It has been my experience that when one talks of spirituality to a religious person, things get confusing. We often think of spirituality and religion as being interchangeable terms, as though to be one automatically makes you the other, but they are not. While it is possible for the one to be an element of the other, this is not usually the case. Most religious people are not, as a rule, particularly spiritual, while spiritual people are often irreligious—that is, they adhere to no particular religious creed or belief system.
Why is this distinction important? To better understand that, it is necessary that we first define our terms.
What Religion Is
The biggest difference between religion and spirituality lies in its perspective regarding the nature and character of God.
Religion generally sees God as something that exists “out there” apart from its creation. In essence, God is a personal spirit of some kind, usually exhibiting masculine characteristics, with a specific set of beliefs and opinions, and as such an entity to be both worshiped and feared. The end result of attempting to do just that is what we call religion—that is, a man-made set of traditional beliefs often many centuries or even thousands of years’ old—that teach us who God is, what he/she wants (or expects) of us, and what we have to do to find eternal life or salvation.
Further, each faith considers itself to be the only “true” path to God, though they may be willing to admit that there may be “gems of wisdom” evident in other faiths. Each usually possesses a specific set of rituals, traditions, and moral imperatives the believer is required to observe in order to be considered a follower. There may be some aspects of the faith that may be open to interpretation—this is usually what creates various denominations or “schools of thought”—but the primary core values remain consistent and, usually, inalterable. Additionally, each religion usually has a founder, whose writings or teachings are revered and generally considered to be infallible, and though they may be interpreted in different ways—which itself often creates splits within a faith—they cannot be disregarded.
Spirituality, on the other hand, does not perceive God to be an individual spirit or entity separate from his/her/its creation, but the conscious, empowering energy that resides within each molecule of creation and animates the very universe itself. This God has no specific personality or moral demands and can be approached through nature, through ritual, or any of a number of ways.
As a result, spirituality boasts a virtual smorgasbord of competing ideas and thoughts that one is free to choose from without fear of being considered a heretic if one chooses “incorrectly”. In effect, spirituality allows for God to make itself known to each person individually—that is, in accordance with their level of understanding or awareness—rather than having the divine appear in a preordained way. Further, while spirituality also has many leaders, no one is considered the ultimate authority, nor are their teachings or writings considered infallible or beyond criticism. In other words, spirituality maintains a freedom and openness that religion does not—and, indeed, cannot allow for.
Is One More Valuable than the Other?
Obviously, this is a problem for religion, which is much more dependent upon its followers maintaining a consensual and consistent set of beliefs. To permit people to pick and choose which doctrines to follow and which to ignore destroys the mechanism required to maintain order and removes the moral yardstick we use to measure how faithful one is to their beliefs, especially when compared to other believers.
Spirituality, on the other hand, permits each person to walk their own path towards understanding what the divine means to them and practice their faith in their own way. Does that mean that religion has no value then? Not at all. I owe much of my current understanding about God to religion—specifically my Christian faith. It was my preschool into the world of the divine and my first introduction to a larger reality. In effect, it taught me my ABCs when it came to the nature of God and got me thinking on a much grander scale than I was capable of perceiving on my own, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
However, it’s important to understand that while religion can be useful to help one along their path, it is not the final destination. It is only a stop along the way to a greater adventure that ends with the recognition of the inherent divinity inside all men and women, and that we are but manifestations of that greater consciousness—that which we call God—that permeates the universe.