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What’s the Relationship between Spirituality and Religion?

A couple of years ago, I was hosting a spirituality discussion group. During one of the first meetings, I asked this question:

“What is the difference between religion and spirituality?”

What followed was very interesting. All attendants understood religion as being a very demanding, controlling, and rules-based oppression. Meanwhile, spirituality was about personal freedom, choice, and connection with the Divine.

As I continue and talk about my understanding of the difference between religion and spirituality, please keep in mind that I actually consider myself to be, in many respects, spiritual but not religious,…despite the fact that I am an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

When I was younger, before I joined the church, I considered myself very spiritual. I also believed that church was “bad”. In fact, I could not see myself ever joining at church because I considered organized religion to be the very antithesis of that which I stood for as a spiritual person. Yes, I too believed that the church was all about power and control.

It wasn’t until after I had joined the Presbyterian Church that I came to understand the extent to which that perspective was both limited and somewhat demeaning to those who participated in it.

As I continue to talk about religion, I’m only going to talk about healthy religion. There’s a huge difference between unhealthy, toxic religion and very healthy, vital, and thriving religion.

I also don’t believe that all spirituality is healthy. I do believe that there are versions of spirituality out there that are unhealthy and toxic.

So, regardless of whether I’m speaking of religion or spirituality, please remember I am only going to focus on the healthy versions. 

The Importance of Generosity

There are many people out there who believe that the spiritual but not religious approach is far superior to being religious. Meanwhile, we have people out there who are religious and believe that it’s not possible to be spiritual but not religious, and those who claim that identity are simply disconnected from religion and ultimately self-deceiving.

When I talk about people who have different perspectives, I try to be as generous as possible. I believe it is important to listen to what people are saying in order to understand their point of view as much as is humanly possible. So when I look at the issue of spirituality and religion, I look for what it is that both camps are trying to say. I’m trying to discern the values that they uphold and what they stand for by upholding those values. I believe this is much healthier than listening to what they’re saying to try to figure out what is wrong with them.

Spiritual but not Religious

Let’s start with the spiritual, but not religious. When I listen to what people say, I think there are three main principles that spiritual but not religious people are trying to uphold.

1. Personal Freedom

First, they emphasize personal freedom. Just because your parents or your community believes something, it doesn’t mean you have to conform to that image and believe those things, too. Yes, there will be social pressure, but you are free to explore your sense of connection with the Divine. You are free to explore your own sense of understanding of what’s going on with that connection. You are free to explore what the significance of that connection is going to be for your life. In other words, you are free to choose how you engage in spiritual connection, what you believe, and how you live your life.

You may have received religious hand-me-downs, but it doesn’t mean you have to wear them.

Of course, being spiritual but not religious does not mean that you can’t accept the teachings you grew up with. It simply means you are free to explore other options as well. And, you are free to take what you find valuable and enriching to your spiritual life and make it your own.

2. Personal Responsibility

Second, they emphasize personal responsibility. This naturally follows the principle of freedom. If you have decided to step outside of religious community norms, then you don’t get to fall back on those norms as a defense. You don’t get to say, “Well, that’s just what my religious community believes,” or “this is just the way my religious community does things.”

The moment you step out as an individual with freedom of choice, you also have to accept personal responsibility for your sense of connection with the divine, how you understand that connection, and the way you live your life.

If the way you live your life is harming others, then you have to take responsibility for that behavior. If your belief system is leading to behavior that causes harm, then you are responsible for that belief system and the damage it brings into the world. If you believe that the Earth is sacred then you are responsible for acting in a way that actually treats the Earth as if it is sacred.

3. Non-Identification with Institutionalized Abuse

Third, non-identification with institutionalized abuse. This one is interesting because I believe that most of the drive behind the spiritual but not religious movement is a reaction to what is perceived as the sins of the Christian church.

As an American, I will only speak for American Christianity. But, a quick glance at history reveals the extent to which many human beings—as well as the Earth itself—have been abused in the name of Christ.

If you are spiritual but not religious, and you have a sense of personal freedom and personal responsibility for your sense of connection with the divine, belief system, and behavior, it becomes important (if not imperative) to distance yourself from organizations that you consider spiritually abusive.

This naturally leads to non-identification with the Christian church. After all, willful identification with an abusive institution validates it. So, the more distance you can put between yourself and institutionalized abuse, the better.

To sum up, the principles that spiritual but not religious people seem to emphasize our personal freedom, personal responsibility, and non-identification with abusive religion.

Religious Folk

Let’s now move on to the religious folk. You probably noticed that I mentioned the word “personal” and awful lot while talking about the spiritual but not religious folk. As we move into the perspective of the religious folk, it’s time to highlight community, or corporate, life.

Here I again see three principles that are being emphasized.

1. Commitment to Tradition

First, a commitment to tradition. Too often, the spiritual but not religious equate tradition with things that you are required to believe, the rituals you must participate in, and the way you are expected to behave in life. Yes, we’re talking about the rules and regulations, and everything that goes with it.

