Many people confuse spirituality and religion, thinking the two are synonyms. Obviously the two are related but there are inherent ingredients in each that do not necessarily exist in the other. We need to distill each down to its core defining elements, and then the differences become clearer.
Religion is always associated with faith, belief, and worship. One places faith in a higher power, and there are always prayers and other rituals associated with acknowledging and an exchange with a single or multiple gods. Religion engages in group belief. There is always an element of worship. Religions are deeply colored by cultures. Religion has an identity – people do ask, “What is your religion?”
Strictly speaking, spirituality does not need any faith or belief. It does not need worship either. In spirituality, there not need be any association with a particular group. Those engaged in deeply spiritual practices are seeking direct experience of the divine. In fact many truly spiritual leaders discourage specific attachments to one creed or the other. Spirituality does not need to have a particular identity – People don’t ask, “What is your spirituality?”
Obviously there is plenty of cross-section between these two concepts but at the core, religion is exclusive and spirituality is inclusive. Now of course the world is full of open minded religious leaders who openly welcome other religions – but that’s the point, those are “other” religions being welcomed. For deeply spiritual people, there are no “others”, we are all “one”.
For the religious, the purpose of being here is to live a life of good service to God (or Gods), and to others – the concept is belief and good deeds. For the religious, love and compassion need to be cultivated. For the spiritual, the purpose of being here is to dissolve into Creation – the idea is to become one with Life. So in spirituality, love and compassion are part of natural existence.
Here’s another way to look at it: Religion is spirituality + ego. You can be highly religious and have a big ego. But there are no genuinely spiritual people with big egos. In fact that’s the defining characteristic of recognized spiritual leaders in history – they’re described as having no egos. That’s exactly why there are religious wars, but not spiritual wars. We fight because we let the ego rule. In fact the one word most associated with spirituality is peace, another is tolerance. How often do you hear about such words associated with religions?
It might sound like religion is being vilified. That’s not the case here – the main take away is that you can be religious in a spiritual way, but you can’t be spiritual in a religious way.
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