Spiritual vs. Religious

Most of us have heard the expression, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Whether we have heard the phrase in conversation or came across it while reading, most of us have a basic, if not vague, sense of what the statement means. Yet often people use the terms spiritual and religious interchangeably. 

Even if we grasp the differences and nuanced meanings of these two terms, there’s no harm in reminding ourselves of such and hearing how other people approach them. Therefore, in this post, I’d like to briefly explore some of the meanings of these two terms, including their overlapping nature as well as their differences.

Defining Terms
Examining the etymology of words can often reveal a deeper sense of their meaning. And in our case, looking at the roots of the words “religion” and “spiritual” does, indeed, reveal some important differences between them.

The word “religion” is derived from the Latin word religio — meaning respect for a sense of right, moral obligation, sanctity, and a focus on what is sacred, including reverence for the gods/god. Going back even further, the Latin roots of the word religio are related to the Latin word ligare — meaning to join, or tie together. 

Religion therefore implies the tying together of myths, teachings, and ritual practices to form a system of belief and practice. In this sense, one can think of being religious as being bound by a tradition and set of established structures connected to a broader worldview. 

The word “spiritual” is also derived from Latin, in this case, spiritus. Spiritus implies something incorporeal, of the air, and possibly of the emotions and affections. The expression, “The spirit blows where the spirit wills” captures something of the unstructured, unbound nature of spirit. 

Spiritus evokes something free flowing, lacking the structure and rules implied by religio. In a sense, spirituality is the personal practices and experiences that help illuminate meaning in life and the world. 

My Own Understanding
Informed by these Latin roots, my own understanding of these terms runs along similar lines. By spiritual, I mean individual practices aimed at cultivating responses of awe, gratitude, and wonder about life and the world. Spirituality is the arena of meaning and purpose, touching on existential issues of life. Spiritual evokes things such as meditation, reflection, time spent in nature, and the seeking of a personal sense of purpose and meaning. 

By religious, I mean a specific set of organized beliefs and practices, usually shared by a community or group, and usually having coalesced into something of an enduring tradition. Religion therefore evokes structure, rules, and well-defined ritual practices, and even obligations. 

And as someone who subscribes to a naturalist view of the world, I do not mean anything necessarily supernatural or beyond the closed system I call reality by the words “religion” and “spirituality.” Therefore, for me, spirituality does not involve ghosts, spirits, or deities. And for that matter, neither does religion. 

Spiritual & Religious
While I understand the differences between the two terms, I also consider myself both spiritual and religious

In my life, I’ve benefited by my engagement with a few religious traditions, Christianity and Judaism in particular. I’ve found the rituals, teachings, and insights of these traditions useful for my own growth as a person. 

I’ve enjoyed being part of structured communities, of being able to draw upon enduring bodies of tested wisdom, and being touched and supported by rituals and liturgies.

I’m also spiritual in the sense that I frequently experience the awe of being alive, feel gratitude for my circumstances, and see beauty and meaning in the natural world. In fact, my personal spirituality is highly nature-based and I find much value in celebrating the unfolding of the seasons and nature’s patterns and cycles. 

For me, religion often strengthens my spirituality, although it never fully limits it. In this sense, while I understand the differences, I do not find spirituality and religion to be contradictory to one another.

Yes, it sometimes can be easy to overly focus on rules, doctrines, and the structure of rituals, thereby losing sight of the spiritual aspects of such things. And I’ve also found that sometimes spirituality without some structure can drift into vague feelings and responses that are fleeting and superficial. 

How About You?
I’d imagine that many members of SNS consider themselves as either spiritual or religious naturalists, or both, have their own nuanced understandings and uses for the terms “religion” and “spirituality.” Listening to how others define and use these terms can help shed light on their meaning and roles in life. Therefore, please feel free to share your understandings in the comments section for this post — or even better, reach out to us about possibly writing your own article about such!

I welcome and look forward to reading your input.

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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.

SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.

1 thought on “Spiritual vs. Religious”

  1. I appreciate your thoughtful inquiry into these two very abstract terms. You define the meaning side of life as spiritual. That indicates a ‘special,’ not ordinary experience. I have stopped labeling myself ‘spiritual’ since that would claim some kind of different condition. I seek unity, non-duality, and ‘just so-ness.’


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