Friday, September 21, 2007

Spirituality vs. Religion

In a recent conversation with my friend over at Jesusfollowers Journal, he had responded to a comment of mine regarding spirituality and religion with the following thought (I'm paraphrasing):

The difference between spirituality and religion is subtle, and arguable.

Actually, there is a very sharp distinction between spirituality and religion, spirituality being the much more important of the two. In order to describe spirituality, let me borrow a term utilized by C. S. Lewis. Spirituality is mere compassion, mere love, mere patience, mere forgiveness, mere harmony, mere concern for others' well-being and happiness.

"Mere" is a key term here, and the primary reason why spirituality trumps religion. The true purpose in life is to develop untainted compassion for all beings, love others as yourself, be patient, caring, helpful, and calm. Work toward others' happiness, and thereby your own happiness as well. By "mere" I mean "essence" or "nature." When one practices spirituality, one practices reaching toward the heart of true compassion, true love, true forgiveness. To be able to display mere compassion for another is not just to be compassionate toward another, but to BE compassion itself. Touching that true nature, that suchness, that essence, that mere-ness of compassion goes beyond just surrounding oneself in compassion. Instead, one becomes the heart of compassion altogether. That is the practice of spirituality.

Religion is different. Religion is concerned with faith in one tradition or another, with an acceptance of some definition of reality. The practice of religion is not necessary to the practice of spirituality. That phrase is so important, let me say it again.

The practice of religion is not necessary to the practice of spirituality.

Of course practicing the right religion for you can enhance the development of your spirituality. For people who truly practice their faith with their entire being, maintaining openness and love for others, religion enhances their compassion, their love, their patience. For many people religion seems to have the opposite effect, fostering intolerance, conflict, and aggression. The point here is that we have a matrix of possibilities:

Spiritual and ReligiousSpiritual and Non-Religious
Non-Spiritual and ReligiousNon-Spiritual and Non-Religious

I think the upper left quadrant--spiritual and religious--is the ideal, not because it is inherently better than the others (which it's not), but because people in that quadrant tend to have the greatest number of tools available to them to live well for themselves and for others. Not only can they draw on their spirituality, they can draw on the lessons of their religion to help them improve their spirituality.

The spiritual and non-religious person is in the second best position--second only due to the fact that they do not have the myths and practices of a religion to use toward developing their spiritual qualities. However, this by no means reflects on the people falling into this category. Many spiritual and non-religious people are much more compassionate, loving, caring individuals than those in the upper left quadrant.

The lower left quadrant comes next. This is stereotypically the quadrant of fundamentalists. To have religious belief, but to not have that reflect into your life as a stronger level of compassion, love, tolerance, acceptance, and patience shows that you are off-track. Any religious practice that does not result in increasing compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, love, patience, and caring is either (a) worthless and harmful, or (b) being practiced incorrectly.

The lower right quadrant is last, and stereotypically houses materialistic, egotistic individuals, people for whom caring and love are a foreign concept.

Bringing us full circle, we all must work to develop our spiritual qualities. If we find a religion that suits our nature, we can use its teachings to further our development. But if not, that's ok. We don't have to drape a mental model over reality in order to develop our spiritual qualities. We can simply practice mere compassion, mere love, mere patience, mere acceptance, and thereby touch, become, converse with, see, or merge with God--whichever of those understandings resonates with your being.


Alan said...

Interesting. But can you offer any reason for accepting that this is how anybody other than YOU uses the terms "spirituality" and "religion"?

Mike said...

Hi Alan,

Let me answer your question first from my own personal experience, the way I originally observed the sprituality/religion relation I present in this essay.

17 years ago, when I was a freshman in high school, I became friends with this guy named Rich. We attended a Catholic high school, but many of us there were not at all religious in that we did not subscribe to any common belief system (i.e. Catholic, Baptist, Hindu, etc.). However, being a Catholic private school, it was not uncommon for religion to arise as a topic of discussion (even outside of Theology class). Rich was blessed with all the qualities that I termed "spiritual" in my essay -- he was very friendly, would go out of his way to help you, humble, compassionate, etc. What really struck me was that he embodied these qualities much more so than most of the people I knew who regularly practiced their religion. So when the topic arose regarding religion, he said he saw god as this amorphous love that permeated the world. And by no means was he a "white-light" type -- he was very well-grounded in reality, and the only word I could find to describe him was spiritual. But yet, he wasn't practicing any particular religion. And the qualities he displayed were the same as those touted by religions, but yet he was a better model for the way to live your life than most of the religious people I knew.

Of course, I also had religious friends who expressed these qualities in their lives, and they drew on their religion in displaying those qualities.

I talking to others throughout school, I found that other people described Rich as spiritual too. Yet nobody could say he was religious, because he just had no interest in that.

Since that time, I've met many people who are highly loving, compassionate, kind, and humble. Some are most definitely religious. Some are most definitely not. Hence I definitely see a difference between the two. I can see (and have seen for myself) how religion (in my case Buddhism) does improve spiritual qualities. However, I also see how non-religious people can develop those same qualities to an amazing degree.

Ok, now let me answer via authority. In Ethics for the New Millennium, the Dalai Lama writes, "Actually, I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another, an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or nirvana. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayer, and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit--such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony--which bring happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with the questions of nirvana and salvation, are directly connected to religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities. He then goes on to explain that true religious training does develop spiritual qualities. But clearly, as he states in the quote above, it is his experience that such religious practice is not a necessary condition for developing spiritual qualities.

I hope this helps answer your question.

