To set things straight, I’m not in either the “religion is evil” or “spirituality is nonsense” groups.
I’m that weird outlier who’s hanging out on the outskirts holding up a sign that says “BOTH are good and BOTH are bad folks.”
As someone who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian faith (and kissed that goodbye years ago!), and has been on the spiritual-but-not-religious path for over a decade, I find myself in the middle. I often straddle the line between religiosity and spirituality knowing that each has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Sure, I can understand why people either hate religion or elevate spirituality (and vice versa), but I’m not interested in perpetuating division – our world has enough of that already.
There is a lot of beauty and depth in both religion and spirituality, and before we “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” I want to offer you, dear spiritual sojourner, some food for thought; something to meditate upon and contemplate.
Firstly, this article will explore the differences between spirituality vs religion for the sake of clarity, but it will also touch on a third path which I believe is necessary for us to evolve and find peace as human beings.
Table of contents
- Spirituality & Religion Definitions
- Why We Hate Religion & Think Spirituality is Woo-Woo
- Spirituality vs Religion: 11 Differences (With Pros & Cons)
- The Third Way: Mysticism
- What is Mysticism?
- How to Unite Spirituality and Religion in Your Life (Without the Ugly Dogma)
- Final Words
Spirituality & Religion Definitions
As I explored in my previous article entitled “what is spirituality,” I define spirituality vs religion in the following ways:
What is Spirituality?
The word “spirituality” comes from the Latin word spiritualis, which means, “breath; of the spirit; air.” (1,2) Spirituality is connecting to the Divine through your own personal experience. It is primarily concerned with finding, experiencing, and embodying one’s true spiritual nature.
What is Religion?
The word “religion” comes from the Latin word religionem, which means, “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods; conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation.” (1) Religion is connecting to the Divine through someone else’s experience. It is primarily concerned with believing in, following, and obeying the rules created by a certain Deity or spiritual teacher.
Iconic singer David Bowie famously described spirituality vs religion in the following brilliantly irreverent way:
Religion is for people who’re afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there.
Why We Hate Religion & Think Spirituality is Woo-Woo
To be fair, not everyone clearly hates religion or thinks spirituality is woo-woo. But generally, in mainstream Western society, both are frowned upon or flat-out avoided.
Since religion began its increasing decline in the early 20th century which was promoted by the Age of Enlightenment in the previous period and reinforced by the horrors of the world wars, the idea of “God” is now largely seen as not just infantile, but ludicrous.
In the words of Nietzsche, the well-known German philosopher who essentially prophesied the crumbling of religion in the West (“God is dead”):
What do we do with a human God, when we turn to God, precisely because we’re disgusted by mankind?
This kind of statement perfectly summarizes the kind of (rightfully justified) cynicism and disillusionment that we carry toward the popular patriarchal notion of a white dude sitting in the sky, judging all our actions.
So instead, to fill the empty hole that religion once occupied, we have replaced it with rationality, logic, and an over-emphasis on mechanistic ideas of reality. Science has become the new God, or what is known as “Scientism” – a word popularized by Austrian economist F. A. Hayek in the early 20th century.
In a society that values science as the new word of God, spirituality or anything metaphysical (that can’t be directly, empirically, “proven” by the scientific method) is seen to be woo-woo, fluffy, or worse *gasp* … “pseudoscience.”
And yet, regardless of where we stand as a species, we all have an innate drive to seek something higher and greater than ourselves – whether that be God, Enlightened Consciousness, our next-and-best consumerist purchase, or a dogmatic belief that Science is the only “true way” of seeing the world.
I don’t believe that we’re done with religion or spirituality yet – in fact, I believe that we’re not only craving these paths as a species, but we need them.
Religiosity, spirituality, and devotion to something Higher than the ego are basic human needs and intrinsic human qualities. Yes, they have most certainly caused tremendous evil in this world (I’m speaking mostly about religion here), which is undeniable.
But can’t they be salvaged?
And if they can be salvaged, which path do we walk (if any)?
That’s where my experience, reflections, and discoveries can help.
Spirituality vs Religion: 11 Differences (With Pros & Cons)
So first, what are the specific differences between spirituality and religion?
