It has become popular, especially in the West, to distinguish between spirituality and religion. What is spirituality? What constitutes religion? How does spirituality differ from religion? Are they really so different? These questions are getting asked more and more as many move away from organized religion. A recent Gallup poll shows a decline in religiosity in America. Are more choosing spirituality over religion?
Although both refer to belief or acceptance of a metaphysical idea, concept, teaching or practice, they can be defined and applied differently. Spirituality can be defined as search for “the scared,” a scared or absolute truth. One can view spirituality as more of an inner seeking or path, one that is private and personal. It can also be defined as seeking to discover, uncover or investigate the metaphysical or supernatural. The concepts or ideas one is interested in or accepts may be more abstract and perhaps more broad and ambiguous. For some, the deep desire to learn about the cosmos, Ultimate Transcendence, Divine Mystery, deities, sacred truths, mythologies, etc., is more of a journey rather than a strict set of prescribed rules. Spirituality can include various forms of meditation, prayer and contemplation.
In what way does spirituality differ from religion? “Religion” comes with a variety of definitions as well. “Religion” appears to be a term largely used in Western culture to refer to Western practice of religious doctrine. It is often a strict, prescribed set of rules, doctrines, tenets, principles, and dogmas. Included are rituals, observances, and ceremonies.
“Religion” is usually regarded as being more structured and organized in practice. There may be little room for divergence from standard practice or beliefs (within the respective brand of theology). Some may view “religion” as being more exclusive, a system based on divinely revealed “truths” dictated by an authority. Where “spirituality” may differ for some practitioners, is that it is less about dogmatism and exclusivism and more about the personal, inner journey. There are no limits in terms of what one can investigate or discover. An individual is not bound by authority or doctrine that may conflict with their presuppositions or what they hold to be true.
“Spirituality” can be unbounded and free-flowing. There can be room for diversity and varying ideas and beliefs. There can also be more of a focus on esotericism and mysticism within various spiritual practices, in which organized religion tends to shy away from. With that said, there are those who align themselves with what is traditionally regarded as a religion but they themselves do not “believe” in organized or structured religion. They are more “spiritual” in their views and practice. Much like religion, spirituality can include rituals, ceremonies, observances, altars, and various objects incorporated into spiritual practice. It could be asked if there are other ways in which they are similar. It could be said that while “spirituality” lacks a standard structure and is not organized, it can incorporate a similar belief structure as religion. A belief structure that is complete with an ethical code, rede, rituals, doctrine, specific practices and so forth.
In examining both terms one can come away wondering why there is even a need to separate or distinguish between the two. There are indeed valid distinctions between the two, but is there truly a need to define them so differently, as if they are so distinctly and clearly different? What has prompted so many to separate or distinguish between the two?
The term “spirituality” seems to have sprung about as a revolt against what is classified as organized religion, a system some deem as corrupt and evil. In wishing to separate from organized or structured religion many sought to refer to their spiritual practice as “spirituality,” a more personal and private form of spiritual practice, but is it really that different in the end? Religion can be spiritual and spirituality can be religious. The main difference is that one, spirituality, tends to be more private and personal while the other consists of more organized doctrine, rituals, precepts, and dogmas.
When many in the West think of the word “religion” it is often the big three that comes to mind: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Oftentimes traditions of the East, while in many ways regarded as both religious and spiritual traditions, are seen as “Eastern philosophies.” That brings me to another area, is the definition of “religion” applied the same way to all major religious traditions or only those that fit a specific criteria? Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism can be defined as religions as there exists a framework of belief and practice, but for many in the West that are only familiar with their Western practice, they tend to be referred to as “spiritual philosophies” or simply “Eastern philosophies.”
In the end, it appears as though the issue resides mainly in how both terms are defined and applied in Western culture as some Westerners feel the need to separate their spiritual practice from that of organized religion. It is true that in Western culture “religion” carries with it many negative connotations, while “spirituality” is often seen in a much more positive light, especially in our current social and political climate. Spirituality vs. religion is a debate with many connotations, but in the end they are both points on the same spectrum of belief with the same end.