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janbb's avatar

What is the difference between religion and spirituality?

Asked by janbb (43615 points ) April 14th, 2014

Inspired by a remark in a class I taught. I know there is a difference between organized religion and spirituality, but what about religion on its own? Is there a difference between it and spirituality? If so, how would you define each.

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44 Answers

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Oh yeah. I’m very spiritual. I think there is something inside all living things that makes them special, and it can be inside other things, a mountain, a place, that makes it special. Organized religion is something I don’t pay any attention to. It’s someone’s attempt to control those around them by calling on their desire to believe in something.

Pachy's avatar

I think of spirituality as a private belief and faith, whereas religious beliefs and customs (some way call them dogma) tend to be public and prone to be proselytized.

Bill1939's avatar

People, who share a spiritual belief and gather together to perform established rituals whose purpose is to commune with entities personifying aspects of their belief with the intention of venerating and glorifying these entities and securing the well-being for their members and others, are practicing religion.

jerv's avatar

Organization and ritual basically.

With spirituality, there is never any real issue with heresy and the like as there is no codified belief system that one with different views would consider “false”; you won’t wind up with the schisms like you do with Sunni and Shiite, or Catholic and Protestant.

zenzen's avatar

I think that there may be spirituality in religion, but not always vice versa. Religion, whether organized or not, religion implies belonging to a group, a thought, a way… following… while spirituality simply is. It’s more of a feeling. Does this make any sense?

LostInParadise's avatar

I am an atheist, but I like to consider myself spiritual. There is no contraction. Those who are religious talk about higher order things that are larger than ourselves. So do I. We are parts of human and natural communities that take on their own identities. The whole is much larger than the sum of its parts. Further, we can look at an individual object, say a flower, and see beauty in both its form and in the biology behind it. We can be struck with awe and wonder on contemplating the universe and even acknowledge our ignorance of where the laws of science ultimately come from without going through the useless act of positing some human-like designer.

debrastaphan's avatar

Religion is an institution established by man for various reasons. Exert control, instill morality, stroke egos, or whatever it does. Organized, structured religions all but remove god from the equation. You confess your sins to a clergy member, go to elaborate churches to worship, told what to pray and when to pray it. All those factors remove you from god.

Spirituality is born in a person and develops in the person. It may be kick started by a religion, or it may be kick started by a revelation. Spirituality extends to all facets of a person’s life. Spirituality is chosen while religion is often times forced. Being spiritual to me is more important and better than being religious.

PhiNotPi's avatar

A religion is much more well-defined than spirituality. Religions have a set doctrine that is agreed upon by a group of people. Religions also have very specific and well-defined rituals.

A person who is spiritual is a person who is concerned about souls / spirits / life. They may believe in some sort of “connection” that forms between spirits/lifeforms. They may believe in some sort of “spiritual destiny.” They may also seek “spiritual happiness.” This is all rather vague because spirituality varies a lot from person to person.

Religious people are not necessarily spiritual, and non-religious people are not necessarily non-spiritual. The best way I can think to word it is this: Religion is the belief in a doctrine, while spirituality is a frame of mind.

zenvelo's avatar

Religion is rule and dogma. Spirituality is personal connection and understanding with something greater than our selves.

CWOTUS's avatar

I think the primary difference is that religion is an actual set of organized (or even disorganized) beliefs, practices and attitudes toward what some think of as a Supreme Being. Sometimes it’s not any more organized than the not-even-verbalized thought that “there is a God”.

And spirituality is whatever anyone says it is.

So the difference between the two is “religion is an actual thing”.

The only thing that I can think of that’s comparable to “spirituality” is the idea that a life should have “meaning”. Whatever that means.

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Khajuria9's avatar

Spirituality is truth and religion is fallacy.

thorninmud's avatar

Spirituality is an intuition. It’s an intuition that there is an aspect of reality that doesn’t appear on the cognitive maps that we use to navigate our everyday world, that something lies beyond the grasp of our powers of conception. This intuition is felt as a sense of awe and mystery that isn’t addressed by reason alone.

Religion is an organized and collective response to this intuition. It often offers a back-story intended to explain why we have this intuition. Also, because the mystery can’t be approached through reasoning, a set of practices is typically offered as a way of exploring the mystery experientially. And because the intuition seems to call for a particular way of behaving in the world, religions offer a code of conduct intended to harmonize one’s behavior with the intuition.

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is, of course, much messier. Like any strong human drive, the spiritual intuition can be appropriated and redirected to much less lofty purposes.

Seek's avatar

I’m not sure what “spirituality” is.