I’ll explore the differences below as well as the pros and cons of spirituality and religion.
Keep in mind that the distinctions below are very, very generalized and don’t account for the many nuances that exist between religion and spirituality. Nothing is totally black and white.
|Goal is love and freedom
|Goal is obedience or salvation
|Focuses on experiencing internal Divinity
|Focuses on obeying or devotion to an external Divinity
|Present-oriented (heaven is within you now)
|Future-oriented (heaven is where you go when you die)
|Oneness-oriented (we are all One)
|Duality-oriented (good/evil, right/wrong, heaven/hell)
|Promotes joy, spontaneity, and compassion
|Promotes self-sacrifice, devotion, and service to others
|Theoretical / belief-based
Let’s break down the individual differences as well as the light and darkness within spirituality and religion below:
Spirituality vs Religion #1 – Personal / Community-oriented
While spirituality focuses on the personal connection with the Divine, religion encourages a community-centered connection with the Divine. In other words, different religions, in general, tend to focus on gathering people together and finding shared faith in one god or ideology.
Pros & Cons:
- Spirituality: While creating a personal connection with the Divine is empowering and transformative, it can also become quite isolating. If we aren’t careful, our spiritual path becomes like a solitary, hermetically-sealed jar that can separate us from others and the world.
- Religion: On the other hand, while gathering in a community helps to ground and motivate us, as well as keep us connected with others, it can sometimes feel disempowering. If we depend on others (i.e., our church, synagogue, sangha, etc.) for our spiritual connection, our connection with the Divine can feel shallow and infantile.
Spirituality vs Religion #2 – Wisdom / Knowledge
When it comes to using the mind, spirituality focuses on cultivating wisdom. In this case, wisdom means a deep and integrated knowing that is expressed through how we live our lives.
Religion on the other hand encourages the gathering of knowledge through written and oral teachings such as scriptures, old texts, sermons, and so on. Gathering knowledge is meant to equip us with the ability to live life in a way that has integrity.
Pros & Cons:
- Spirituality: Developing wisdom is wonderful and important, but without embracing ourselves as learners and stepping into “beginner’s mind,” we can become haughty. In other words, if we believe that we alone have gathered all of our wisdom, the opposite happens: we become foolish and egotistical.
- Religion: Gathering knowledge is necessary for the development of our mental understanding and the development of various virtues. But if we only focus on becoming learned in what others teach, we lack a connection to our own understanding. Our connection with the Divine then becomes stale and cerebral, lacking depth and pizzaz.
Spirituality vs Religion #3 – Love & Freedom / Obedience & Salvation
Spirituality, lacking a clear structure, is all about gaining and experiencing love and freedom. Religion, on the other hand, is about submitting oneself to a certain path (i.e., ‘obedience’) and searching for freedom from suffering.
Pros & Cons:
- Spirituality: Seeking love and freedom is a beautiful and meaningful practice that can lead to some life-changing experiences. But without some kind of formal commitment and some kind of recognition of our innate suffering (as religion offers), we can easily lapse into a shallow and watered-down version of spirituality.
- Religion: As for religion, obedience and salvation help to provide structure, groundedness, and humbling of the ego, but they can also lead to a kind of life-denying, grim, and overly regimented way of living. Such an emphasis on obedience can also be a gateway into abuse (as it often is).
Spirituality vs Religion #4 – Feeling-Based/Thought-Based
The basic difference between spirituality vs religion here is that spirituality is all about “Follow your own bliss” whereas religion’s motto tends to be “Not my will but thy will be done.”
Pros & Cons:
- Spirituality: Listening to your heart and following your instincts is powerful in that it helps you to feel like the master of your destiny. Furthermore, listening to your soul’s voice helps you to develop more trust in yourself and walk a path that feels authentic. But focusing too much on feelings can result in ego-centrism and spiritual escapism.
- Religion: Rules, on the other hand, help to provide precepts for our lives, especially if they’re based on ancient tried-and-tested philosophies. But rules can obviously be constricting, limiting, and lead to the development of unnecessary guilt and toxic shame complexes.
