As a child and teenager, I never had any interest in religion—yet later on I discovered that I had in me the inclination to become a deeply spiritual man. That inclination was not being triggered by the religious dogmas and practices that I was exposed to, so I felt it simply wasn’t for me. At that time I was not aware of the distinctions of spirituality vs religion.
I grew up in a regular, mildly religious middle-class family. My parents identified themselves as Christians, but they didn’t really go to church. My dad wanted me to go through catechism classes, but he never forced me to—I just attended one, because he insisted, but felt no pull to continue. For me, religion was something boring and lifeless, something that old people did.
On the other hand, once I discovered spirituality, it fired me up in life. It gave me meaning, direction and purpose. It helped me to grow as a person. It gave me tools to overcome the worst in myself, to develop myself, and to explore the transcendental aspects of our existence.
The fire for spirituality—for deeper meaning, direction and truth—is inherent in all people. For some of us, it is drowned by cynicism, skepticism, and scientific materialism; for others, it is expressed in limiting ways through a blind religious faith. Happy are those who recognize and own this drive, keeping it pure and letting it guide their lives in a constructive way.
There can be spirituality without religion, religion without spirituality, and religion and spirituality together—it depends on what you want, and how you approach it.
In this article I will compare and contrast religion and spirituality, exploring the differences and similarities between them. The goal is not to put anyone down, but to bring clarity as to the differences, so you can follow your spirituality in the most empowering way possible for you—linked to a specific religion or not.
Spirituality vs Religion
What is religion, and what is spirituality? They have a common subject-matter, but their approaches are very different.
Both religion and spirituality teach that there is more to the universe than what meets the eye, and more to our life than the physical body. Both agree that there are non-physical elements to the universe, and to our existence, and that unless we consciously connect with them, we will never be truly fulfilled in life.
The core difference between religion and spirituality is that religion presents you a set of beliefs, dogmas and “holy men” as intermediaries between you and Spirit (however you may name it); while spirituality promotes your individual autonomy in defining and connecting to Spirit as it fits your heart and mind.
As I mentioned above, religion and spirituality can be together. Many people find spirituality inside their religion, and for them these differences may not be so relevant or true, since the two things are mixed. But for those interested in pure spirituality, regardless of religious affiliation, let me expand on the difference between religion and spirituality in a quote:
Religion asks you to believe. Spirituality asks you to look.
Religion has dogmas. Spirituality has wisdom teachings.
Religion wants obedience. Spirituality wants experimentation.
Religion speaks of sin and hell. Spirituality speaks of karma.
Religion wants to comfort you. Spirituality wants to liberate you.
Religion is external. Spirituality is internal.
Religion is the form. Spirituality is the essence.
Religion wants to convert you. Spirituality wants to inspire you.
Religion is an institution. Spirituality is a journey.
Religion promotes shame and guilt. Spirituality promotes self-honesty and awareness.
Religion asks you to sacrifice your present attachments for a promised future. Spirituality asks you to let go of your present attachments for a better present.
Spirituality is the true essence, and the true origin, of every religious movement. So how is it that eventually spirituality gets the back seat, and what we are mostly left with are dogmas and empty rituals?
Buddha was not Buddhist; Jesus was not Christian. They were highly realized spiritual men; they were spiritual but not religious! They had a group of disciples who were also, in great part, moved by a spiritual search. But as centuries pass, as the groups start increasing and social acceptance grows, people who are not really burning with that spiritual drive start joining in and redefining the movement.
They join because it feels noble to do so, or because their parents expect, or because they were born poor and at least in the church/monastery there are meals every day. Or maybe they just needed the consolation and comfort that religion can give, to find shelter from the suffering of life, and a respectable position in society.
This is not a criticism nor a judgment of character, but just a description of how, by becoming more popular and accepted by society, the spiritual element of each religious movement gets watered down or distorted, and what is left is a social institution. Teachings become dogmas, principles become moral rules, spiritual practice becomes ritual, experiences become stories—in short, spirituality becomes religion. What was once private and intimate becomes a social institution.
The difference between religion and spirituality is not so much about what you believe—but about how you live, and what is your attitude. In any of the spiritual/religious traditions on Earth, you will find a majority of people who follow it as a religion, and a minority who follows it as a spiritual path.