It seems like everyone in this thread has a different definition for it, so maybe it’s one of those nebulous concepts like “forgiveness” that has no real tangible quality.

hominid's avatar

I am suspicious of language that fails at its primary goal of communication. “Spirituality” seems to be the best example of a word that functions to either communicate the wrong idea or nothing at all.

thorninmud's avatar

Like “Love”?

hominid's avatar

@thorninmud – Love is something we can break down pretty easily. That’s why we can say that “love” does not mean wanting to beat the crap out of your wife. If “love” was a term that described a range of emotions so broad as to cover feelings of such compassion and self-less altruism and also mean the desire to kill everyone, the term would be useless. I believe “spirituality” serves this purpose (at least in my experience).

Seek's avatar

I think while “love” has many definitions, as humans we all experience “love” in its many forms (though, sometimes I do wish there were more specific words we could use in its place).

To love a person generally means you would take from yourself to benefit that person. My brother drives me crazy sometimes, but if he were in a hard place, I wouldn’t hesitate to move him in with me and take care of him. I love my brother.

To love a “thing” or concept is more nebulous, but we all experience an affinity or affection for things, so we can all relate to the concept of “I just love my new car”.

The term has meaning.

“Spirituality” is hard to break down. Can an atheist be “spiritual”? Some atheists claim to be spiritual, even if they don’t believe in spirits or souls. So the term is confusing to me, and hard to parse.

hominid's avatar

And just to be clear – I’ve been called “spiritual” more than a handful of times. But I didn’t feel comfortable with it because it seems to be so broad as to include people who are Christian but do not attend a church. What is the utility of such a word in this case?

janbb's avatar

I guess spirituality means for me the search for a deeper meaning to life and connection with more than your own narrow network. It does not posit a deity but does not necessarily exclude a belief in it so I do think atheists can be spiritual.

dappled_leaves's avatar

The term “spirituality” is so broadly defined that in practice, I don’t see it as very distinct from “emotion”. I don’t actually see the point in having it as a word.

LostInParadise's avatar

For those having trouble understanding spirituality, here is a way of thinking about it. Imagine stripping away from religion the empty rituals and hatred of those who practice different rituals. Additionally, replace self-centered absorption with pleasing some deity with direct connection to and appreciation of the outside world. What you have left over is spirituality – a reverence for this world and a desire to do good for its own sake.

thorninmud's avatar

“Love” and “spirituality” aren’t so different. Humans tend to crave intimacy. By “intimacy”, I mean the experience of giving oneself up to some extent, and merging. Breaking out of the encapsulated self and seeing “other” as not so very separate from “self”. To love someone is to touch that intimacy.

As fulfilling as that experience is, there are vast swaths of the world of experience that we don’t feel that kind of connection with. There is a demarcation between what one loves and feels intimate with, and that which one sees as entirely “other”.

Sartre observed that “hell is others”, and I think this gets to the source of the spiritual intuition. When we break out of self into intimacy, we feel bigger and less defined (that’s love). But that whole remaining realm of “other” out there is a persistent source of anxiety. It’s an existential problem for us. The intuition of spirituality is that intimacy is infinitely expandable. On some level, we suspect that the barrier between self and other isn’t actually real, and so we’re moved to probe it. We catch occasional glimpses of the possibility of intimacy at unexpected times and places. It feels a lot like love.

Coloma's avatar

Organized religion is dogma and adherence to a “truth”, that doesn’t exist.
Spirituality is simply feeling the interconnectedness of everything, and being aware that ones organism is no more or less “special” than other other living organism, be it an ant or an albatross. We all came from the same stuff, just manifested a little bit differently, but that cosmic “stuff” is not a magical god, it is simply the building blocks of all life, therefore, everything is one.

hominid's avatar

@LostInParadise – I have little trouble understanding your description of x, which you are labeling as “spirituality”. But your description differs so greatly from what I see others describe as “spirituality”, that I would love for there to be another label for this. This way, our language would be more precise.

@thorninmud – As with @LostInParadise‘s description, I have very little to disagree with regarding what you label as “spirituality”, but again I have been bombarded with people expressing their “spirituality” that almost flip your description on its head. There’s also the small issue with the word “spirit”, which may pose a problem for some of us who have issues with this term. And as for the comparison to love – you can use “love” and your definition of “spirituality” to more accurately describe the human condition. But I still take issue with common usage of the term “spirituality”.

I’ll readily admit that I cringe at the word “spirituality”, and much of it has to do with my experience of how people have used it. So, when I was attempting to describe to a friend recently a strange, temporary shift in consciousness I experienced while meditating recently (having to do with the inability to find “me” or “self”), I was told by my friend that my experience, my daily practice, and my quest is inherently “spiritual”. Yet a few days before, my mother expressed her “spirituality” to me (again), which seemed to be pure Roman Catholicism minus the going to church. You can imagine how uncomfortable I felt trying to understand how a single word was being used to describe a prescribed set of dogmatic beliefs and my informal experimentation with consciousness.

thorninmud's avatar

@hominid Oh, the word makes me cringe, too. I only resort to it out of necessity, since it has become the term of choice in English. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a word to substitute, anyway.

