religion vs. spirituality

In an attempt to understand what the question of “religion vs. spirituality” is all about, I went to, probably the foremost internet site on things spiritual. According to their test “What’s your spiritual type?”, I am a “spiritual straddler”. The only explanation for that strange term is that supposedly I have “One foot in traditional religion, one foot in free-form spirituality.”

I’m not jumping up and down with joy about receiving this label although, come to think of it, it’s at least not inaccurate.

The obvious truth is that it’s not easy to talk about spirituality. It is easier to talk about religion. I can immediately think of all kinds of things to say about religion. That it has created great problems, how it’s connected to politics, how it is often a source of comfort, how similar the so-called “great religions” are, etc. It’s a topic that everyone has much to say about.

Let’s compare that to spirituality. In a way, it is a word like “fog” – you can recognize it but you can’t catch it.

Robert C. Fuller says this:

A large number of Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” It is likely that perhaps one in every five persons (roughly half of all the unchurched) could describe themselves in this way. This phrase probably means different things to different people. The confusion stems from the fact that the words “spiritual” and “religious” are really synonyms. Both connote belief in a Higher Power of some kind. Both also imply a desire to connect, or enter into a more intense relationship, with this Higher Power. And, finally, both connote interest in rituals, practices, and daily moral behaviors that foster such a connection or relationship.

These are interesting ideas, although I would not agree with all of them, or with the conviction with which Fuller says them.

For example, I think one can be spiritual without that emphasis on a higher power. While I personally have grown accustomed to that term, I think there are other ways to look at the guiding good principles that are important to people who are spiritual.

These principles do not necessarily need to be “higher” and they do not have to be a “power”. Also, this emphasis would leave out many Buddhists. While there are numerous forms of Buddhism that allow for the idea of a higher power – Pure Land Buddhism, for example – there are also many, Zen Buddhists among them, who reject the idea of a higher power. Are they not spiritual?

It also seems to me that some atheists are spiritual, in a certain way. If being spiritual means following good, life-affirming principles, then any atheist would be a spiritual person who passionately believes in, and lives, a life that includes helping others, being honest, and sharing oneself. I am thinking of a few university professors I had who were outspokenly and openly atheist and yet lived just such a life.

A higher power, a god, a supreme being, is just not everyone’s cup of tea. I also remember a pastor I once knew who was a fervent human rights and social activist and who had a really hard time talking about more esoteric matters such as prayer, life after death, etc. Maybe at heart he was a spiritual atheist, too – who knows.

Let’s see what else Mr. Fuller has to say:

A group of social scientists studied 346 people representing a wide range of religious backgrounds in an attempt to clarify what is implied when individuals describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” Religiousness, they found, was associated with higher levels of interest in church attendance and commitment to orthodox beliefs. Spirituality, in contrast, was associated with higher levels of interest in mysticism, experimentation with unorthodox beliefs and practices, and negative feelings toward both clergy and churches. Most respondents in the study tried to integrate elements of religiousness and spirituality. Yet 19 percent of their sample constituted a separate category best described as “spiritual, not religious.” Compared with those who connected interest in private spirituality with membership in a public religious group, the “spiritual, but not religious” group was less likely to

– evaluate religiousness positively
– engage in traditional forms of worship such as church attendance and prayer
– engage in group experiences related to spiritual growth

and more likely to
– be agnostic
– characterize religiousness and spirituality as different and non-overlapping concepts
– hold nontraditional beliefs
– have had mystical experiences.

Those who see themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” reject traditional organized religion as the sole ” or even the most valuable ” means of furthering their spiritual growth. Many have had negative experiences with churches or church leaders.

For example, they may have perceived church leaders as more concerned with building an organization than promoting spirituality, as hypocritical, or as narrow-minded. Some may have experienced various forms of emotional or even sexual abuse.

It looks like I am in the company of at least 346 people who do not like spirituality to be equated with religion. What about you?