I think looking at a tradition this way is a huge mistake. It’s better to think about tradition as all those people who have come before you, and all those people who are going to come after you. When you’re participating in a tradition, something you realize isvthat the people who came before you weren’t stupid. There were a great many wondrously wise people who came before you that you can learn from as you embark upon your own spiritual journey. As I interact with the wisdom that comes through a tradition, it informs my personal spirituality and helps me to transform into who I am meant to become. So a tradition informs and transforms you.

And it’s not as though traditions are static. Traditions are a reflection of the people who participate in them. As the people who participate in a tradition grow and transform, the tradition itself reflects that by transforming. The nature of a tradition is to evolve. So while the participants are being informed and transforming, the tradition itself is also being informed and transforming. Religious folk embrace this symbiotic relationship with those who have come before them and those who are yet to come.

2. Commitment to Religious Community

Second, a commitment to the others around you, or religious community. Let’s face it, life can be hard. And it’s difficult to get through it alone. When you’re a part of a religious community, you work together to interpret your communal life in light of your common spirituality. This helps end the isolation our world leans toward.

Of course, when you get a group of people together and want them to work and play well with each other, you need some ground rules to keep them on the same page. And this, in many respects, is exactly what the tradition itself does. People in religious community are able to connect better because they have a shared system of symbols and common language to help bind them.

Of course, Truth be told, while the tradition does keep everybody on the same basic page, in reality people are still all over the place. But that sense of commitment to each other creates a shared identity that helps them to continue to relate to each other and stay together.

3. Commitment to Work through Difficulty

Third, a commitment to work through difficulty. Times will arise in communal life when things get difficult, tensions run high, and relationships get strained. Too often in our world it seems like a popular sentiment is, “when the going gets tough, I’m out of here.”

Membership in a religious community is like a covenant. And when people enter into this covenant, they say that they are going to do their best to try to work with others, especially when things get tough.

Ideally, there is a commitment to dialogue during these times. The sense of commitment can help people to say, “I don’t like what’s going on, and I think we need to talk about this. I’m not going to demonize you. Instead, I’m going to talk with you about this so we can work through it.” It’s important to respect otherness, while at the same time learning to say, “This is where I stand.” Personally, I believe this skill is something that our world desperately needs right now.

To summarize, I see three main principles being emphasized by the religious folk. First a commitment to tradition. Second a commitment to others in the community. And, third, a commitment to work things out.

I realize I’ve talked about spirituality and religion in a rather black-and-white way. I realize that the way I’ve done it is also a bit romanticized. I’ve approached it this way because my goal is to foster a sense of empathy with others while looking at this issue.

Where Do I Personally Stand?

More than likely, you figured out where I am with this if you paid close attention to what I’ve been saying. I think that spirituality and religion are two sides of the same coin. Spirituality is the personal element. And religion is the communal element. I hesitate to split the two because I see the two interweaving with one another.

Religious people who participate in a tradition quickly discover how the tradition helps them grow in their personal spirituality. Again, tradition informs and transforms. It helps them grow into spiritual adults who are able to do things like take responsibility for their sense of connection with God, what they believe, and how they’re going to live their lives.

Meanwhile, spiritual but not religious people who exercise their freedom to explore spirituality are going to come across teachers who enrich their spiritual lives. These teachers may come from books, the internet, or conversations with people over coffee. And as these spiritual seekers are invigorated, they seek out similar teachings and practices that are in alignment with this new vitality that they experienced. All of these teachings and practices they receive have been passed down from one person to another to another until they’ve reached this spiritual person. And then the teachings and practices inform and transform. While this may not be official participation in a tradition, functionally, it is quite similar.

I believe that when religion and spirituality are at their healthiest, they really are two sides of the same coin.

Want to Know A Dirty, Little Secret about Religion?

I realize that many spiritual but not religious people would still be very leery about religion even after reading what I’ve written. I totally understand.

That’s why I also want to share with you a little secret that is not normally taught in religious circles, but is true nonetheless.

A religious institution only has as much power over your life as you give it.

You don’t have to believe what it teaches. You don’t have to accept it’s norms.

For example, let’s assume you are in a religious community that says you are not to be using birth control. Do you really think anyone is going to bust into your home and look for condoms? Do you really think that anyone is going to come up to you and ask you, “Are you on the pill?”

Of course not.

And so what if they did? What’s the worst they can do?

Maybe they will kick you off the church board.

Oh look, you suddenly have more free time! How terrible, right?

(Quick reminder: I’m only talking about healthy religion here, not the toxic version.)

So, if you choose to participate in a religious community, you are still free to explore your sense of connection with the divine, evaluate your beliefs, and live your life in the way that you think is most appropriate…just like a spiritual adult should.

And if you are in a religious community that just becomes too unbearable, after you’ve tried to work through the difficulty you are still free to leave and seek out a different community that you believe will be more in line with your spiritual values and better able to help you to continue to grow.

What it’s worth, I believe that bringing spirituality and religion together as two sides of the same coin you open the door to the best of both worlds.