If you’re a thinker, the title of this article contains a flaw. The question assumes that there are differences between spirituality and religion. Sort of like the old question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” assumes that you did, indeed, beat your wife at one time, but now you don’t.
So, okay then. Let’s pose a better question. Assuming there are differences between spirituality and religion, what are they? Now maybe we’ve got something to work with. Let’s begin.
The Spirituality and Religion Confusion
Ask someone if they're a spiritual person, and about nine times out of 10, you’ll get an answer something like this: “Of course I’m spiritual. I go to church (or synagogue or mosque or whatever) every week and I support our food kitchen, our food bank, our clothing drives, and all the other charitable things we do.” If you respond to this less than enlightening answer by saying, “I asked you if you’re a spiritual person, not if you’re a religious person,” now you’ll likely get a blank stare at best. We won’t contemplate what you might get at worst.
And there you have it. Many, if not most, people completely confuse spirituality with religion, believing that they’re one and the same. But are they? Quite a few others say no; they’re not. While spirituality and religion often coexist quite nicely, they’re not the same, nor do they require each other in order to maintain their respective identities.
The Basic Difference
The basic difference between spirituality and religion is that religion — any religion — works from the outside in while spirituality works from the inside out.
Of the three main religious faiths, each bases its beliefs on a book as follows:
- Judaism — the Hebrew Bible a/k/a Tanakh, Temakh, Tenak, Tanach or Mikra, containing most of the same stories and historical accounts as in the Christian Old Testament
- Christianity — the Bible, containing the Old Testament (basically the Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament, containing the birth, life, death, resurrection, and teachings of Jesus, according to his followers and additional later writers
- Islam — the Qur'an, containing the word of Allah, his attributes, and man’s relationship with him, as well as directions for his followers and historical accounts of certain prophets, mainly Mohammed, and peoples
These foundational books tell Jews, Christians and Muslims how to think, act and view the world based on God and what these books say he wants out of humankind. It also tells Jews, Christians and Muslims what punishments they will receive if they don’t “act like you’re supposed to.”
Spirituality, on the other hand, begins with you. It has no foundational book. It has no rules. It lets you discover for yourself the answers to existential questions such as the following:
- Why am I here?
- Does my life have a purpose, and if so, what is it?
- What is my connection to the world?
- Is there a reason for what happens to me?
- Is there a meaning to my suffering, and if so, what is it?
- Am I a good person?
- How can I live my life in the best way possible?
As Deepak Chopra once said, “Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.”
Within Versus Without
Put another way, here are some fundamental differences between spirituality and religion that many people have discovered:
- Spirituality believes that the divine resides within everyone; religion believes that the divine resides within a superhuman power.
- Spirituality lets you devise your own personal beliefs and values system; religion dictates your beliefs and values to you.
- Spirituality believes that people are inherently good; religion believes that people are inherently evil.
- Spirituality calls you to develop; religion calls you to worship.
The choice is yours. You can be spiritual without being religious. You can be religious without being spiritual. Or you can find your own way. Who knows? You may wind up being a combination of both.