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.