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
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.
and Religion Definitions
As I explored in my previous article entitled "what is
spirituality," I define spirituality vs. religion in the following
What is Spirituality?
The word "spirituality" comes from the Latin word spiritualis,
which means, "breath; of the spirit; air." 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."
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
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 and 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
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
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
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
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.
vs. Religion - 11 Differences (With Pros and Cons)
what are the specific differences between spirituality and
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
Nothing is totally black
Goal is love and
Goal is obedience
experiencing internal Divinity
Focuses on obeying
or devotion to an external Divinity
(heaven is within you now)
(heaven is where you go when you die)
self-sacrifice, devotion, and service to others
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
In other words, different
religions, in general, tend to focus on gathering people together
and finding shared faith in one god or ideology.
Pros and 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.
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
Pros and 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.
vs. Religion #3 - Love and Freedom / Obedience and 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 and 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).
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 and 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.
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
vs. Religion #5 - Experiencing Internal Divinity/Obeying External
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 and 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
The Spiritual Ego).
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.
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
Religion, on the other
hand, teaches that heaven is something found in the future (usually
after you die).
Pros and 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
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
Pros and 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.
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.
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 and 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
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.
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
Whereas within religion,
self-sacrifice, devotion, and service to others support us in
feeling like we have a mission or greater purpose.
Pros and 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 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.
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
Pros and 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
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
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.
Pros and 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.
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:
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.
As you can see, there are
good and bad things about spirituality and religion.
black and white here.
Both can enrich or demoralize our human
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
How to Unite Spirituality and Religion in Your Life... without the
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
They are twins that can form one Whole if we are open to
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 you seek more depth, more enrichment, more support, more
ensoulment, 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:
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.
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
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.
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
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
Peace comes within
the soul of people
when they realize
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
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
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.