Posted by: aediculaantinoi | December 3, 2012

“Religion” vs. “Way of Life”

Today is the Roman feast of Bona Dea. You can read more about that at the present link.

I’ve been away from the internet since Friday night, and while I’m caught up with all that has happened in my absence meanwhile (not much, but it did take two hours to catch up!), I wanted to just write a few words in the time that I have before I teach this afternoon on an issue that has come up in two of my three classes this term that has some relevance for this blog, and for really all religious and spiritual practice (which is a bit redundant in my viewpoint…but I digress!).

Inevitably, all of the classes I’ve ever taught in colleges and at universities in the U.S. have involved the study of religion at some point, whether they are history courses or religion courses. (Composition next term will be the sole exception thus far, I’m quite certain!) Something I’ve heard more this quarter than any other in my more than five years of teaching, however, has been the following: “such-and-such isn’t a religion so much as a way of life.” This gets said about a lot of religions, but particular the ones that are the least like certain prevalent creedal monotheisms of the west: Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Afro-Diasporic religions are among those which have been described in this way in recent history in the written work of my students this quarter.

Where on earth does this idea come from, that there is a difference between a “religion” ideally practiced and enacted and a “way of life”?

While I think the answer to that question is rather obvious–and has to do with the compartmentalized notion that many people in the U.S. have about religion due to certain prevalent creedal monotheistic religions and their tendency to be confined in their activities to a few hours at most on one day of the week in a specific building–even the proponents of creedal monotheistic religions would prefer, I suspect, for their religions to be thought of in a much more inclusive fashion than just a few hours on Sunday in a dedicated worship space.

When the religion in question focuses upon belief rather than practice, of course the tendency is to not think of practical applications of that belief, outside of actually going to church, buying certain types of literature or music or entertainment while shunning and publicly critiquing others, and attempting to evangelize others or to claim discrimination of one’s viewpoint when it is not assumed or given special accommodations or recognition.

When a religion is instead focused upon experience and upon practice, then anything and everything in one’s life becomes an opportunity for religious activity and for spiritual engagement. There are gods for each and every occasion, there are spirits of place everywhere one can find oneself, there are ancestors that we carry with us by virtue of our blood and by virtue of the thoughts we partake of and the experiences we’ve accumulated over the years; and, then there’s also those totally unexpected and surprising eruptions of divine presence that can occur, more often if we’re willing and accustomed to see them, recognizing them, and looking for them, but also sometimes in an undeniable fashion that can happen to even the most thick, distracted, and dull-witted person on occasion (and I include myself in at least some of the latter!). Eating or drinking, shopping or traveling, sitting or lying down, opening doors or closing them, being awake or going to sleep, in pain or in pleasure, and even urinating or defecating each have gods and religious experiences associated with them. One can’t do everything and have ever possible divine experience in the course of one’s daily life, by any means; but, by proper organization and prioritization of our attentions, we can choose to cultivate certain of these divine experiences more than others, and do so to good effect for the remainders of our existence, so that little to nothing in our lives does not end up being impacted in some fashion by this “way of life” that is equally a “religion.”

So, is it just me, or do others of you see a very wide and impassable gulf between religiosity and one’s “way of life,” particularly where certain religions are concerned?


  1. Somewhere long ago I read that in the Balinese language the same word means life, art, and religion. An admirable ideal, in my opinion. I do think that Balinese culture provides an excellent living example as to how life, art, and religion can be interwoven. Yes, I know that the island of Bali is overrun by tourists, but there is still a real Bali behind the tourist mask. I am not suggesting that we copy the Balinese specifically, we have our own traditions to draw upon.

    Actually, back in the Middle Ages, Christianity was also a way of life, although not a way that I would like. Once upon a time, before the Christians, we (Greece, Rome, Egypt, Babylon, etc) were more like the Balinese.

  2. I think the key word there is “creedal” – so many people, even secular ones, see religion as a matter of what one believes (and publicly *claims* to believe) rather than what one does, that when they see a religion that’s all about practice and/or experience and not at all about orthodoxy, they can’t get it to fit in their conceptual box for religion. I’ve actually seen American and Asian Buddhists get tripped up talking about this – they start from such different cultural mindsets, they have trouble getting together a common vocabulary about their common practice!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s