Spiritual or Religious: What’s the difference?

Man standing on rock looking at sunset

The word ‘spirituality’ is all the rage today. It has become one of those commonplace ideas that gets used by all sorts of people in all sorts of contexts. Today you can scarcely watch an interview with a celebrity without them humbly noting that, while they may not be religious, they are ‘spiritual’. And let’s face it, it sounds fair enough. Being religious – that is to say – identifying yourself as belonging to a particular religion, is not something that sits easily in the world in which we live. It sounds like you’re limiting your options and unnecessarily restricting yourself. Instead, ‘we all really know’ that there are many forms of truth out there, and we are beyond identifying ourselves with just one of them…Isn’t that right? So when Hollywood celebrities describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ we applaud them for being so open-minded…so in touch with themselves…so nice…so beyond religion.

The fact is all human beings are instinctively spiritual. Therefore, to claim to ‘be’ spiritual is a little like claiming to have limbs, a heart, or a brain. All these things are true or otherwise you would be dead. The same is true of being spiritual. Even those who deny the significance of things spiritual have some idea of what people mean when they talk about such things. Whether we embrace it or not, human beings instinctively have the capacity for spiritual awareness.

So why not just be ‘spiritual’ and ignore religion altogether? One of the reasons is this: religion provides us with the ability to make sense of the spiritual dimension of life. It gives us a structure within which we can name our experience, and a way of ritualising that experience. It also connects us with others who are seeking to understand and deepen their awareness of those experiences. Religion provides us with a vocabulary and a community. Without it, what we are left with is just our own subjectivity, open to the whims and vagaries of life.

Of course religion has its problems. That is inevitable, as all religions are impacted upon by the weakness and inconsistencies of their adherents. That does not make what they have to teach us any less true.

As a Catholic I often have to reflect on this point in the current context. I have come to see that when Catholics fail it isn’t because they have been taught to do so by the religion they profess. In fact, it’s the opposite: Catholics fail when they ignore the teachings they have been taught. The same is true of any of the great faiths of the world: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism…All are vulnerable to distortion by the people who identify with them. But rather than rejecting religion, isn’t the way forward to find what’s authentic within the religious quest and allow it to guide us on the journey towards becoming the people of love we have been created to be?


Hope for your faith journey

Wooden Cross On Sky Background

From a Christian perspective, God loves us and wants us to know him—not just have positive feelings or guesses. When he created the universe, God left evidence allowing us to learn certain things about him, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20).

He also left evidence in the human heart, “With [human] openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material, can have its origin only in God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 33).

Further, God has entered history, communicating with us through his prophets and, most importantly, through his Son, Jesus.

The Christian tradition examines and presents the evidence showing God has communicated with us, and its ultimate purpose is to help us discover God and the joy and happiness he wants us to have. “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (CCC 27).

Or, as St. Augustine put it, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Confessions 1:1:1).

This article is part of Faith Journey, a newsletter from the National Centre for Evangelisation.