Both religion and spirituality have their function in the world; but they are usually different things for different people. Understanding their differences helps to define what you are practicing, and if it is serving you well.
Spirituality in the Age of Science
Since the time of the European Enlightenment in the 17th century, the role and dominion of religion seem to be steadily diminishing (at least in the western world). Since we entered the so-called “age of reason”, with the ability of science to explain and transform reality around us constantly increasing, and the general level of education also rising for everyone, people feel less drawn to seek organized religion as a tool for explaining the world and creating well-being.
And yet we humans have this inherent thirst for meaning in life, for a higher purpose, and for strong principles to lead our living—whether individually or socially. Here is the role of spirituality in the third millennium.
We live in an age of overindulgence, of instant gratification. We have more physical comforts, entertainment and knowledge than ever before in history. This is certainly a result of the advances in science and technology in the past century.
But why then…
- are mental health problems on the rise as never before?
- do many of us feel an emptiness inside, a lack of real fulfillment and contentment, even if we have financial security, stable income, a good family, plenty of comfort and an established career?
- no matter how much we acquire in our material life, and how much we understand about the physical universe around us, there is still a deeper itch that is never scratched?
Here is the role of spirituality in the third millennium. Spirituality fills the gaps left behind both by organized religion and by scientific materialism.
Nowadays we cannot believe the dogmas of religion anymore—not like before. But when living life from the point of view that science is the only valid way of determining truth, we find ourselves in a cold, mechanistic, and indifferent universe. This leads to nihilism, cynicism, and lack of meaning in life.
“The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” — Albert Einstein
I believe that spirituality—in its myriad expressions—is the best means to give meaning to human life. It is also the strongest basis for human goodness and ethical conduct in society. Without spirituality, often all the morality we are left with is the law, and there is really no reason why one should not “do anything one can get away with.”[I’m not alone in this point of view at all. Professor Jordan Petersen eloquently defends the point of view that religious values are what keeps our morality and social order together. Also, historians Will Durant and Ariel Durant, analyzing the patterns throughout 10,000 years of human history, conclude that no real morality is possible without the “supernatural basis of spirituality”.]
- Religion says that truth is what the scriptures say, and you must believe it.
- Science says that truth is only the facts that can be experimentally proven through measuring devices, equations, and reason.
- Spirituality says that reason is not the only means of knowing, but that this doesn’t mean one needs to have blind faith in religious doctrines either. We accept how little we know about the universe and about ourselves, and explore a deeper meaning in life through tools such as meditation, contemplation, self-exploration—and also reason, scriptures, altered states of consciousness, and anything we can get hold of.
Therefore, the final difference between religion and spirituality is that spirituality can dialogue with science, while religion can’t. Indeed, the whole meditation and mindfulness movement in the past couple of decades is a result of this dialogue—science investigating spiritual practices.
This is just the beginning of a new era, when science and spirituality work together.
Look at the consciousness as a function of matter and you have science; look at matter as the product of consciousness and you have spirituality. — Nisargadatta Maharaj
Science and spirituality each have their own domains of knowledge, their own unique methods and purposes. They both are good at different things, and they both need each other.
- Spirituality is concerned with finding subjective truths, meaning, connection and fulfillment. Its subject matter is human growth, happiness, and transcendence.
- Science is concerned with finding objective truths about the external world. Its subject matter is knowledge, information, invention.
Much of the knowledge that science has, at any given time, may be proved wrong—or at least flawed and incomplete—a hundred years later; but it’s what we have to work with. Likewise, the meanings created by spirituality may evolve, but we must work with what we have at this moment, so long that it is functional. (I digress)
This seems to be the direction we are moving towards: a spirituality informed by science, and a science informed by spirituality. Science will clean up spirituality of superstitions; and spirituality will elevate science, making it review some of its materialistic assumptions. The eastern concepts of meditation, karma, reincarnation, and enlightenment will play an important role in this development—a trend that we have seen since the early days of the New Age movement.
As for the institutionalized religions, if they still want a place in the next chapters of human history, they better become more like spirituality, and less like dogma.
So that is why I consider myself, as cliché as it may sound, spiritual but not religious.
What about you? What do religion and spirituality mean to you? Please share it in the comments.