You may have heard—or even used—the terms religion and spirituality interchangeably. But while they aren’t diametric opposites, neither are they the same. Learn how to tell the difference between religion and spirituality.
For thousands of years, humanity has passionately pursued the Truth with a capital T—the ultimate answers to life and the universe. This perennial knowledge constitutes the answers to what are often called the soul questions:
- Who am I?
- What do I want?
- What is my purpose?
- What is the meaning of life?
Historically, from the perspective of the soul, there have been two foundational routes to discover these truths: religion and spirituality. Although they have many similarities and there is a relationship between the two, there are differences between religion and spirituality.
Religion: By definition, religion is a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; the service and worship of God or the supernatural.
Spirituality: Spirituality, on the other hand, connotes an experience of connection to something larger than you; living everyday life in a reverent and sacred manner. Or as Christina Puchalski, MD (leader in trying to incorporate spirituality into healthcare), puts it, “Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred."
Origins of Religions and Spirituality
Religion: Religions are most often based upon the lives, teachings, and beliefs of a historical or archetypal figure (e.g., Christ, Buddha, Moses, Krishna, Muhammad). The details of their lives as holy or highly evolved beings have been carried to us across the mists of time through oral tradition and written scriptures. These figures are the subject of worship and devotion and form the foundation of religious practices and rituals in a community.
Spirituality: By contrast, spirituality is more often based upon the practical application of the founder’s teachings. Spiritual aspirants heed the advice of Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”
The Lines Blur
If you feel these definitions get blurry and cross into each other’s territory, you’re not alone. For example, you may know people who consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. Conversely, there can be individuals who are devoutly religious but are not what most would consider deeply spiritual.
Let’s try to clear things up by taking a closer look at the most defining differences between religious and spiritual paths. Bear in mind that there are no absolutes in these distinctions. They are merely general markers meant to better explore the qualities between two equally valid approaches to seeking the truth.
Objective vs. Subjective Experience
Religion: On the whole, a formal religion is often an objective experience. In other words, there is usually a greater focus on the externals:
- Houses of worship (e.g., a church)
- Books of scripture
- Eternal rituals
This is the equivalent of object-referral in which your attention is placed upon the objects in your experience.
Spirituality: Spirituality, however, leans more toward self-referral or the internalization of your awareness of your soul. Spirituality is an inward journey that involves a shift in awareness rather than some form of external activity. As such, spirituality is much more about inner understanding than outer worship. This is not to say that worship is not a part of spirituality; it’s a matter of where the devotion and worship are directed:
- To an external practice, object, or figurehead
- To your soul, higher self, or divinity within
Organized vs. Formless
Religion: One of the hallmarks of religion is its organization. It is a structured, frequently rule-based construct that to some degree governs the behavior of its members. Moral rules, laws, and doctrines, as well as specific codes and criteria, create the organized structure that contains the religion’s specific belief system. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In previous, more uncertain times, the rules and dogma of organized religion helped to give society a sense of certainty and helped to guide and comfort those whose faith was lacking.
Spirituality: Spirituality though, breaks free from the restrictions and rigid structure sometimes associated with traditional religion. The spiritual aspirant recognizes that he or she is on a “pathless path” of self-discovery. They are following not a set of external rules, but their own inner call to spirit. In this way, spirituality can sometimes feel like a rebellious act of going solo and leaving the tribe, very much in the spirit of American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson when he said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Traditional vs. Evolutionary Approach
Religion: Due to their centuries- to millennia-old histories, religions are by nature often deeply rooted in tradition, ritual, creed, and doctrine. Religious institutions conservatively guard their practices and values, holding rigidly to the past and the original interpretations of the founder’s teachings. This is understandable in that all religions wish to preserve the essence of their teachings so they may be accurately transmitted through history.
Spirituality: By comparison, spirituality is often less focused on the rigidly traditional approach and often favors an evolutionary mentality. This refers to both a more flexible and adaptive mindset toward core teachings of the great wisdom traditions but also reflects the understanding that, as the name implies, spiritual growth is an evolutionary process. Spirituality embraces change and the evolution of consciousness. With spiritual practice, ideas and interpretations change as individuals, societies, and the world move forward.
