Religion and Spirituality: Understanding the Differences

Religion and spirituality are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but they actually refer to distinct concepts. While both religion and spirituality are concerned with the search for meaning and purpose in life, they differ in their approach, beliefs, and practices. Religion and spirituality are often conflated, which leads to gross misunderstandings of the purposes of each and, in my opinion, leads to distorted and harmful worldviews.

Religion is a structured system of beliefs, practices, and values that is based on the teachings of a particular faith or religious institution. It involves a set of doctrines, rituals, and ceremonies that are prescribed by religious authorities and are intended to foster a relationship between the individual and the divine. Religions are often hierarchically structured, with a clear distinctions between clergy and laity. Religions have formalized creeds or dogmas that members are expected to accept and follow. Religion often involves a sense of obligation or duty to follow certain rules and practices, and may involve punishment for those who fail to comply.

Spirituality, on the other hand, can be an individual or group activity that involves a search for meaning and purpose in life, a sense of connection to something greater than oneself, and a quest for transcendence. Spirituality may or may not involve a belief in a divine being, and it may or may not be associated with a particular religion or religious institution. Spirituality often involves a sense of self-discovery and personal growth, and may involve practices such as meditation, mindfulness, or yoga.

I believe that the best way to gain an understanding of the differences between religion and spirituality has to do with viewing religion as a “thing” and spirituality as an “action.” Religions are focused on things such as hierarchies, dogmas, and rules. Spirituality is focused on actions such as reflection, praise, recognition of others, language (which I define as an action and not a thing), and “Being” or “Becoming.” Religions may, and do, practice a spirituality that characterizes it from other religions; however, it is important not to conflate the religion and it’s spiritual practices. Religion is always nothing more than a “thing.” Spirituality is not a thing and should not be viewed as a thing. Spirituality is purely an action of an individual, or group. Outside of action, spirituality does not exist. Religions do, in fact, exist outside of actions. For example, religions exist as “things” regardless of “actions” that might include actions of charity, love, acceptance, recognition, forgiveness, and so forth. These “actions” can characterize the “thing” we call religion; however, religions can (and do) exist as “things” even when they do not practice spirituality.

In an earlier blog article, I discussed viewing sacraments as “things” versus “actions.” I would invite a careful re-reading of that article. Religions that “have” sacraments may typically view them as “things.” The Eucharist is a “thing.” Reconciliation is a “thing.” Baptism is a “thing.” Marriage is a “thing.” All of these sacraments are viewed as “things” people “get.” This is a complete and total misunderstanding of sacraments and symbols!!! As I stated earlier, this leads to a distorted worldview that is perilous for any type of spiritual journey (action). Sacraments and symbols are “actions” in which people participate. People do not “get” the Eucharist. People do not “get” forgiveness. People do not “get” married. This “thing” worldview is dangerous and perilous. Rethinking all of this is absolutely critical to any spirituality. Unfortunately, even the clergy do not understand this and, as a result, perpetuate a worldview that is incomplete and harmful to all sentient Beings.

I encourage my readers to go back and re-read previous blog posts. As I present new articles, reviewing what I have written previously will begin to make more sense … at least that is my hope.


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