What is the difference between spirituality and religion?

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17 January
17:07
16 February
14:50

Religion and spirituality are intertwined but quite different. Spirituality has seen a spike in interest over the years, as seen by Google’s use of the world “spirituality”.

The Oxford Dictionary defines religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” and spirituality as “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things”. Yet religion often teaches about the soul and rejection of an excess of material goods, and spirituality can consist of beliefs.

Religion and spirituality are not at odds with each other and have areas of historic and doctrinal overlap. However, as it is understood today, spirituality gives the individual autonomy over his or her interpretation of the soul or spirit, whereas religion implies participation in a communal practice and interpretation of divine belief and worship.

An easy way to differentiate between the two today is via structure. Religion typically has set creeds and teachings, a long history of scholars and texts and clear leadership. Religion places an emphasis on communal gathering, communities of faith that organize around a shared belief. It requires membership and embodies practices and beliefs shaped over the course of history. Although it can vary widely between groups, religion often has some sort of leadership structure – whether within a specific and local community of believers, or a global structure similar such as the Roman Catholic Church.

Spirituality gives the individual autonomy over his or her interpretation of the soul or spirit, whereas religion implies participation in a communal practice and interpretation of divine belief and worship.

It should be noted that many religious traditions contain a “spiritual” element to them. For example, in Christianity the Holy Spirit is one part of the Holy Trinity. In Islam, a strong mystical tradition can be found in Sufism; in Judaism, one can look at Kabbalah.

An easy way to differentiate between the two today is via structure. Religion requires membership and embodies practices and beliefs shaped over the course of history. 

Today, many people often speak of spirituality as a personal self journey that connects one with a deeper meaning, without the clearer and more rigid boundaries of institutional religion. Spirituality can be thought about as a market-based system of “religious” consumerism, with individuals piecing together a mosaic of religious and secular teachings and philosophies to better one’s own non-material life. This often coopts religious practices or beliefs, with Christianity and Buddhism often combined in the West. Since the individual is the sole actor for this interpretation of spirituality, there is no leadership structure or communal gathering.

The difference between religion and spirituality is an important question and one that will only continue to be asked more and more. The line between the two is blurred, but I have found the most helpful distinction between the two is by seeing who has the agency to create meaning making for life beyond the material – is it a specific community of people and teachings, or is it left to the autonomy of the individual?

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