Spirituality vs. Religion

One question that I hear a lot as someone mostly-raised Unitarian Universalist, is “how is spirituality different from religion?” Fortunately having been through the YRUU program, we examined a lot of these sort of questions and compared opinions to help grow our own ideas in the UU “search for truth and meaning.” In fact, I think these two ideas are quite different and it is crucial to recognize they do not go as hand in hand as we may have been taught.

The idea of “spirituality”: What is it? How is it different from belief or religion?

I generally find this hard to explain – I think it’s rather like love. You can be in love without being in a relationship, or in a marriage (although society historically indicates it’s best practiced in a marriage). You don’t even need to have your feeling reciprocated. It’s a feeling you have and you know it is what is meant by “love,” even if other people would perhaps say you are wrong. For me, spirituality is the same thing. I do not need to be in a church or even with other people who think like me, to be spiritual – but like being in a relationship with love, it keeps my spirituality stronger. Like “love,” I think “spirituality” is hard to define and means different things to different people but they all tend in the same direction.

Spirituality is very different from religion, although they are so closely linked that it’s hard to untangle them. Perhaps the easiest way to define the difference in my view is that spirituality is what you feel inside, a connection and wonder and love, a greatness of spirit – and religion is how you exercise your beliefs outwardly. For example, you can feel a connection with Christ without necessarily going to church, or praying, or any outward practices, but you feel a sense of spirituality. And likewise, you can go to a place of worship, participate in confirmation classes, pray, etc, without feeling a sense of spirituality – ie, go through the motions.

The same way that you can feel love without being in a relationship, or be in a relationship without feeling love.

Spirituality has nothing to do with spirits. It’s just about finding that sense of wonder, connection, love, and greatness of spirit which many people find in places of worship.

I feel a sense of spirituality when I watch birds living their little graceful lives, or the breeze and sunshine on my skin, or singing a great song in my church choir, or looking at photos from the Hubble and contemplating the majesty of our universe. I feel these because they remind me of the beauty and wonder of our world, how amazing it is we’re here.

I also feel spiritual in relation to less secular things too.

Some people have that sense of the spiritual through reading the word of God through the Bible, or praying together, because they see the majesty of what their God has created or feel the love and connection of knowing they and their kindred will receive the goodness of their Father. I think one can feel a sense of spirituality through secular rituals such as a graduation, or evidence of passing along the cycle of life.

I feel a sense of spirituality when I’m at church and listening to the eloquent and simple ideas of a good sermon. But that’s because I’m feeling the greatness of spirit that comes with knowing potential, and feeling connection and love of being part of a community that supports me, and being reminded of the wonder of our world through wise words. The outward practice of going to church and listening to a sermon is part of the idea of “religion.” I’ve heard some UUs use the term “spiritual practice” which amounts to rituals that bring out their spirituality – in effect perhaps creating their own personal religion.

But sometimes I am at church and I do not feel spiritual. A boring sermon, or going through the motions of a Flower Communion or an uninspiring hymn. Perhaps the sermon doesn’t even need to be boring, just engaging my mind in a less uplifting way. I can participate in religious rituals without feeling a sense of spiritual connection. Much like one can be in a relationship and be just going through the motions. I think the way to find out the difference is to try out some different religions and see what makes you feel connected and uplifted, and what doesn’t, and that will start to elucidate the division between spirituality and religion.

I’m not sure if that division is clear enough, but perhaps you can see that it has nothing to do with going to church and everything to do with just letting yourself be amazed at how small but integral you are in your place in the order of things.

3 Responses to “Spirituality vs. Religion”

  1. John
    | Reply

    This is interesting. I have in my head that religion is what happens when the personal spiritual experience is communicated, shared and becomes cultural — when people start agreeing on ritual and what the meaning of the spiritual experience is.

  2. Johanna
    | Reply

    I agree with John’s comment. I would define the difference this way: spirituality is connection, which may be felt with another physical being or a non-physical being, or the physical being may be a means by which the non-physical being is experienced. Religion is the belief that there is an importance to the way this is communicated and shared through gathering and ritual. Put simply, religion is the organized expression of shared spirituality.

  3. Ariana
    | Reply

    I am finally getting to this. I’m sorry for my incredibly long delay!

    I like your thoughts. I think your usage of the experience of love to describe what spirituality is like is very interesting. I also just generally like your expression “greatness of spirit”. :)

    This statement — “religion is how you exercise your beliefs outwardly” — strikes me as very close to what I also believe religion to be. It reminds me of what the Bible says in James chapter 1 verses 26 and 27: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

    As far as I know, there is no real concept of spirituality in the Bible. It does talk about things that are “spiritual”, often as the opposite of material — “spiritual gifts” (for instance prophecy, speaking in tongues, teaching, administration, etc.), “spiritual food”, “spiritual sacrifices”, etc. It also refers to “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”, so from the Christian perspective, the “spiritual” does have to do with spirits (the Holy Spirit, angels, Satan, demons, and the spirits of “natural” (material) beings). It also calls “the word of God” (which refers both to the text of the Bible and to Jesus) “the sword of the [Holy] Spirit”, so the Bible teaches that there is literally a spirit at work when a person reads the text.

    But again, as far as spirituality as a concept goes, there isn’t anything in there. It strikes me that spirituality always seems to involve engaging with something outside of yourself (what you and Johanna have referred to as “connection”, I think) and recognizing/responding to the innate dignity of the things and people around you. Those are the two things that jump out at me the most when I think about the word.

    Hm. Lots to think about. :) I think you described your own thoughts and experiences very well. It’s clear that you’ve given a lot of good thought to the subject. :)

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