and shaped at speeds that people in the past could never have imagined. Answering the question of what it means to be religious demands a literacy in religion, at the least, in order to develop the needed analytical skills for proper understanding of the operative nature of the religious and the spirituality that emanates from these communities.