And if you find that spirituality is a foggy concept to you, what do you do about it? I personally have struggled with this for many years, going through a number of – should I say it: “incarnations”. Today I feel relatively comfortable, walking a path that is informed by my liberal Lutheran roots, Christian Mysticism, the Buddhism I have been drawn to since I was a teenager, Pagan approaches, the principles inherent in the 12 steps – and all this mixed in with a healthy dose of the skepticism. For today, this works for me.

I have been able to help a number of people sort through some of the questions in their spiritual quest. Let me know if I can help you with that, too.

Isabella Mori
Counselling in Vancouver


  1. Hi’ the subject of spirituality vs. religion is quite deeper than most people would like to put it the fact is people are going to believe in a religion but not everyone feels that they have been givin the spirituallity it’s like the bible said in Hebrews: 11v.1 now faith is the substance of the things hoped for the evidence of the things not seen.If only our brothers and sisters would know that we do everything by faith on a daily basis i will be taking through more steps on Faith in the upcoming days Thank you!!

  2. Here it is in a nutshell:
    Religion is hard, spirituality is easy.
    That’s why so many people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.

  3. Bullshit. Religion is easy. All the rules are laid out for you, you don’t have to think for yourself. Religion is full of certainty. It’s for the fearful and the lazy.
    Spirituality requires doubt, true leaps of faith, uncertainty. The truly spiritual have the humility to understand they cannot know the mind of God, they can only seek to understand it.

  4. I respectfully disagree with Lloyd D. about religion and spirituality. I don’t think one or the other is easier. A person does not chose one or the other based on whimsy. One doesn’t necessarily decide to be religious or spiritual. They are simply words one chooses to define their beliefs. But “religion” is clearly connected to a set of principals and specifics.

  5. Such a damn shame that it even matters, doesn’t it? Brothers, sisters, human flesh, blood, love, laughter, tears, disaster… we all feel and struggle with similar things. Some need structure, some need room to stretch their wings and fly free. Thanks to these differences, we’ve come a long way.

  6. Structure is the word I was looking for. Thanks. Lee. Some need it, or want it, or like it, or even see it as an essential factor for themselves and others. I agree with Lee’s comments….

  7. Wow. I feel relieved. I come from a family of devout muslims and I in no way believe in religion. I consider myself a spiritual being and see religious people as followers of Holy books and prophets and such. How accurate is that?

  8. Short answers to complex questions are pratical but generally incomplete. If this subject is important to you, take the time to read my book The Great Spiritual Robbery. Yes, I know it sounds self-serving, but Ihave been told that there is a lot of good stuff in it! Jon

  9. Some observations on spirituality and religion:

    1) I do not think that either necessarily has anything to do with God or a Higher Power.
    2) There are MANY different definitions of both religion and spirituality.
    3) Some people tend to group everything that they do not like about religion, leave that behind, and call whatever is left over as spirituality.
    4) I have read that people in Europe do not generally have a category of “spirituality”. They see themselves either as religious or irreligious.
    5) Some use spirituality as a way to retreat from the messiness of religion and the difficulty of relationships and interactions with other people. Their spirituality is an inward journey of subjectivity without any actual, concrete actions that benefit other people.

    I offer the following definition of religion:

    Religion is man’s total experience of that which is considered the most important in all of life, is characterized by devotion and commitment to, love and fear of, and joy over this ultimate value, is expressed through private and/or social, symbolic rites, and provides a way of responding to and of understanding the whole of life

    Another similar definition is offered by Geddes Maggregor:

    Religion is chararacterized by

    1) interest in,
    2) concern for,
    3) encounter with,
    4) sense of absence from,
    5) sacrificial ove of,
    6) commitment to, and
    7) joy over,

    that which is judged to be more important than anything else in one’s experience and which, so conceptualized, is taken to be a symbol of that which lies at the heart of all possible experience.

  10. I’ll give it a shot: There are (at least) two realms in existence, the physical and the spiritual. Any phenomenon that has no physical component is entirely spiritual. This idea has no value judgements, though. Common usage lends a positive connotation to the word. If you are spiritual, you are somehow good. My definition would just say that if you are spiritual you are experiencing the non-physical phenomena of existence.

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