Religion 101

Religion 101

What Is “Spirituality”?

In my previous blog entry, I raised the question, “What is religion?” (and invited reader feedback).

In this blog entry, I’d next like to raise the question, “What is spirituality?” (and again invite reader feedback).

What’s the real difference, anyway, between “religion” on the one hand, and “spirituality” on the other — if any?

Both terms are used in various and often rather vague ways, so much so that sometimes whatever distinctive definitional borders they might have tend to blur, and even blur together.


Some people use these two words almost synonymously, as if “religion” and “spirituality” were virtually identical and interchangeable — as if the terms were synonyms.

Other people, by contrast, regard them as virtual antonyms, as polar opposites of each other — as if “religion” was one thing (usually a bad or negative or undesirable thing, in one way or another), and “spirituality” was something else altogether (usually a better or superior or more elevated thing).

Consider, for example, how many people these days characterize themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” But what might that mean, exactly?

For some, it seems to mean people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion, but who nevertheless harbor “spiritual” beliefs, values, feelings, and so forth. Just exactly what those might actually amount to can sometimes be rather vague, of course, or alternately they may be quite specific — just not recognizably equivalent to those of any particular religious tradition.


Of course, one might fairly raise the question: can just “spirituality,” per se, exist in the abstract, as it were — divorced from, or independent of, any particular religion or system of belief? Most forms of spirituality, after all, are recognizably associated with some particular religion or belief system. There are, for instance, various sorts of Christian spirituality, of Jewish spirituality, of Islamic spirituality, of Hindu spirituality, of Buddhist spirality, of Sikh spirituality, of Taoist spirituality, of Baha’i spirituality, of Pagan spirituality; one could go on and on.

Even a highly individualized and very eclectic or syncretic form of spirituality, perhaps one personally or privately composed “cafeteria style” from drawing upon a medley of belief systems, could be seen as having recognizable roots elsewhere, even if were a plurality of such roots rather than from just one source. Just being “spiritual” without further defining it (in terms of this or that specific type of spirituality) might be describing a “spirituality” so vague as to have little to no definable content.


Others may instead prefer to use the term “spiritual” rather than “religious” to describe themselves for other reasons. Perhaps their spirituality really is so vague and undefined — or just so unusual or different — that they can’t quite specify it, much less label it, or even compare it with any form of religion that they know about.

Or perhaps they conceive of “religion” as a rather unspiritual entity or enterprise, as something ultimately all about rules  (which they may dislike) or rituals (which they may despise) or myths (which they may disbelieve), or even as something manmade (which they may reject).

Or perhaps for them religion essentially means organized or institutionalized religion They may take a dim view of such organizations, or have had bad or distasteful experiences with institutions which have become hardened and bureaucratic, or inflexible and authoritarian, or sometimes even abusive.


On the other hand, perhaps we should keep in mind that — as the eminent scholar and popularizer of comparative religion Huston Smith once put it — “religion is just organized spirituality.”

Think about it, dear reader. And then, because opinions on matters such as these can and do vary, I invite you to use the “Comments” feature of this blog to submit your own personal or preferred definition of “spirituality.” How, for you, does spirituality differ (if at all) from religion — and why?






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robert landbeck

posted May 1, 2013 at 9:42 am

While our species may be aspirational, ‘spiritual’ in any true sense is just one of those unrealized ideals human nature has yet to realize. If the looming environmental crisis teaches us anything, it is that rooted in an Darwinian paradigm, material values continue to overwhelm any attempt to climb the ‘spiritual’ mountain. What history has provided is no more than a theological counterfeit!

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