in

The Differences Between Spirituality and Religion

The debate regarding whether there are differences between spirituality and religion has been happening for the longest time. Most of us have often used the words “spirituality” and “religion” interchangeably. And although they are not diametric opposites, neither are they the same.

Since the beginning of civilization, humanity has been passionately searching for the Truth – the ultimate answers to life and the universe. Thus, this perennial knowledge constitutes the answers to what are often called the soul questions: Who am I? What do I want? What is my purpose? What is the meaning of life?

In order to answer these questions, humankind has walked down two foundational routes to discover these truths: religions and spirituality. And despite their similarities and the link between the two, there are stark differences between religion and spirituality.

To learn more about the differences between spirituality and religion, please continue reading the article.

“We would need to understand that religious beliefs and spiritual beliefs are different in the ways in which they are practiced. However, each practice serves as a tool to lead us closer to the Truth that we seek.”

The debate regarding whether there are differences between spirituality and religion has been happening for the longest time. Most of us have often used the words “spirituality” and “religion” interchangeably. And although they are not diametric opposites, neither are they the same.

Since the beginning of civilization, humanity has been passionately searching for the Truth – the ultimate answers to life and the universe. Thus, this perennial knowledge constitutes the answers to what are often called the soul questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I want?
  • What is my purpose?
  • What is the meaning of life?

In order to answer these questions, humankind has walked down two foundational routes to discover these truths: religions and spirituality. And despite their similarities and the link between the two, there are stark differences between religion and spirituality.

Definition

Religion

Religion is defined as a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitude, beliefs and practices as well as the service and worship to a higher being or the supernatural.

Spirituality

Meanwhile, spirituality signifies an experience of connection to something bigger than us – living life in a reverent way or in a sacred manner.

Origins of Religions and Spirituality

Religion: Religions are usually often based upon the lives, teachings and beliefs of historical or archetypal figures such as Buddha, Krishna, Muhammad and Jesus. The details of these people’s lives to be holy or becoming highly evolved beings have been passed down to us over the years through oral tradition or sacred scriptures. At the same time, these religious figures are the subject of both worship and devotion as well as the foundation of the respective religious practices and rituals in the sect.

Spirituality: On the other hand, spirituality is based on the practical application of the founder’s teachings. Spiritual seekers would follow the advice of the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”

Having said that, we often find the definitions of both spirituality and religion tend to cross each other’s territory. We may know people who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious or vice versa.

To help clear things up, let us take a deeper look at the most significant differences between religious and spiritual paths. Do take note that there are no absolutes in distinctions but are merely just general markers meant to better understand the qualities between them with equal and valid approaches for those seeking the Truth.   

1.Objective vs. Subjective Experience

Religion: On the whole, a formal religion is often an objective experience as there is usually a greater focus on the externals which include:

  • Houses of worship
  • Sacred books or scriptures
  • Rituals
  • Observances

That said, this is the equivalent of object-referral in which our focus is placed upon the objects in our experience.

Spirituality: Meanwhile, spirituality tends to lean more toward self-referral or the internalization of your awareness of your soul. Spirituality is understood as an inward journey that involves a shift in awareness as compared to some form of external activity. Thus, spirituality is more about the inner understanding than external worship. However, this doesn’t mean that worship is not part of spirituality, but it is where the devotion and worship that are directed:

  • To an external practice, object or figurehead
  • To your soul, higher self or divinity from within

2.Organized vs. Formless

Religion: One of the hallmarks of religion is its organizations where it is often structured and is frequently rule-based construct where to some degree governs the behavior of its members.

Moral rules, laws, doctrines, and specific codes and criteria were implemented and followed in order to create an organized structure that holds the religion’s specific belief system. Back in the past where the times were more uncertain, rules and dogma of organized religions provided society a sense of security and certainty to help and guild those whose faith was lacking.

Spirituality: Spirituality breaks free from restrictions and rigid structure. Spiritual seekers have the flexibility to find their own path of self-discovery. They do not need to follow a set of external rules but their own inner call to discover. That said, spirituality can often be perceived as a rebellious act of going against the herd – of which is not necessarily a bad thing to do.

3.Traditional vs. Evolutionary Approach

Religion: With centuries to millennia-old histories and origins, religions are often to be deeply rooted in tradition, ritual, creed and doctrines. Many religions have conservatively guarded their practices and values – rigid to the past and the original interpretations of the founder’s teaching. It is understandable that all religions want to preserve the essence of their teaching so it would be accurately spread in the current time as well as the future.

Spirituality: Contrast to religion, spirituality does not focus as much on the rigid traditions but takes on an evolutionary mentality approach. Thus, spirituality tends to be a more flexible and adaptive approach towards the core teaching of the great wisdom traditions. Spirituality embraces change and the evolution of consciousness, thus, spiritual practices, ideas and interpretations will change according to the times as we and the world move forward into the future.

4.Exclusive vs. Inclusive

Religion: Traditional religious beliefs which are very often derived from rigid interpretation of key teachings have created an exclusive worldview that isolates those who may not share the same views or interpretations. Unfortunately, this mentality is used to justify the exclusion of minorities or those deemed unworthy to receive the blessing and favor from a higher being.

Spirituality: In contrary to spirituality, it makes no such distinctions as it takes on an inclusive methodology. And in recognition that pure spirit is a unifying force, no one should be left out. Thus, we are all part of the universal hologram, all gods and goddesses in disguise. Krishna once said in the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4 verse 11: “As men approach me, so I receive them. All paths Arjuna, lead to me.”

Simply saying, from a spiritual perspective, no one has a monopoly on the Truth, and all are welcome in the eyes of the higher being.

5.Beliefs vs. Spiritual Experience

Religion: The centre of religion is all about faith. Thus, belief in something is based on unconditional acceptance of the religion’s teachings. Religions do not need evidence to substantiate their claims and through religion, devotees are taught to have faith in the gods or the scriptures as being infallible and ultimate truth of reality. At the same time, acceptance and surrender to the divine are taught as the only path that leads to salvation.

Spirituality: Spirituality does not reject faith, but it tends to be more heavily focussed on direct experience of the soul or divinity. Spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, silence and contemplation will allow us to make conscious contact with more expanded states of consciousness where it would help us to experientially justify the teachings than acknowledging them based on faith alone. You will know of something you have felt the experience yourself and allowed it to resonate in your being.

6.Fear vs. Love

Religion: Although the best of intentions, religions can every so often contain a subtle or not feeling of fear woven into their teachings. For example, the concepts of original sin, divine judgment, God’s wrath or external punishment can cause a mental environment stricken in worry and anxiety of our worthiness and whether your actions will be in divine retribution or karmic punishment.

At the same time, your fate in the afterlife would often loom at the back of your mind which will influence your thoughts and behavior.

Spirituality: On the other hand, spirituality discards the vestiges of fear and worry in favour of a more loving and compassionate approach towards life and death. Unlike religion, it embraces a consciousness-based worldview that supports us on our path to awakening unconditional love and kindness.

Also, our choices and behavior are not influenced by fear of punishment but the desire to end suffering and to form a peaceful and loving world for everyone.

As conclusion, there are obvious differences between spirituality and religions, however, the comparisons are not to be absolutes or to polarize one against the other.

We would need to understand that religious beliefs and spiritual beliefs are different in the ways in which they are practiced. However, each practice serves as a tool to lead us closer to the Truth that we seek. You may choose either or both paths to journey as it is your own personal and subjective expression of your awakening.

Credit: Chopra.com

Michael Teh, 7th January 2022.