Religion and Spirituality

In common usage, the words religion and spirituality are often treated as synonyms. Yet many people today say they are drawn to spirituality, but not to religion.  For such people, and I am one of them, the words religion and spirituality refer to things that have important differences. 

In a podcast published on this site on March 7, 2018, Danial Strain, Leigh Anderson, and I discussed our understanding of these two words and the distinctions we brought to them.  The following are some of the differences we noted:

Religion is generally based on beliefs or a notion of revelation; spirituality on experiences.
Religion is social and collective; spirituality is more individual.
Religions have a tendency to exhibit an “us” vs. “them” mentality; spirituality tends to the notion that we are all one. Or perhaps another way to express this same idea is that religion tends to emphasize boundaries and spirituality tends to emphasize the transcending of boundaries.

In this discussion, we also brought up the belief that in a healthy religious/spiritual tradition, spirituality informs religion and religions provides support for spiritual growth. There is a distinction between the two terms but they ideally belong together. In this regard, however, I think many institutionalized religions are no longer healthy. Many religions have either embraced or at least are moving in the direction of literalism and fundamentalism. In common usage we often speak of the difference between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. Religious literalism seeks to understand and follow the letter of its texts; spirituality, as the word implies, to understand and follow the spirit.

In his book, Hymns to an Unknown God, Sam Keen explores other aspects of this distinction between religion and spirituality. He writes:

To oversimplify slightly, there are two paths we might take that promise to lead us in the direction of the holy, two different ways to seek answers to the perennial existential questions that face every human being – the path of the religious pilgrim, and the way of the spiritual seeker.

He goes on to clarify this distinction between pilgrim and seeker:

Religion presents the faithful with an authorized map of life – precepts to be followed, the example of lives of saints, saviors, and bodhisattvas to be imitated, taboos to be avoided, commandments to be obeyed, traditions to be respected. Thus, the religious life is a pilgrimage to a known destination. The end is given as well as the means. 

Of the spiritual quest he writes:

The spiritual quest is the reverse of the religious pilgrimage. The quest begins when an individual falls into a spiritual “black hole” in which everything that was solid vaporizes. Certainties vanish, authorities are questioned, all the usual comforts and assurances of religion fail, and the path disappears. A spiritual quest is the effort to discover the meaning of life. It is experimental, an exploration of a country not yet mapped, whose boundaries are not yet known. 

Keen provides his own list of the differences between a religious life and a spiritual quest, including the following:

Chief virtue is obedience to the will of God  vs.  chief virtue is openness, waiting, listening.
Revelation  vs.  awareness.
Based on miracle, mystery, authority, a revealed scripture  vs.  based on searching for evidence of the sacred.
The Gothic urge to rise above it all  vs.  the incarnational thrust to get to the depths of things. 

The whole of chapter five of Keen’s book is good reading for anyone interested in further exploring the distinction between religion and spirituality. But to summarize his pilgrimage, quest distinction: a pilgrimage follows a definite path and has a known destination. On a quest we have but a vague idea of exactly what we are seeking. We have a sense of the general direction, but there is no well defined trail. Both religion and spirituality require faith, but religion is faith in something that is already claimed to have been found, whereas spirituality is faith that there is something worthwhile finding. 

I think I can speak for the Spiritual Naturalist Society as a whole in saying that the distinction between religion and spirituality is important to understanding what we mean by “spiritual.” We do not seek a new system of belief, but a kind of home and support for seekers. We emphasize that there are many paths and traditions that people have found helpful through the ages — the spiritual teachings within the various religions, philosophical traditions like Stoicism and Epicureanism, Spinoza’s Pantheism, or the Taoism of Lao Tze and Chuang Tze, among others. The Society is not out to specify either what people should seek or how they should seek it. But we do emphasize that many of us have found in spirituality something of great value, even of transcendent value. 

The one boundary we have established is between spirituality based in naturalism and traditions based on the supernatural. We believe that spiritual experience does not require a belief in the supernatural. We understand that aspects of the supernatural, presented as mythology, can be an aid to spirituality, but this is another example of understanding the spirit of such texts rather than taking them literally.

In his book Touching the Infinite, Rodney Smith writes “awareness is the sacred.” That might be the most succinct statement of naturalistic spirituality I have encountered. Naturalistic spirituality begins and ends in awareness. It is as simple and difficult as that. Difficult, because as Keen points out above, such awareness requires that we “get to the depths of things.” Getting to the depths of things, particularly the depths of our own being, has some of the qualities of a mythic journey.

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I like to think of the Spiritual Naturalist Society as something like “The League” in Herman Hesse’s novel The Journey to the East. We are nowhere as ancient, as venerable, or as magical as the League, but we do seek to be a place that can help and support each individual’s unique journey towards the light they seek. And, we actually exist.

As with the narrator’s quest in Hesse’s novel, it is very easy to lose our way on a spiritual quest. It is hard to live with the ambiguity, uncertainty and loneliness of a quest, and so much easier to opt for the certainties of either a dogmatic religion or a dogmatic scientism. It is hard to maintain effort during the inevitable dry periods when our practice seems to bear no fruit.  It is easy to fall into the egoistic trap of believing that we have the right way and to become impatient with what we perceive as the misguided efforts of others. And so many other ways to get lost.

Over against all the temptations and traps that beset a spiritual quest or practice, the Spiritual Naturalist Society seeks to provide its members support. As Red Green would say “we’re pullin’ for ya – we’re all in this together.”  None of us are gurus here, just fellow seekers. Some of us are young and just starting out. Some of us are older and have been at it a long time. But, again, we’re all in it together.


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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

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