Religion vs. Spirituality: What Is the Difference?

August 4, 2020

You may have heard—or even used—the terms religion and spirituality interchangeably. But while they aren’t diametric opposites, neither are they the same. Learn how to tell the difference between religion and spirituality.

For thousands of years, humanity has passionately pursued the Truth with a capital T—the ultimate answers to life and the universe. This perennial knowledge constitutes the answers to what are often called the soul questions:

Who am I?

What do I want?

What is my purpose?

What is the meaning of life?

Historically, from the perspective of the soul, there have been two foundational routes to discover these truths: religion and spirituality. Although they have many similarities and there is a relationship between the two, there are differences between religion and spirituality.

Religion: By definition, religion is a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; the service and worship of God or the supernatural.

Spirituality: Spirituality, on the other hand, connotes an experience of connection to something larger than you; living everyday life in a reverent and sacred manner. Or as Christina Puchalski, MD (leader in trying to incorporate spirituality into healthcare), puts it, “Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.”

Origins of Religions and Spirituality

Religion: Religions are most often based upon the lives, teachings, and beliefs of a historical or archetypal figure (e.g.,

Christ, Buddha, Moses, Krishna, Muhammad). The details of their lives as holy or highly evolved beings have been carried to us across the mists of time through oral tradition and written scriptures. These figures are the subject of worship and devotion and form the foundation of religious practices and rituals in a community.

Spirituality: By contrast, spirituality is more often based upon the practical application of the founder’s teachings. Spiritual aspirants heed the advice of Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”

The Lines Blur

If you feel these definitions get blurry and cross into each other’s territory, you’re not alone. For example, you may know people who consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. Conversely, there can be individuals who are devoutly religious but are not what most would consider deeply spiritual.

Let’s try to clear things up by taking a closer look at the most defining differences between religious and spiritual paths. Bear in mind that there are no absolutes in these distinctions. They are merely general markers meant to better explore the qualities between two equally valid approaches to seeking the truth.

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