Spirituality versus Religion - Blog #1 – 12 January 2019

Spirituality and religion are not synonymous. Religion is the most popular form of spirituality, and encompasses many different faiths. Spirituality is a broader concept, which includes religious spirituality, but also encompasses secular methods of connecting to something or someone greater than oneself. The meaning of the term “spirituality” has shifted down through the centuries (See Oman, 2013). It was coined by Apostle Paul to describe any entity under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and was used in the Middle Ages to distinguish the spiritual side of life from the material or corporeal. By the 17th and 18th centuries, “spirituality” took on a more pejorative connotation, suggesting excessive emotion or even heresy, resulting in decreased use of the term in Christian circles. Since the late 20th century, the term “religion” has increasingly referred to the organized, institutional aspects of faith, while “spirituality” increasingly refers to a more personal relationship with a higher power. And “spirituality” now refers to connectedness that can be pursued not only with spirits such as God, but also with nonreligious entities such as the universe, life, humanity, etc. Furthermore, the broadening use of the term “spirituality” seems to increasingly refer to the practice and experience of spirituality, rather than beliefs. The growing distinction between religion and spirituality is reflected in the fact that roughly one quarter of the U.S. populace now check the box “spiritual but not religious.”

  The word “transpersonal” has also gained currency in recent decades, with transpersonal experiences including those in which one’s sense of self extends beyond (trans) oneself to include identification with, and belongingness to broader components of the universe. “Spirit” is the first half of the word “spirituality,” so it is ironic that the shifting meaning of spirituality need not involve spirits. In contrast to religion, some forms of spirituality do not require subscription to belief in religious spirits, or belief in any form of disembodied consciousness. Our exposure to death tells us that consciousness dies with the brain. We may believe otherwise, but we have no evidence to date that consciousness continues beyond matter (e.g., via souls and an afterlife), or precedes it (in a God who created the material universe). But while spirituality need not involve disembodied spirits, it does involve an appreciation of consciousness.

Fundamentally, spirituality has two foci: consciousness and connectedness. Spirituality not only focuses on our connectedness with a much larger and amazing universe, but the fact that we are conscious in the first place. The very existence of the universe is astounding, and fills us with awe. Life and awareness are huge gifts, but our consciousness of our own consciousness takes us to a higher, more spiritual level. Spirituality is also about shared consciousness. If we are seeking spirituality, we are seeking connectedness. If we allow ourselves to experience shared consciousness with other entities, real or imaginary, we connect with them. They need not be conscious themselves, and need not exist at all, for us to do so. To connect with my deceased grandmother, she need not be conscious herself, or still existing as a spirit or soul. But I do need to connect with my memory of her essence, as well as my past experience of shared consciousness with her. And while a tree may not possess consciousness or a spirit in the usual sense of these terms, I can still connect with its being, its beauty in the autumn colors of a forest, and the wonder of our shared existence.

Finally spirituality elicits a handful of emotions and values that have been prominent within religious traditions. These include humility, as we experience our smallness within the grand scheme of things, awe regarding its vast expanse, gratitude for our gifts of life and consciousness, and existential joy. We can fully experience these emotions as religious individuals practicing our faith in God, or as secular individuals who tolerate ambiguity regarding our origins. We can connect with the “All” via religious or secular spirituality.

For a more extended discussion of spirituality versus religion, see Oman, Doug. (2013) Defining religion and spirituality. In R. Paloutzian & C. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.. pp. 23-47). New York, NY: Guilford.

For my own review of secular spirituality, issues and practices, check out Edward Chandler: Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual Moral, and Psychological Practices, available 2/14/2019 on Amazon.

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