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The Differences between Spirituality and Religion

Updated on September 16, 2014

The Relationship between Religion and Spirituality

Now what a person is trying to convey as far as a content positive, describable belief system can be difficult to distill from the statement, "i'me spiritual but not religious." This is mostly because of the nebulous definition describing spirituality and the intrinsic nature of spirituality as an individual and unique perspective on the transcendental.

What more readily conveyed in this statement is the shedding and disavowal of certain aspects that characterize formal religion as it has been practiced, for the most part. I believe that when this statement is made by an individual they are mostly trying to distance themselves from certain things that characterize religion than they are trying to affirm any of their own content positive beliefs. I think the separation has to do with ideas such as;

  • Unquestioning faith in revealed truth
  • Codes involving specific living restrictions derived from scripture
  • The idea of immutable punishment
  • Exclusive claims on the truth
  • Doctrines that conflict with science and secular morality

If we are to make a visual aide that relates spirituality to religion it might look like the one to the left. Religion and spirituality do overlap and can be the same thing and yet spirituality can be free of the baggage of religion and religion can sometimes be practiced without a true link to any concerns beyond this world, or without any spirituality. I'll take as an example of this latter phenomena atheistic yet culturally devout Jews who follow all the prescriptions of the religion yet don't much bother with the transcendental realm, or others who delude themselves into religiosity because they think it is what society expects and helps to make them increasingly self-righteous in the harm or cruelty that they do in life.

Definitions and Distinctions

Let's start with generally accepted definition to begin teasing out the differences between spirituality and religion

Religion-The service and worship of God or the supernatural

Spirituality-Well there is no well agreed upon definition and this is because spirituality is highly individualistic. What =ever it is to most people who claim spirituality devoid of religion it doesn't so much involve worship and service as it does reverence and awe. And this reverence and awe may be reserved for a god but it isn't likely to be for an anthropomorphic god with personified human traits or for a long decree that involves codification of acceptable human behavior. It is more likely to be some nebulous concept of god as pure collective consciousness or vague creative energy that is being referred to. And the spiritual (usually) is not likely to involve any tails of magical healing or transformation, nor an accounts of St. Aquinas levitating about a cathedral but rather recounts of mysterious scientific, not yet well understood, phenomena such as the big bang, abio-genesis, or the steadfastness of physical law.

One of the main differences might come down to a propensity for claiming certainties. One might say that to be spiritual is to be inspired and to wonder while to be religious is to know and attest. Most spiritual individuals have a profound sense of awe of the universe and a vague notion that it is all dictated by some underlying order which they would like to investigate both subjectively and objectively. Most religious individuals have an equally profound sense of awe but yet a certain notion of the nature of the deities and moral precepts from which these deities operate and draw most of their experience for this from subjective experience and anecdote.

The Good and The Bad

Both religion and Spirituality, like nearly all human epistemic constructs, are capable of manifesting themselves in both negative and positive ways. For instance, Spiritually-based alternative healing of most types are dangerous dribble advocated by charlatans. Meanwhile Spinoza and Einstein's Pantheistic musings about the Universe generated profound and helpful observations and questions.

Religion too, can manifest itself in hate, social-exclusion, genocide, and huge quantities of spirit killing guilt. While at its best religion is a comfort, a community, and an impetus toward good-works.

Summing Up

Because spirituality is such an individual endeavor, I would say it lacks the certainty and codification inherent to large hierarchical religious organizations. These organization must all agree on the tenets of what they believe as a group, after all. For this reason the spiritual have a much more inclusive, increasing nebulous understanding of the unknown and often a less sad-masochistic relationship to the perceived powers that be. The message behind all Abrahamic religions is one of compulsory love or put another way proposes a relationship with a deity that is both loving and jealous/vengeful in the same instant.

Spirituality does not often tend to assert a monopoly on the truth. Such certainty leads to Evangelical movements not seem among the merely spiritual. However certainty breeds a desire to educate those perceived as ignorant to the truth. This desire among the religious is evidenced by your own neighborhood's histrionic street preacher to the invasion and exploitation of indigenous peoples throughout the world by missionary's supported armed imperial nation-states.

While I've far from addressed all the potentialities where religion and spirituality overlap and diverge, I hope this short essay draws some general distinctions that can be more or less agreed upon by most. Steve Taylor draws a very terse yet useful distinction in the video below.


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    • adamschwartz profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Syracuse NY, USA

      Great comments, thanks for your thoughtful feedback.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      4 years ago

      I've always seen spirituality as the connection, and religion as the line that connects. Or maybe another analogy-- spirituality is the creative force, religion are the artistic methods.

      I personally like religion; I like the structure. Not every spiritual moment is religious for me, but I feel practicing my religion enhances the spiritual experience and helps me advance-- kind of like it's great to be creative with your art sometimes, but you learn and advance best from applying and practicing technique.

      Nice hub, interesting topic.


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