I know, it's usually said the other way. It's pretty fashionable these days to claim spirituality, not religion. Spiritual is deep. Religion is mechanical and superficial. Spiritual is authentic. Religion is foppery. Spiritual is of God. Religion is a human creation. I get it.
There certainly is a critique to be made concerning religion. There is such a thing as bad religion and plenty of examples to go around. I would even say that there are few things more dangerous than bad religion. The fact that most acts of terror are done under the shade of some religious tree is nearly enough for me to quit the whole thing.
But there's also such a thing as bad spirituality. And the examples are plentiful here as well. When someone tells me that they are spiritual, but not religious, I usually suspect some sort of idiosyncratic and wildly syncretistic view of what that means, and I'm often not disappointed. My experience in congregational ministry has been that the most difficult people are often the ones who present themselves just a little ahead of everyone else on the spirituality scale.
Let me be quick to say that there are good spiritualities. This is less a complaint about spirituality and more a way of commending religion. Religion can be good as well. And given its power, evident in the easy targets of our scorn, it seems to me that it is particularly important not to give up on religion.
Jesus didn't. True, he attacked bad religion. But he also encouraged the saying of a set prayer, taught his followers to fast and give alms appropriately, and to keep the law as an expression of God's good ordering of life. We could probably find this kind of understanding of religion throughout the New Testament. I will simply add that James had a definition of good religion--to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Too often, I find this definition of pure and undefiled religion missing from the lives of self-styled spiritualists.
I know this is not what most people have in mind when they critique religion. When they claim being spiritual over being religious, they are often being critical of the "formal" aspects of religion--liturgies, especially set liturgies, that suffer from lack of spontaneity or feeling. So, I want to say a good word for religion here as well.
Religion says my experience of God is mediated. It doesn't begin and end with me. Religion says that my relationship with God requires others. It requires words that aren't my own, and times and spaces that I don't designate. It involves a story that didn't originate with me, that is being passed down to me.
What passes for spirituality often says just the opposite. Spirituality says my relationship with God is direct and unmediated. Its just about me and God. This is why I don't need a religious community or times of worship or sacraments. Or if I do, they are only necessary to the extent that they support my personal relationship with God. Spirituality, in this sense, deepens the very thing we need to overcome--the conviction that the world begins and ends with me.
Now, I think I could define religion and spirituality in ways so that they are seen as complimentary and not as things that could be divided into choices. But if you had to push me into a choice, am I religious or spiritual, I think I'd go for religious.