Religious Versus Spiritual?

It's a trend today to disdain religion as repressive and affirm spirituality as transformational or liberating. It's high time to revisit the question: what exactly does it mean to be spiritual or religious?
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

It's a trend today to disdain religion as repressive and affirm spirituality as transformational or liberating, but really, one can be a member of a religious institution and be spiritual, or be religious or spiritual without belonging to a church -- or both. There's a new trend of "do your own spiritual thing," forming one's own religion based on a kind of à la carte sampling of traditions and religions, from Buddhist sangha meditation to Christian prayer chanting to Hindu or Hebrew dietary codes. It's très hip to be a Jew-Bu (Jewish/Buddhist) or a yogi for Christ. One practicing Hindu I know often reminds me that "Jesus Christ and Buddha are both incarnations of Vishnu."

What's gotten me wondering about those labels and put me in a theological (God-talk) mood again today is a recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, titled Religion Among the Millennials. They report that "Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans." Only about 25 percent of the millennials, as Pew calls those who have just come of age, belong to religious groups. Are 20-somethings "spiritual" but not "religious," given that alternative, individual spiritual books and practices like yoga and meditation are hugely popular? Pew claims that 48 percent of millennials pray daily, 26 percent meditate weekly, and 64 percent say they are absolutely certain of God's existence; they simply practice outside of organized religion.

Since I read the Pew report, I've been conducting my own informal "street" survey of millennials. Sonya, 20, an NYU undergrad, raised Jewish, claims she's spiritual but doesn't go to synagogue. Lucy, 29, a grad student, born Catholic, says she's religious but doesn't go to church, except maybe at Easter. Jeremy, 28, a broker, isn't religious or spiritual but finds peace in nature. Rory, 29, a novelist, clams he's agnostic but attends Quaker meeting. Eve, 21, an unemployed designer, goes to several churches and attends Buddhist meditation every Thursday night, but she isn't religious, she says.

It's high time to revisit the question: what exactly does it mean to be spiritual or religious? Many baby-boomers like me consider "religion" to be external, organized, and connected to cultures and institutions like churches, synagogues, and temples, or, in the Clifford Geertz definition, cultural systems. "Spirituality" to me isn't necessarily tied to systems or houses of worship; it's internal, ethereal, and intangible. However, when I look up definitions online and in dictionaries, religion and spirituality are treated as basically synonymous. Religion can be a belief, practice, or membership in or out of an institution. Spirituality can be a feeling or belief, or, as a secondary definition, even church income or property!

Digging a little deeper, there really is a difference, and it is about application and sharing of the beliefs one holds. To be religious means to hold a set of beliefs about how the world and universe came to be, and to share those beliefs with others. The commonality may be a doctrine, a set of rituals, a moral or ethical code, tribal or sect identification, or a shared prophet, leader, guru, or savior. The origin of the word is Middle English, meaning faithfulness or piety or, as in the Old French, a sacred practice that is connected, tied together, or bound in community.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is not primarily communal but individual in belief and practice. If one is spiritual, one typically has beliefs in something not tied to the material world: something ethereal and intangible but perceived or believed to exist. It can be earth-related, such as a belief in nature. It can encompass belief in a "higher power," some force or unified creator or God that is bigger and more powerful than oneself, and untethered to traditional churches or doctrine. I discovered that the word "spirit" is ancient and interconnected: the Hebrew Bible uses the term nephesh to describe breathing (see Genesis 2:7) or ruach, wind or air. From the Greek, the New Testament borrows pneuma, the life force within. Both Aristotle and Plato taught that the psyche, or soul, resides in the human body and is divine. They disagreed as to whether we're born with it or if it is from something eternal. St. Paul, likely having studied Greek philosophy, talks in the New Testament about the spirit residing in the body.

Another poll of Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life late last year found that many people attend multiple religious services and hold spiritual, religious, and "New Age" beliefs all at the same time. It is fascinating to me that that same study found that 49 percent of respondents have had "a religious or mystical experience, defined as a 'moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.'" A full 30 percent of those responses come from people who say they are "unaffiliated" with any particular religion or organized ideology.

Two great spiritual leaders answered the question of religion or spirituality quite beautifully. Lao-tzu, the sixth-century-B.C.E. Chinese philosopher, wrote, "As rivers have their source in some far-off fountain, so the human spirit has its source. To find his fountain of spirit is to learn the secret of heaven and earth."

Gandhi puts spirituality in a slightly more religious framework, but without institutionalizing it: "I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever-changing, ever-dying, there is underlying all that change a Living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and re-creates. That informing Power or Spirit is God ..." (from Ghandi's Ideas by C.F. Andrews).

So here we are on the Great Internet -- that infinite network of material wires, WiFi, optical cables, and nodes -- talking about spirit and religion. Might we all be tied together right now in a new kind of community spirituality and religion -- the net?

Popular in the Community


What's Hot