Spirituality vs Religion #5 – Experiencing Internal Divinity/Obeying External Divinity
Modern spirituality puts a great emphasis on our personal connection with God/Life/Spirit. We’re encouraged to find the truth within ourselves. Religion, on the other hand, puts emphasis on humbling ourselves to a Divinity that is usually seen as outside of ourselves.
Pros & Cons:
- Spirituality: Without experiencing our internal connection to the Divine (i.e., what spirituality thankfully offers), we feel hollow and empty inside – something always seems missing. And yet, it can be easy to confuse our connection with the Divine with a connection to the inflated ego that seems Divine (see: the spiritual narcissist).
- Religion: On the other side of the spectrum, obeying or humbling ourselves to an external Divinity helps to keep the ego in check. Having something ‘greater’ than ourselves can lead to the development of some wonderful qualities such as receptivity and modesty. But only seeing the Divine as outside of ourselves can deepen the feeling of our separation (aka. ego) which is the root cause of our suffering.
Spirituality vs Religion #6 – Present-Oriented/Future-Oriented
Spiritual philosophies teach that heaven is within us right now with an emphasis on mindfulness, presence, and tuning into our Higher Selves. Religion, on the other hand, teaches that heaven is something found in the future (usually after you die).
Pros & Cons:
- Spirituality: In reality, the present moment is the only moment we have – it’s the only place in which we’re actually alive. As such, there’s a refreshing immediacy to what spirituality teaches and that is that the Divine is accessible in any moment. Such a teaching is highly liberating and encouraging. On the other hand, for those who struggle to stay present or are living in a traumatic situation, this present-moment teaching can be demoralizing and even scary.
- Religion: The other teaching, that now comes from religion, is that heaven or the Divine can be found in the future. For those who need hope and the motivation to keep going, this teaching can be life-saving. But at the same time, seeing heaven as only being in the future can starve us of the ability to find it in the here and now, which is a terrible tragedy.
Spirituality vs Religion #7 – Oneness-Oriented/Duality-Oriented
Spirituality teaches us that All is One (non-duality), that there is ultimately no separation between the spark of Divine within us and the Divine that pervades everything.
Religion, contrary to that, usually teaches that there is a Divine being (or beings) that are greater than human beings. Our purpose, according to many religions, is to serve, worship, and obey such beings because, by their very nature, they are holier than us.
Spirituality teaches sacredness – or that the Divine can be experienced, felt, and embodied. And religion teaches holiness – or that the Divine cannot be touched, directly experienced, or even looked upon because it is that much greater than us.
Pros & Cons:
- Spirituality: Seeing ourselves as ultimately One helps to foster feelings of compassion, unity, and interconnectedness; qualities that our world is in desperate need of. Yet despite such a beautiful message from spirituality, too much focus on Oneness can result in a lack of boundaries. Without boundaries, we can lapse into cultural appropriation, avoiding the fact that we are also human, and bypassing the issues of the world by focusing only on a feel-good message of Oneness.
- Religion: Seeing ourselves as separate, which is what religion promotes, helps us to be grounded in our humanity, face the suffering of the world that is caused by us being “less than perfect,” and promote more active social change. Yet the cons of a duality-oriented approach are that it ignores the fact that we’re also sacred at the core of our being – and this denial can deepen our separation from the Divine. Unfortunately, the more separated we feel, the more we suffer.
Spirituality vs Religion #8 – Informal/Formal
There are pretty much no rules at all in the realm of spirituality (other than unspoken codes of conduct like no killing, no stealing, etc.). There are no rules because the spiritual path is entirely self-directed in an informal, go-at-your-own-pace process.
Religion, contrary to spirituality, is highly formal. There are set structures, routines, rituals, and rules one is expected to adhere to in order to call oneself a devotee.
Pros & Cons:
- Spirituality: Informal spirituality allows us great freedom to explore and expand at will. However, the downside is that it can get scattered, unfocused, and confused easily. Also, with a lack of formality, there can come a lack of dedication as well.
- Religion: Formal religion allows us to focus our energy while also offering a ritualized way of ‘committing’ to one path. While spirituality can help us go broad, religion can help us go deep because it gets us to focus on one thing only. However, the formal structure of religion can easily become rigid, suffocating, stuffy, and outdated if the practitioners aren’t open to growth and change.
