SPIRITUALITY AND RELIGION - WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
People often equate spirituality and religion when indeed there are differences between the two. In this article, I provide some practical definitions that clarify what the differences are between spirituality and religion.
Spirituality deals with the spirit. "Spirit" can be defined as "an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms".1 Spirit, though often equated with deity (defined below), is not necessarily a deity. To be spiritual simply means "of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit".2 "Spirituality" is then defined as "the quality or state of being spiritual".3 Another definition of spirituality that will have more relevance in comparison to religion could be "an individual spiritual path of personal growth and enlightenment that may or may not manifest itself as a fairly organized social group and consisting of a set of philosophical beliefs, which often include beliefs about deity, whether or not deity exists, and which may or may not be accompanied by a set of practices."
Religion, on the other hand, deals with deity. "Deity" can be defined as "the rank or essential nature of a god - divinity".4 Deity comes from the Greek word "theos" or "deus"; however, the original Greek word was not gender specific, and therefore, "deity" is neither masculine or feminine. Additionally, Greek language scholars claim that the word "theos" or "deus" has a more complex meaning that is not adequately conveyed in the English word "deity". Some names used to refer to deity include God, Goddess, Source, Great Spirit, Higher Power, and Creator. Religion also deals with spirit, as defined above, which means that a religion is also a spiritual path. Religion is also socially organized to some extent, whereas spirituality may not be. Thus, a definition of religion could be "an organized social group based upon a set of philosophical beliefs, which include a belief in deity, and consisting of a set of practices which accompany the philosophical beliefs where the set of philosophical beliefs and practices comprises the doctrine, the core teaching, of the social group."
Religion can also be thought of as having seven key aspects or dimensions.5 These seven dimensions are practical/ritual, experiential/emotional, narrative/mythic, doctrinal/philosophical, ethical/legal, social/institutional, and material. Through studying and comparing different religions, it has been found that all religions consist of all seven dimensions to some extent. (Note that it has been found that secular worldviews such as nationalism and Marxism also consist of these seven dimensions making these worldviews similar to religion; however, note the lack of a belief in deity in these worldviews. Though in the case of Marxism, some extremists could perceive Karl Marx as a deity.)
In short, spirituality is defined by the individual spirit of a person while religion is specifically social and embodies doctrine. Spirituality can be as general or as specific as a religion. Religion tends to be fairly specific in its doctrine while spirituality does not necessarily require teaching the beliefs and practices which someone follows.
Someone who is spiritual need not follow a religion, but may choose to or may simply choose to adopt beliefs and practices from different religions forming a unique spirituality. Someone who is spiritual need not follow a set of practices, but generally has a set of philosophical beliefs. Someone who is spiritual need not believe in deity, but may nevertheless participate in religious practices involving deity. Someone who is spiritual may have a belief in the "afterlife" and not believe in the existence of deity. For example, someone may simply believe we become energy after death or that we simply reincarnate. Neither of these beliefs require a belief in deity because it is possible that this is "just the way the world works". Someone can be spiritual and be an atheist. However, atheism is not a religion according to the definition given above since atheism is a non-belief in deity. The existence of deity is dismissed outright in atheism.
Based upon the definition of spirituality given above, it is possible for everyone to be spiritual to some degree and to develop spiritually. This section of the website is written with this thought in mind and provides information and ideas that will allow a person to explore spirituality and to know herself better.
"I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with belief in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another--an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of meta-physical or philosophical reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or hell. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayers and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit--such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony, which bring happiness to both self and others." - His Holiness the Dalai Lama
1. From http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/spirit
2. From http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/spiritual
3. From http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/spirituality
4. From http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/deity
5. The World's Religions (Second Edition) by Ninian Smart, pages 13-22.
Copyright C.J. Chow November 2006