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Spirituality vs. Religion

Updated on February 6, 2010


Spirituality vs. Religion

"I'm not religious, I'm spiritual." This seems to be a common statement among young adults particularly. It's almost as if religion has become a bad word. So often, wars, terrorism, and the denial of civil rights have been in the name of religion. So, being 'spiritual' is being more open minded, right?

What is the difference between spirituality and religion? There are many definitions. In operationally defining religion, it is an institutionalized, and codified set of beliefs and practices, that is a cultural expression of a higher power. With that definition, reading and memorizing Scriptures, doing daily prayers and rituals, would be considered being religious. Is that also being spiritual? Yes and no.

What is spirituality? Wright, Watson, and Bell (1996), in their book entitled, Beliefs: The Heart of Healing in Families and Illness, define spirituality as:

A personal belief in and experience of a supreme being, or an ultimate human condition, along with an ultimate set of values, and active investment in those values, a sense of connection, a sense of meaning, and a sense of inner wholeness within or outside formal religious structures (p. 31).

If Scriptures are read daily, and prayers and rituals are performed and memorized to perfection, but there is no deeper meaning to such practices, I would argue that is not being spiritual. Religious? Sure. Just about anyone can memorize, and go through the motions in performing such practices. But if such practices help to enhance someone's experiences, and take on a more personal meaning, then such practices can be ways to express their own spirituality. And that is the point that is often forgotten regarding religion.

Religion can be a way to express a person's spirituality. If someone's religious practices carry a deeper meaning,and they are not just going through the motions, and it helps to enhance their experience of a supreme being for example, then religion can be just as important as a person's spirituality. In this example, someone could be using religion as a way to relate and experience their God, within their own understanding.

Religion does not have to be negative. A person can be both religious and spiritual. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all preach helping and ministering to the poor and less fortunate. In Christianity for example, how often do people actually put those teachings to action, except out of guilt during the Holidays? Of course there are many who do what they can, when they can. If there is no meaningful action behind the teachings and rituals, and those religious beliefs are also used to infringe upon the beliefs and rights of others, then religion, as well as spirituality, does become negative.

Spirituality should not be used as a buzz word either. Sometimes it seems trendy to be 'spiritual.' In college, it's common to hear people listening to Bob Marley for example, use words like 'Jah', smoke marijuana, and claim to know what that is all about. Another example is someone who learns some Buddhist terminology, put such stickers all over their car, and pretend to be open minded.

So often, celebrities are seen with religious and spiritual symbols, as accessories to their outfits, and they have no idea of their meaning. Celebrities are also often seen in major photo ops, saving the world, and preaching to the world, then disappearing from the scene after all of the media and cameras are gone. And it's not just celebrities who are like that. Adopting and participating in some cause, because it's what everyone else seems to be doing, or because of peer pressure (e.g. school charity fundraisers, wristbands) can be just as hypocritical. Is that spirituality? Only if it's real, and carries meaning to the the individual. Spirituality shouldn't be about publicizing to the world how much community service someone has done, or if they've gone to more remote mountains in solitude, or lived with indigenous cultures. It's more personal than that. It can and should be shared with others, just like religion, but with humility and understanding. Developing a personal philosophy, and living a life that involves a personal connection to self, the community, a higher power, or the greater good, can be a good example of spirituality,even if religion is used as a way to express that spirituality.

Of course this article represents personal views, but so does a person's definition and experience of religion and spirituality. No one of them should be better than the other, though one can be stronger, depending upon the person.

So, can someone be religious and not spiritual? Yes. Can someone be spiritual and not religious? Yes. Can someone be religious and spiritual? Yes. Can someone be spiritual and not believe in God? Yes, especially if they believe in something that's greater than themselves. Religion should not be a bad word, even if it is often misrepresented, just as spirituality is.

Shabazz Wilson


Wright, L. M., Watson, W. L., & Bell, J. M. (1996). Beliefs: the heart of healing in families and illness,New York: Basic Books.

Shabazz Wilson is an individual, group, and family psychotherapist, who also includes spirituality in counseling. Shabazz has also worked in the United Campus Ministry and Spiritual Life Center, at Springfield College, doing counseling, retreats, and various interfaith religious and spiritual development activities.


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    • ocoy profile image

      ocoy 5 years ago from Cedar Crest, New Mexico

      It is good to see someone who has an objective view on this topic. Some people embrace "spirituality" to run away from moral principles. Others embrace the term for more legitimate reasons. People define each term in widely different ways.

      Thanks for your thoughts on this.

    • profile image 5 years ago

      Remember how you felt when you first saw your babies? Did your heart melt with love and protectiveness? Would you ever let harm befall them? Would you give your child poison, or a cigarette to smoke or cocaine or dope? Would you make her drink chemical laden refreshments? When she misbehaves do you immediately forgive her after you correct her, or do you punish her continuously for past mistakes?

      You love your babies because they are precious to you. You protect them and nurture them hoping for the best outcome for them, because you want them to be happy and healthy and wise.

      The same type of view should be taken by all of us regarding all of us, starting in you about you.

      You should recognize that precious little child that you are and you should demonstrate that type of love and concern for yourself. If you can not discover this precious child inside of you then you are faulty in your self-identity and self-esteem. If you can only love yourself in this way, the entire universe will support you in all that you desire and seek to accomplish.

      You will then be able to give of your abundant, love- filled self to the universe which birthed you here.

      That is the difference between Religion and Spirituality.

      We should all be Spiritual. Not Religious. Religion teaches us separation and places us in disharmony with the life force, by promoting fears and prejudices instead of health and wholeness.

      Religion places us in small spaces of “us against them”.

      Spirituality frees us of petty differences and fabricated categories.

      The Spiritual person recognizes the wholeness of all life and values the preciousness of it.

      The Spiritual person learns to love and care for themselves as one would do for a precious little child., and in learning to do so one learns to do the same for all living creatures.

      It is impossible for you to love me correctly and wisely if you haven’t learned to do as much for yourself. By correctly, I mean to say in your ignorance it is very probable that you will feed your beloved child unhealthy food & drink. You may influence your little baby to smoke or do drugs, and form adverse attitudes about himself that are not true. You may ignorantly teach your child to hate and fear people based on your own ignorant fears and prejudices.

      If you are broken you can’t produce wholeness. We can only give what we have within ourselves to give. If you haven’t learned to value that inner you correctly then you will never value another correctly. The people are destroyed for lack of knowledge truly, and what we lack is wisdom regarding the proper care of our own precious selves. Wisdom is the application of knowledge. To know and not apply it is utter foolishness. To not know and seek to know is wisdom. To not know and not seek to know is self-destructive.

      Religion is the opium of the masses and it only produces paralysis. I am alive! I am not paralyzed! I am learning to love myself,,,Correctly!!!!

      I am Spiritual! Keep your Religion, not interested.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      "Developing a personal philosophy, and living a life that involves a personal connection to self, the community, a higher power, or the greater good, can be a good example of spirituality,even if religion is used as a way to express that spirituality." - that makes so much sense to me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Love and peace