Exclusive vs. Inclusive
Religion: Traditional religious beliefs, sometimes based upon rigid interpretations of key teachings, can create an exclusive worldview that isolates those who may not share their views or interpretations. Sadly, this religious “in-group” mentality can be used to justify the exclusion of minorities or those deemed unworthy of God’s favor.
Spirituality: Spirituality makes no such distinctions. Instead, it favors an inclusive approach. In the recognition that pure spirit is a unifying force, no one is left out. You are part of the universal hologram, all gods and goddesses in disguise. As Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, verse 11: “As men approach me, so I receive them. All paths Arjuna, lead to me.”
In other words, from a spiritual perspective, no one has a monopoly on the truth. All are welcome in God’s eyes.
Belief vs. Spiritual Experience
Religion: At its core, religion is about faith. That is to say, belief in something based upon unconditional acceptance of the religion’s teachings. Unlike the scientific worldview, religions don’t require evidence to validate their claims. Through religion, you are taught to have faith in God or the scriptures as being the infallible and ultimate truth of reality. Acceptance and surrender to the divine are taught as the path that leads to ultimate salvation.
Spirituality: Spirituality doesn’t dismiss faith; however, it often leans more heavily on direct experience of the soul or divinity. Spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, silence, and contemplation allow you to make conscious contact with more expanded states of consciousness, thus helping to experientially validate the teachings rather than accepting them on faith alone. You know something because you have tasted the experience yourself and have allowed it to resonate, as opposed to taking the word of another.
Fear vs. Love
Religion: Despite the best of intentions, religions can sometimes contain a subtle (or not so subtle) undercurrent of fear woven into their teachings. The concepts of original sin, divine judgement, God’s wrath, or eternal punishment can create a mental environment burdened in worry and anxiety over your worthiness and whether your actions will result in divine retribution or karmic punishment. Your fate in the afterlife can loom like a specter in the back of your mind, subtly influencing your thoughts and behavior.
Spirituality: By contrast, spirituality typically discards the vestiges of fear and worry in favor of a more loving, compassionate approach to life—and death. Spirituality embraces a consciousness-based worldview that supports all human beings on their path to awakening in unconditional love and kindness. Your choices and behavior are guided not by fear of punishment, but rather by a desire to end suffering and create a peaceful and loving world for all.
As you can see, there are noticeable distinctions between spirituality vs. religion; however, these comparisons aren’t meant to be absolutes or an attempt to polarize one against the other. Religious beliefs and spiritual beliefs differ in the ways in which they are practiced. However, each practice serves as a vehicle to lead you closer to the truth you seek. Whichever path or combination of the two you follow is the personal and subjective expression of your journey of awakening.
To be "religious" conveys an institutional connotation, usually associated with Abrahamic traditions: to attend worship services, to say Mass, to light Hanukkah candles. To be "spiritual," in contrast, connotes personal practice and personal empowerment having to do with the deepest motivations of life.Why is it important to distinguish between religion and spirituality? ›
Religion aims to build one's character. It shapes one's beliefs, attitudes, and actions by giving importance to the adherence of rules. This unites people who share a religion, as they share character traits and outlooks on life. On the other hand, spirituality concentrates more on each person's individual soul.Can you be spiritual without religion? ›
Many people think that spirituality and religion are the same thing, and so they bring their beliefs and prejudices about religion to discussions about spirituality. Though all religions emphasise spiritualism as being part of faith, you can be 'spiritual' without being religious or a member of an organised religion.Can someone be spiritual and not believe in God? ›
People who say they are religious or spiritual (or both) generally believe in God or a higher power, while those who are neither religious nor spiritual tend to reject belief in God or a higher power altogether.What is it called if you believe in God but not religion? ›
The religiously unaffiliated now make up just over one quarter of the U.S. population. While the Nones include agnostics and atheists, most people in this category retain a belief in God or some higher power. Many describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” or “SBNR,” as researchers refer to them.What does the Bible say about spirituality? ›
Biblical spirituality means to be born of God (John 1:12-‐13; John 3:5-‐8; 1 John 4:7), be changed by the grace of Jesus Christ (Rom 12:1-‐2), surrendered and obedient to the Spirit, living according to the Spirit (Rom 8:4-‐11), and consequently empowered by the Spirit to draw others to find life in the Spirit.What are the dangers of spiritual but not religious? ›
"People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder [dependence on drugs, abnormal eating attitudes, anxiety, phobias and neuroses]." The work supports evidence from other studies too.Can religion and spirituality coexist? ›
Within religion there is spirituality, but if you have spirituality, it doesn't necessarily mean you have religion,” says someone who practices both religion and spirituality. Both religion and spirituality can have a positive impact on mental health. In some ways, they provide the same impact.Is it possible to believe in God but not be religious? ›
Religious 'nones' are divided in their views about God
Seven-in-ten religiously unaffiliated adults believe in a higher power of some kind, including 17% who say they believe in God as described in the Bible and 53% who believe in some other form of higher power or spiritual force in the universe.
