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There are times when you hear stories about people saying they never had any interest in religion while they were growing up. Yet, these people grew up to become very spiritual. They say that they were “forced”, largely by parents and peers, to be religious, attend mass, and celebrate all things related to religion. Some people don’t ever find a connection with God in their lives, yet find meditation peaceful when they are exposed to it. This tells us that to be spiritual, you need not be religious per se. Many of us think that the words spirituality and religion share a link, or they are used synonymously. This is not so in reality.

The distinction

Very often, people identify with religion because it offers a sense of belonging to a community. We may call ourselves Christians, or Hindus, or Muslims, without ever having gone into a church, a temple, or a mosque, respectively. People don’t really have the faith in the religion and the tenets that it endorses. They don’t find that it gives them any real peace or direction at times. Nonetheless, some folks have an unrelenting faith in religion and actually pray with fervor that it will see them through their darkest moments. We often hear people say that they are not religious, but spiritual. We are led to form assumptions that religion has everything to do with rituals, dogmas and doctrines of belief. On the other hand, spirituality has to do with the heart and soul.

When a person discovers spirituality, he or she feels they have been ignited to live their life with a certain purpose. They see the direction that their life is going in and work to meet goals. Along the way, people claim that spirituality helps them to grow as a human being. Leading a spiritual life gives a person an opportunity to explore a transcendental kind of existence in a material world. When a person leads a spiritual life, he or she experiences it and feels it. So, a spiritual person does not live by subscribed beliefs that are simply handed down to him or her. Rather, a spiritual person has an instant feeling of some divine force and energy that is inexplicable by logic.

Some rationale about religion and spirituality

At the crux of the differentiation between spirituality and religion, then, is a presumption. This implies that to practice religion – thinking and behaving within the bounds of an existing institution – means to make a person less inclined towards spirituality. Just ask a person why he or she chooses spiritualism over religion. It is likely that he or she will say that they found religion to be dry. Spiritual people find religion to be lifeless and illogically instructive. They will undoubtedly claim that they could not relate to it on any level. Spiritualists argue that belief in something or someone cannot be forced with rules that have to be followed.

We hear it said that there are these critical views of religion even within religious communities themselves. For instance, for hundreds of years, people who follow the Christian faith have had frays over the inter-relationship between traditional custom and authority. Yet, they are very enthusiastic about their faith, very pious, and report that they experience the miracles of Jesus at many instances in their lives. What both sides share – spiritual people and religious people- is the fact that authority and blind dogma is something that will kill any kind of positive experience. This is regardless of whether the experience is borne out of leading a spiritual life or a religious life.

Protestant belief

There are many of those who lead a religious life who sing the praises of God. Protestants insist that God doesn’t have to be present for the religion to be effective in someone’s life. Though they believe in the existence of God, they claim that their belief is strong without any kind of religious practices or dogmas. What they preach is that you don’t have to attend a mass or fast on certain days to experience God’s benevolence. Indeed, there are many followers of different religions who feel the same way. Its okay to believe in a source of power or a God, but you don’t have to bow down to an autocratic mortal to “prove” your belief or experience its goodness.

The words of scholars

Scholars and theologians portray religion itself with respect to experience. Experts like Friedrich Schleiermacher and William James, as well as Samuel Taylor Coleridge have tried to understand religion. They have debated and argued about what religious experience truly means. Through all the debates and counter debates, a single point comes through. There prevails an attempt to discern real from false, sincerity from insincerity and religious experience from dogmatic faith. What experts agree on is the fact that if a person leading a religious life were to have a true experience, this would be akin to spirituality of a sort.

When a person experiences an authentic religious experience, it is instantaneous, personal and emotional. This description sounds so much like what spirituality is. Technically, though, it appears to be at odds with conventional religious tenets. Strict religious advocates affirm that genuine religion has to be disciplined and relies on ancient texts and rituals. If these are part of a person’s “experience“, so be it. Without these, they warn that “spirituality“ outside the diktat laid down, is not true belief.

It’s no wonder that the lines that distinguish spirituality from religion are blurred at best. This itself leads many folks to be confused. As a result, they seek something “more”. When they find it, even if it’s outside what they’ve always been taught, they cling to it as it brings them joy. So we can surmise that the two – religion and spirituality – may be linked on some level.

What history says

Important written material from the history of Western Europe, mainly from the Middle Ages, has something to say about experience within religion. It hints at monks and nuns under Benedict as being flexible with rules. These holy people promoted moderation in the enforcement of rules and allowed people to question Christian norms. Still, this is nowhere close to what spirituality and its followers think. Within the confines of monastic life, Christian monks and nuns followed church practice to the letter, never deviating.

Spiritualists confront the writings of Benedict as he wrote that the monastery was a training school for Christians to attain eternal life. This, in all its subtlety, clearly indicates a condition for attaining “eternal life”, or true spirituality according to Christianity. Benedict also wrote that when a monk prayed, “his whole body and soul was affected by the words of the Psalms”. Again here, there is a spiritual connotation, but no one asked the monk what he really felt. Still, we have to remember that Christians believe in the Holy Spirit. This concept, nonetheless, is an aspect of God itself, and not something set apart.

Which is the better option?

As research shows, more and more people are ignoring religion and whole-heartedly warming to spirituality. Nonetheless, are they on the right path? We know religion stands for a structure in worship. It is widely acknowledged that “spirituality“ means an individualistic sense of belief or being. If you were to fill in a form which seeks information about your religion, you’d have to tick an option. On many forms these days, one more unique option has been added. It is the category of “spiritual, but not religious”. The option has the acronym SBNR. This is not just a category, but a significant novel trend.

Research reports that one in three Americans, by definition, follow a spiritual life path, but not a religious one. Furthermore, people all over the world are more content to lead their own spiritual life than be affiliated to any preordained order. Sociologists have recently studied about people who call themselves “Nones”. These are people who don’t belong to any religion, but still believe in God.

Folks who tick the option SBNR on a form are not atheists. They just have faith in some other supreme power of force. Such people may believe in spirituality from Eastern Sources, such as the teachings of the Buddha. Alternatively, they may see the light in a blend of ideas, that, for them, have true meaning.

Whatever makes you happy

To answer the question, “Which is better?”, there is no definitive answer. People believe in what makes them happy. As our world gets more technologically advanced and materialistic at the same time, people are fed up with the rut of life. Another factor contributing to this trend is that organized religion is losing its hold. Spirituality can come from religious beliefs too. Humans need to find ways to connect with each other, and the community aspect of religion offers that. On the other hand, there are spiritual sects that come together to practice the teachings of sacred people, such as the Buddha. A sense of community and connection is maintained here. Remember, people who lead a spiritual life may follow the teachings of the Buddha, but not necessarily believe in the Buddha himself. Anyway, the Buddha was not a God, so you can’t say they are following a religion – though technically “Buddhism” is acknowledged as a religion.