Invoking “spirit” takes a step away from the intuition itself and toward doctrine, so it already edges into “religion” territory. It implies that this “spiritual” realm is something other than what we see and touch and taste and hear. It sets us up to look elsewhere, outside of our everyday experience, for “something else”, and that’s really not helpful.

It helps to think more in terms of the distant etymology of “spirit”, leap-frogging over associations with supernatural beings, back to its connection with “breath”. Doing that, you can see it as evoking the insubstantiallity and transitory nature of all phenomena, and that is very useful. You don’t have to look elsewhere for the “spiritual”, it’s just the intrinsic nature of this ordinary world.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@hominid This is exactly the problem. If I have to define what a word means to me or ask the person I’m talking to what the word means to them every time it comes up in a conversation, then the word is useless. It can’t be used as a currency for an idea.

KNOWITALL's avatar

Much as @Adirondackwannabe says. Not a lot of harm seems to be done in the name of spirituality, although I know a witch or two that are highly spiritual (with tarot, etc…)

I don’t think spirituality boxes you and labels you like religion does.

Coloma's avatar

Agree with the “cringe.”
Yes, ordinary life, that is all, except “life” is not ordinary, it is magical and mysterious in the truest sense.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@LostInParadise What you describe as “spirituality” is usually described as the sublime. We already have a word for this.

Dan_Lyons's avatar

Such a simple question to show so many different answers, mostly uncertain as to what anything is regarding both aspects of the question.
Spirituality refers to those who seek to commune directly with the Great Spirit {I wonder if this is like the Great Pumpkin?}, The Creator of The Big Bang.

Religion refers to those groups of people who have used Spirituality as a means to control large populations.

Simple, yes?

ucme's avatar

Spirituality…farting during yoga class is laughed off.
Religion…farting in church is frowned upon & regarded as offending God

Seek's avatar

So… just so we’re clear, here’s the Fluther definition of “Spirituality”.

I think there is something inside all living things that makes them special, and it can be inside other things, a mountain, a place, that makes it special. spirituality as a private belief and faith, spirituality simply is. It’s more of a feeling. We can be struck with awe and wonder on contemplating the universe. Spirituality is born in a person and develops in the person… Spirituality extends to all facets of a person’s life. A person who is spiritual is a person who is concerned about souls / spirits / life. They may believe in some sort of “connection” that forms between spirits/lifeforms. They may believe in some sort of “spiritual destiny.” They may also seek “spiritual happiness.” This is all rather vague because spirituality varies a lot from person to person. Spirituality is personal connection and understanding with something greater than our selves. “spirituality” is the idea that a life should have “meaning”. Whatever that means. Spirituality is truth. I guess spirituality means for me the search for a deeper meaning to life and connection with more than your own narrow network. spirituality – a reverence for this world and a desire to do good for its own sake. Spirituality is simply feeling the interconnectedness of everything, and being aware that ones organism is no more or less “special” than other other living organism.

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Hawaii_Jake's avatar

The OP asked how we each define those terms. Here are mine.

Spirituality is the belief that something exists beyond our five senses.

Religion is an attempt to control spirituality.

Yes, I read the thread.

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rojo's avatar

Spirituality is that which religion is not.

Blondesjon's avatar

Religion rings my doorbell in an effort to sell and spread itself.

Spirituality does not.

flutherother's avatar

Religion is a bird in a cage
Spirituality is a bird in the sky.

Darth_Algar's avatar

Religion = a lot of rules and a lot of bullshit.

Spirituality = less rules, maybe no rules, but a lot more bullshit.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@flutherother Now THAT is succint.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

Religion = Jesus
Spirituality = Yoda

Bill1939's avatar

I read the lengthy article “Sublime (philosophy)” in Wikipedia that @dappled_leaves linked. It demonstrates how dynamic is the meaning of words. Words evolve. They reflect the culture of the people that use them, and culture evolves. The meaning of the terms ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ must, therefore, be determined by the user and will, or should, also evolve.

I am not aware of any religion that encompasses my definition of spirit, although Zen Buddhism comes closest when seen as a philosophy and not a religion. My simplistic understanding of spirituality is that there are two perspectives that an individual may have, serve the needs of self and serve the needs of others. I envision a spiritual field enveloping the universe analogous to the magnetic field that encompasses the earth. Like our magnetic field, spirit is polarized and its field flows in one direction.

When one is born, their survival requires opposition to the direction of this flow. As consciousness increases and one becomes more aware of aspects other than self, their spirit may add a degree of alignment with the flow. While human evolution has not reached a stage where many people can be wholly selfless, one can become more other-serving than self-serving. However, this requires a conscious effort to resist their instinctive infantile inclinations.

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