2 The literal definition of “atheist” is “a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any gods,” according to Merriam-Webster. And the vast majority of U.S. atheists fit this description: 81% say they do not believe in God or a higher power or in a spiritual force of any kind.
While scripture does not command Christians to attend church, it does speak powerfully about the blessing of the church community. James exhorts anyone who is sick to “call the elders of the church to pray over them,” and to “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other” (James 5:14-16).Who created the God? ›
We ask, "If all things have a creator, then who created God?" Actually, only created things have a creator, so it's improper to lump God with his creation. God has revealed himself to us in the Bible as having always existed. Atheists counter that there is no reason to assume the universe was created.What are the characteristics of spiritual but not religious? ›
Meanwhile, “religious” often means belonging to a group with specific doctrines and rituals. The spiritual but not religious are independent seekers, many of whom pray, meditate, do yoga and other spiritual practices outside the confines of a particular tradition.What is a spiritual person? ›
Spirituality involves exploring certain universal themes – love, compassion, altruism, life after death, wisdom and truth, with the knowledge that some people such as saints or enlightened individuals have achieved and manifested higher levels of development than the ordinary person.What does it mean when someone is spiritual? ›
Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience—something that touches us all.How do you know if you are spiritual? ›
A major sign of a spiritual person is that they are always happy and kind to others. They don't like to degrade or criticise people. Instead, they always offer motivating and kind words, in hopes to make the world a better place. If you also believe in the same values, then yes, you're a spiritual person.What do you call someone who believes in God but has no religion? ›
The agnostic theist may also or alternatively be agnostic regarding the properties of the god or gods that they believe in.What are the 3 types of spirituality? ›
The shamans, healers, sages, and wisdom keepers of all times, all continents, and all peoples, in their ageless wisdom, say that human spirituality is composed of three aspects: relationships, values, and life purpose.What are the five 5 characteristics of spirituality? ›
Five characteristics of spirituality include: meaning, value, transcendence, connecting (with oneself, others, God/supreme power and the environment), and becoming (the growth and progress in life) (2).What are the spiritual beliefs? ›
Spiritual beliefs include the relationship to a superior being and are related to an existential perspective on life, death, and the nature of reality. Religious beliefs include practices/rituals such as prayer or meditation and engagement with religious community members.
Some signs of spirituality can include: Asking deep questions about topics such as suffering or what happens after death. Deepening connections with other people. Experiencing compassion and empathy for others.What are the 12 spiritual powers? ›
Product Description. Twelve Powers in You re-introduces the idea popularized by Unity Church leader Charles Filmore that the body has twelve powers: faith, wisdom, enthusiasm, power, imagination, understanding, love, order, life, strength, release and will.How do I know my spiritual gift? ›
- Ask others to let you know. Sometimes we don't see in ourselves what others can see in us. ...
- Look for gifts in adversity. ...
- Pray for the help to recognize your gifts. ...
- Don't be afraid to branch out. ...
- Search the word of God. ...
- Look outside yourself. ...
- Think about people you look up to. ...
- Reflect on your family.
To be spiritually gifted is to have an outstanding ability to transcend self-centered needs and wants, and to rise above the human tendency to divide people into groups of those who are “worthy” of care and respect and those who are not.