Spirituality vs Religion #9 – Joy, Spontaneity, Compassion / Self-Sacrifice, Devotion, Service to Others
Experiencing and developing joy, spontaneity, and compassion on the spiritual path helps us to feel as though we’re truly living life to the fullest. Whereas within religion, self-sacrifice, devotion, and service to others support us in feeling like we have a mission or greater purpose.
Pros & Cons:
- Spirituality: Spirituality puts a lot of emphasis on “high vibe” emotions and experiences such as the qualities of joy, spontaneity, and compassion. These are clearly highly enjoyable emotions and states of being to experience. And yet, when we only focus on these sparkly “good vibes only” emotions, we can bypass the pain that is clearly apparent in the world. Sometimes, trying to chase these feel-good experiences can lead to excessive self-absorption to the detriment of others.
- Religion: Religion emphasizes self-sacrifice, devotion (to something greater than ourselves), and service toward others who are suffering. These qualities help us to cultivate humility, focus, and a wider awareness of the pain around us. When we feel sorry for others, we’re moved to try and do something for them. But when there’s too much focus on self-sacrifice, we can become martyrs who hurt ourselves and those around us. (Some religions take this to the extreme in the case of self-immolation and suicide bombings.) Devotion to the wrong cause can create more harm than good.
Spirituality vs Religion #10 – Low Accountability/High Accountability
Because spirituality is self-directed and all about one’s personal connection with the Divine, there’s low accountability. There’s no one else to tell you where you’re going wrong but yourself.
With religion, there is a high level of accountability often built into the structure of religious institutions. Usually one has access to a priest, bishop, rabbi, monk, nun, etc. within the religious organization.
Pros & Cons:
- Spirituality: Low accountability in spirituality enables the practitioner more freedom to be fluid, change, and experiment, without the fear of being judged. However, low accountability can also mean that the spiritual seeker has low commitment which may lead to a shallow, misleading, or immature practice.
- Religion: High accountability means that there is a higher level of commitment, focus, and in some cases growth. But with higher accountability also means more pressure and fears of being rejected or judged negatively which can lead to deceptive behaviors.
Spirituality vs Religion #11 – Experiential/Theoretical
Spirituality is all about experiencing, feeling, and embodying the Divine. It’s centered around doing the work or in different terms, getting “hands-on experience.”
Religion is centered around the theoretical; it’s about learning, understanding, and devoting oneself to a certain belief system. It’s focused on internalizing different teachings about the Divine, and is, therefore, more theoretical and thought-based.
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Pros & Cons:
- Spirituality: An experiential approach means that one can have a direct understanding of the Divine, which can lead to some profound realizations and spiritual awakenings. And yet, having amazing spiritual experiences can be quite addictive once we have them. Without the appropriate knowledge, we may struggle to integrate them.
- Religion: A theoretical approach can soothe our mind’s craving to ‘know’ and give it some kind of direction. But too much theory can starve us of the crucial need to actively experience the Divine. In some cases, too much focus on theory can be a self-protection mechanism enacted by the ego to avoid the ego-dissolving influence of direct spiritual experience.
The Third Way: Mysticism
God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.– Nicholas of Cusa
The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; not will they say ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is’, because the kingdom of God is within you.– Jesus
As you can see, there are good and bad things about spirituality and religion. There’s no black and white here. Both can enrich or demoralize our human experience.
At its most infantile form, spirituality can become new age fluff that lacks depth, commitment, accountability, the ability to create meaningful social change, and credibility. And at religion’s most infantile form, it can be a force of destruction that creates more division and suffering.
I have directly experienced both spirituality and religion in their most toxic states, and I’ve also experienced the benefits of both. So why the need to keep one and discard the other?
If you feel called toward specifically spirituality or religion, you’re in your every right to do that. Your life path is your own and I encourage you to pursue that which calls to you. (Just please try to spread love and peace. :) )
But there is a sublime opportunity present within the heart of both spirituality and religion. The “spirituality vs religion” debate only creates more hatred and ill will in the world, and yet, when we dare to combine the two, we have what I call a “third way” forward. We have a path of integration, depth, and tremendous power for good.
