The Great Debate: Spirituality vs. Religion

Have you ever made this declaration: “I’m spiritual, not religious!”?

I used to say this to people all the time. I thought that being spiritual made me less legalistic and far less judgmental than a religious person.

Have you considered your motives when making this statement? Is your goal to separate yourself from religious others whom you feel lead lives contradictory to your beliefs?

Or, do you feel mystically connected to the word spiritual?

For me, it was a bit of both. When I would proudly profess to be spiritual, but not religious, I did not want to be associated with religious people. I thought that such people were self-righteously pious.

I also felt that being spiritual afforded me a heightened level of awareness that a religious person could not relate to experiencing.

What I have since discovered is that many spiritual people incorporate religious practice into their lives. Religion is a positive concept with a negative connotation. I think that we mistakenly associate religion with what is actually institutional (organized) religion.

It is my belief that spirituality and religion complement one another - reinforcing a person’s spiritual life.

Religion vs. Spirituality

The term spirituality has been preferred over religion since the late 1980s. Spirituality was considered to be more intimate and self-directed, whereas the idea of religion was connected with doctrine and meeting institutional standards of a given belief system.


As an organized belief system, religion is inclusive of practices specific to a particular denomination or sect. There might also be doctrines specifically assigned to the practice of a particular religion and hierarchical structures that encourage the longevity of an existing religion or fosters the growth of a new belief system.

With all of this come both individual and communal expectations. Individuals may feel obligated – in full or partial agreement – to live up to certain standards as part of a community of believers. The religious community might feel pressured to set parameters that those in the surrounding society might expect them to maintain – often as an unspoken rule.

Rituals, standards, doctrine, and expectations all give religion a bad reputation.

Religion in itself is not bad; the meaning that we assign to rituals and doctrine and the sometimes grandiose expectations linked to these rituals and beliefs are what become tainted.


Spirituality, on the other hand, allows for some reprieve. The word spirituality has a lighter tone to it, it sort of rolls off of your tongue with ease. When this word is spoken, people’s ears perk up with delightful expectancy for the expressions that will follow.

There are no set rules or standards; rituals are practiced at a person’s discretion; doctrine is similarly voluntary; with spirituality there are options.

But are religion and spirituality really that different? If so, do they need to be?

Why Not Spirituality AND Religion?

Must spirituality and religion be mutually exclusive or could they play out as overlapping concepts? Can a spiritual person practice religion and vice versa?

Religion can’t be practiced without some level of faith in the belief system. A person can’t genuinely develop faith in a belief system without a personal spiritual connection to a higher power.

I cautiously venture to say that one cannot practice religion without spirituality. And I question whether one can lead a spiritual life without incorporating elements of religious tradition. Religious traditions can involve prayer, communion (Eucharist), social gatherings, worship services, scripture, and such. Where does religion end and spirituality begin? Might one who is spiritual also pray, or is that not permissible? Can a religious person be permitted to meditate, or would that action be considered sacrilegious?

The intimate nature of spirituality can make religious practices all the more meaningful. And religious traditions can help ground spiritual endeavors. Institutions may never be removed from the equation, but keep in mind that they are only a fraction of the whole.

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