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Before starting to discuss what are the differences between religion and spirituality, I want to remark that it’s already very important to realize that they are different.
In fact a lot of people, me included until few years ago, see religion and spirituality as the same thing. When they hear something like “she’s a very spiritual person”, they typically imagine someone who prays in the church, believes in god, and adheres to one religion or another. But this is a common mistake, because the truth is that religion and spirituality are two completely different things.
It is perfectly possible to be religious and have little or no spirituality (just think to those who kill in the name of god), and it’s perfectly possible to be spiritual without subscribing to any particular religion.
So, what are the differences? Let’s start with the first one, which is the most obvious:
1. Today, religion is much more under the spotlight than spirituality
A lot of people in the course of their lives enter in contact with religion. For example they are born in a religious family, like me, or they are taught religion at school. Sometimes they have a church or a mosque in their neighborhood, where religious functions take place.
The speeches of religious leaders are given a lot of coverage in the media. There’s actually a whole propaganda machine in favor of religion, while in comparison there’s a minimal space reserved in tv and newspapers to explain what is real spirituality and how to incorporate it in our life.
The fact is that in one way or another, it’s almost impossible today not to have an idea about what is religion, how many religions there are, and what are their rules. On the other hand, it’s very possible, during an entire life, to never enter in contact with spirituality.
And it’s very possible to ignore that there is another way, a simpler and deeper way to investigate that impression “there may be something else“, that many of us have. So, many people have questions about the special and misterious part of life, questions about what goes beyond the form, questions about the meaning of life -if there is one, and what it is-, but since the society only promotes religion as the way to go for this kind of questions, they rarely find satisfying answers.
And this why many people, after hearing the answers provided by religion, that are sometimes partial and incongruent, just silence all their inner feelings, stop any attempt of spiritual growth, and decide that “there is nothing”. That’s how many people reach atheism, as I did.
2. Religion divides, spirituality unites
A conspiration theorist would probably see the spread of religions as the most successful way with which the “divide and rule” method has been applied. By encouraging the idea that you are among the “saved ones” or you’re one of the others, that you are in the light of god, or that you’re one of those without god or even worse with the wrong god, religions have promoted countless conflicts and caused a lot of deaths in history.
The opposite is spirituality. The essence of spirituality is connectedness. When you connect with your inner essence, when you progress in the path of consciousness, you realize that everything, from yourself, to your family, to the serial killer you see in the daily news, to a fish living in the depth of the ocean is part of a giant, living organism. You are connected with everyone and everything.
And that’s the reason why a real spiritual person doesn’t want wars, doens’t want to harm anyone or the environment uselessly: he realizes that this way he would harm the organism of which he is part. A conscious spiritual person wants to live in a healthy, happy organism. And often he feels like giving a direct contribution to obtain this. Which brings us to another very important difference.
3. Religion focuses a lot on prayer, spirituality shifts the focus on contribution
On different levels, religions focus greatly on activities like prayer and meditation, as instruments to connect with god. And while these are wonderful ways to create inner peace, there is a little problem with them: they are self-oriented and very “internal”. If I pray, I will likely bring peace and happiness to myself. Which is wonderful, but it’s necessary also a strong focus on the next important step: delivering this peace and happiness outside.
When you stop focusing on mere religious practice and mature your spirituality, that feeling of connectedness with the world makes you inevitably want to give your own contribution. You want to act. A lot of people go for volunteer jobs, make donations to useful organizations, or just use their talent in their job to serve others the best way they can.
In fact, choosing the right job for you, performing it with passion to produce something valuable for others, is probably the best way to get in touch with your spiritual side. No prayer in the world creates more happines to you and to those around you, than doing what you are able to do well. There are many examples of people who applied this principle in history. They focused on contributing and they created special things.
Think to all the artists who created masterpieces, sportsmen who produced thrilling performances, scientists who made life changing discoveries, or simply those who did the most humble jobs with determination and consistency, with the goal of producing goods for others.
4. Religion relies heavily on words, spirituality does not
Even the word spirituality, that I am using a lot in this article to simplify things, is a sort of abuse. A real spiritual person realizes that words are a very limited and inadequate tool to explain the essence of life.
This is probably why you will rarely find a highly conscious and spiritual person who would get offended if you swear against the name of god. For a spiritual person god is just a three letter word. It’s just an approximation. And instead of getting offended or upset by hearing you swear against god, she would probably ask you why are you saying that, and what does god mean for you. The spiritual person typically wants to connect with others and understand their vision of the world, even when it’s different.
On the other side, what happens if you swear against the name of god in presence of religious people? In the best case, you will upset a lot of them, in the worst case, you’ll get killed.
Religions like words and especially labels. They encourage the idea that if you have a name for something, you know something. Which is false, because even if you know that a fruit is called apple, you’ll never know how it tastes like until you eat it.
5. Religious teachings are inspired by spiritual teachings, but not viceversa
Many of the modern religions are born hundreds or thousands of years ago, based on spiritual teachings that are attributed for example to Jesus, or Buddha. So religions have definitely been inspired by spiritual teachers, but the viceversa is not true: spiritual teachers never cared much about religions, and often they didn’t give any explicit instruction to build all those religious infrastructures that were created after them.
On the foundation of the original spirituality, men built a lot of temples, hierarchies, and codes of conduct. But with time, these religious derivatives have become more and more distorted, and distant from the initial foundation. These distortions brought to crusades, inquisition, slavery, manipulation, things that every reasonable god would probably never want.
So this is an important difference. Spirituality has not varied with time, because talking about the spirit means talking about the essence of the universe itself, and we practice spirituality by trying to get closer to this essence and by trying to understand what it is.
Instead religions have varied a lot with time, and from the initial high level of consciousness they had hundreds or thousands of years ago when they were born, many religions have declined with their level of consciousness, and some of them are now very far from where they were at the beginning.
6. Religion is at a higher risk of stagnation, spirituality is research
Religious practice alone, when it’s not sided with an adequate spiritual presence, risks to become a series of repetitive prayers that are performed in the same way, with the same thought patterns, year after year. Since a lot of answers are already there (who created the world, how to behave, what is wrong and what is right) there is not a huge encouragement in research.
Research that is, instead, another important keyword related to spirituality. The typical spiritual person is used to do a lot of introspection, but is also very present and alert to what’s coming from the outside. And doing this kind of research inside and outside is definitely a difficult job, and it requires hard work.
But if there are some huge questions about life, that are incredibly complex, then it’s reasonable to expect that the answer is not pre-packaged, and it’s not in the familiar paths and rituals. It’s also reasonable to expect that such an answer requires personal research, and a necessary condition is that you start to question the commonly accepted dogmas. This way you can find new lenses that you can use to see the world in a different way, and probably a clearer way.
Now, a couple of crucial concepts that I want to bring home at the end of this article:
The first, a useful repetition of what I said at the beginning, religion and spirituality are two completely different things. They CAN coexist, and there are inspiring examples of religious people who were also really in contact with their spiritual side, but realize that being part of a religion is definitely not a necessary condition.
No rule says that: to believe in god, to be a good person, have good values, be positive, happy and fullfilled in life you need to use religion as a proxy.
These feelings, the questions related to a possible afterlife, to the origins of the universe, the connection with other beings, all these things are spiritual topics. And they can be researched, discussed, studied, and perfectly elaborated with a simple, direct, spiritual approach.
Notes: minor edits made on March 2, 2016, I corrected few grammar errors.
Related: Dreams and riddles