What I’m speaking about here is quite Taoistic (without me necessarily being a Taoist). On the one hand, we have religion which is a very yang force. On the other, we have spirituality, which is a very yin force.
Religion is the form, and spirituality is the formlessness. Religion is the container and spirituality is the contents. The two dance together, hand in hand – or at least, they can do.
“How?” you might wonder.
Regardless of whether we’re religious or spiritual, the human psyche, the human soul, innately craves for something greater than itself. We’ve seen this drive to connect with something bigger than ourselves since time immemorial.
Mysticism is the common thread running through both spirituality and religion.
What is Mysticism?
The word ‘mystic’ derives from the Greek word mustikós which means “secret; connected to the mysteries” and mústēs which means “one who has been initiated.” (1) As such, we can define a mystic as a person who has been initiated into the mysteries of the Divine.
How is one initiated? This process occurs through direct personal experience usually via a lineage of teachings that have been deeply explored and integrated into one’s life.
There are mystics who exist in all religions and spiritual paths. Some examples include Rumi and Hafiz (from the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism), St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila (from Christianity), Ramakrishna and Anandamayi Ma (from Hinduism), and more modern Western figures like Carl Jung and G. I. Gurdjieff.
In the words of Mirabai Starr,
The way of the mystic is this combination of annihilation – annihilation of the illusion of the separate self – and embodiment; of fully inhabiting exactly what is.
You can read more in my What is a Mystic? (12 Signs You’re One) article.
How to Unite Spirituality and Religion in Your Life (Without the Ugly Dogma)
When we unite elements of spirituality with religion and vice versa, we get a robust, deep, and deliciously multi-faceted path that can properly support and ‘initiate us’ into the Mysteries of the Divine.
Without a cup, water spills everywhere. And without water, a cup is empty and lifeless.
Spirituality and religion go hand-in-hand: they are mutually arising. They are twins that can form one Whole if we are open to that possibility.
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Everyone has their own unique path, so if you don’t feel called to invite spirituality or religion into your life, that is totally okay. You do you. I’m not there to change that.
But if through your soul work you seek more depth, more enrichment, more support, why not try to walk this third way?
Here’s how you can unite spirituality and religion (instead of spirituality vs religion) into your life:
1. Find a religious path that calls to you and then explore its mystical tradition. Alternatively, if you’re religious, find a spiritual practice or philosophy, then try incorporating that into your religious path.
2. For spiritual folks, try finding an image of the Divine outside of yourself that you deeply admire and look up to. For example, that might be Shiva, Buddha, Mother Mary, Kali, Quan Yin, Avalokitesvara, etc. Learning to connect with this image (and even giving it daily offerings or other devotional practices) will help to empower your connection with the Divine.
3. For religious folks, try listening to the perspectives of people from other religions and spiritual paths. See what you like and resonate with and take note – there are more similarities between you and other paths than you may think.
4. For spiritual practitioners, find a source of accountability that will help to keep you focused and committed. This may be a spiritual teacher you trust, a leader from a religious path you trust and feel safe with, or even a counselor/therapist. Getting ongoing spiritual guidance from someone else will also help to protect against ego inflation.
5. Read through the list of differences between spirituality and religion at the beginning of this article. Bring into your life the opposite quality of whatever you’re used to practicing or embodying. Notice how it helps to create a more rich and well-rounded experience.
Peace comes within the soul of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its power.– Black Elk
As someone who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household, then left and became agnostic, then adopted new age spirituality, then became a practitioner of the occult, and has finally committed to a mystical path, I’ve been on a merry-go-round when it has come to spirituality and religion.
But instead of seeing things in black-or-white terms (which creates division and therefore fear), I see that religion and spirituality can be like sisters, brothers, or friends that support each other harmoniously. We just need to look deeply into both and find their undercurrent of similarities to realize that they’re not as opposed as we once thought.
Whatever path you choose, I hope you find what you’re looking for and know that it’s okay to experiment, and it’s also okay to commit deeply and fully.
What are your thoughts about spirituality vs religion? I’d love for you to share them below in the comments.
Please also feel free to share this article with someone you think might enjoy or benefit from it.