Angela said...

Mike -- great post, I completely agree with your point of view. I think there is often confusion about the differences and commonalities of the terms "religious" and "spiritual" are caused by the fact that the term "spiritual" has no concrete definition. Obviously then, one's personal definition of the term affects one's understanding of other's spirituality.

If you generally define spirituality as belief in something greater than one's self or one's immediate circumstances, you can see how it can apply to those who are religious or are not. It seems that many who are religious have a hard time grasping what "greater something" one can believe in other than God. But in essence, if God is considered to be the embodiment of love, compassion, and forgiveness, the term means the same to believers and nonbelievers alike. It's really all about labels....

Alan said...


Your response does convince me that you and your fellow high school students used the term "spiritual" with pretty much the same meaning that the Dalai Lama does.

It also strikes me that both you and His Holiness use "spiritual" primarily to refer to a set of ethical attributes or virtues: friendliness, humility, compassion, patience, tolerance, a sense of responsibility. You also report that your friend "saw God as this amorphous love that permeated the world." What do you see as the connection between the two aspects of your friend's character? Can you imagine a person who exhibited all the same ethical qualities, but who claimed to have no "religious" or spiritual beliefs at all: to be an atheistic materialist? If so, would you label such a person "spiritual?"

Angela said...

Alan -- as I highlighted in my comment, why does it matter what one would "label" such a person? I don't understand why humans have such a strong need to put each other into categories -- it has only proven to be one of our most divisive traits.

Mike said...

Hi Alan,
Wikipedia describes "materialism" as, "that form of physicalism which holds that the only thing that can truly be said to exist is matter; that fundamentally, all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions; that matter is the only substance." So, your question to me is if a person who exhibited no belief in deity and who sees all things as only the result of interactions between different forms of matter, if this person exhibited highly developed attributes such as compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, etc., would he be spiritual?


To answer otherwise would imply that "spirituality" is actually composed of aspects of religion.

Let's take Richard Dawkins, a self-avowed atheist and materialist, as an example, just so that we can speak in more tangible terms. Now, in truth, Mr. Dawkins is pretty harsh in his speech and not so full of humility. So we're going to stretch the example and say that Mr. Dawkins' beliefs are exactly as they are now, but instead, when facing off with creationists, he presents his side out of compassion, with a sincere desire to educate people and not insult them by denigrating their beliefs, but rather by presenting what he feels to be a more convincing truth. If he instructs others without putting himself up on a pedastal, and instead sees himself more as a humble messenger of truth than a know-it-all teacher. If he has patience when his view is assaulted by creationists and responds not out of anger but out of a sincere desire to instruct, then yes, he would be acting in a very spiritual manner, and I would term him a spiritual man. His lack of belief in a deity or his lack of belief in something greater than matter has no effect on his ability to be spiritual or develop spiritual qualities.

Just to briefly comment on your other question regarding what I see as the connection between my high school friend's view of "God as this amorphous love" and his ethical nature, I see his view of god as supporting his spiritual qualities. I don't see his view of god as a necessary precondition for those same spiritual qualities.

Angela said...

Can science not be considered a religion?

Alan said...


Thanks for a thoughtful and very well-written response. You clearly have a consistent view of what spirituality is. I only have one minor concern: How did the word "spirituality" come to be associated with the kind of ethical attitude you describe so well, onsidering its semantic link to "spirit", which was traditionally contrasted with matter and the material?


(1) The whole presupposition of this discussion is that there is some difference between spirituality and religion, and that that difference is worth clarifying. The point is not to label people, it's to get clear about ideas and beliefs.

(2) Is science a religion? Obviously, it depends on how one defines the two terms. And there are similarities between the two belief systems, perhaps more than some of the more strident antireligious propagandists (i.e., Dawkins) would care to admit. Nonetheless, it seems to me far more useful to emphasize the differences between science and religion rather than the similarities. To explain why, I'm going to refer you to a longish quotation I just posted on my site, because it seems to me to summarize the issues very well.

Pastor Jon said...

I am certain Lewis would be very concerned about the broad scope of your use of his terminology. What he was describing was MERE Christianity. As congenial as he was, he was not a pluralist. I agree there is a distinction between spirituality and religion. In Christianity we tend to point to the difference between a real relationship with Jesus and a merely superficial nominal religiosity of some people who claim to be Christian. My point, however, is that doctrinal beliefs can overlap both categories and the do have a real impact upon both. I wish I would have read this earlier to have been in on this discussion more.

Mike said...

Jon: Actually, I don't think Lewis would be concerned at all with my appropriation of his term, since all I am doing is using his concept of "mere"-ness. I'm not applying it to Christianity here, but to the essential nature of something. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Lewis considered Mere Christianity to be the essential nature of Christianity, with all the chaff removed. That is the way I am using "mere" in this essay -- to describe the essential nature of patience, the essential nature of love, the essential nature of compassion, etc.

You wrote, "Doctrinal beliefs can overlap both categories and they do have a real impact upon both." I'm not certain I agree with you. Perhaps I would need to gain a better understanding of what you mean by "doctrinal beliefs." Perhaps some examples of such would help. Because when I think of "doctrinal beliefs," I think of things like the Trinity or Dependent Arising. But while both of these can help advance a spiritual person farther along his spiritual path (as I explained in my essay as the upper-left quadrant), I don't think either are necessary for the development of deep spiritual qualities as I noted in the essay and in my responses to Alan. But perhaps we're having a semantics issue, and we're thinking of "doctrinal beliefs" differently.

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