Religion and Spirituality: The Differences

Oftentimes, the differences between religions and spiritualities are confusing at best. Both types of paths are based upon personal experiences and provide a value system to follow.

However, they're not interchangeable terms:

Those who are religious are spiritual, but those who are spiritual may not be religious.

A spiritual person may use a broad term associated with a religion to describe their beliefs, such as Christian or Pagan, but not actually follow a Christian denomination or Pagan path. They do this mostly to give a broad understanding of what their spirituality consists of, but also adds confusion to the difference between the two terms.

To understand the differences between religion and spirituality, we begin with recognizing what isn't religious nor spiritual. We'll then look into what makes a religion different from a spirituality.


The American Heritage Dictionary defines secular as nonreligious, referring to what's worldly or mundane as opposed to spiritual. To some, living a secular life is impossible and is much like the idea of anarchy.

Anarchists are against any rules or group structures. However, the moment they attempt to impose rules on another or form a group of like-minded individuals, they're no longer anarchists. Anarchy sounds possible in theory, yet the reality is near impossible to implement.

For example, the moment a child is born and attempts to do something that could lead to harm or death, the child is denied the opportunity to do it and a rule is imposed to prevent them from coming to harm. Anarchy ended for the safety of the child.

Secularism is much the same way. Individuals may not be religious and may not consider themselves spiritual; however, their behaviors, thoughts, and the like still imply a spiritual belief.

Take court systems for example. Even with separation of church and state in place, many laws were created prior to this separation of interests and many created afterward are still based upon lawmakers' religious and spiritual beliefs.

Even science, which is often considered as secular, requires conclusions be drawn based upon current data. As the current data only provides so much information--and ongoing research often finds new answers to contradict the old ones--the conclusions must include some level of speculation influenced by personal belief to provide a complete answer.

To be completely secular requires a stripping of all morals, values, and beliefs that stem from religious and spiritual thinking. As we'll see below, stripping away all religious and spiritual thinking is a daunting task at best.


Looking again to the American Heritage Dictionary, religion is defined as a belief in some form of deity, organized doctrine and tradition, and beliefs, values, and traditions as taught by a leader, such as a priest or pastor. Religion, then, is fairly specific. Here is spirituality with a distinguishable form (deity, structure, leaders).

Some religions even come with umbrella terms as they vary in the specifics as far as the beliefs, values, and traditions go.

For example, Christianity is recognized as including a belief in a single God with a holy book in which to provide understanding of this deity. It's organized into different churches and temples for the purpose of religious activity. Finally, the churches are run by spiritual leaders who guide the local congregations in their spirituality.

This broad category of religion then breaks down into specific denominations, such as Catholicism, Protestantism, and Mormonism. Although some denominations closely resemble each other in their specific beliefs, values, and practices, even those that seem far different from the others still possess the basics of what makes their path a Christian religion, which include the teachings of Jesus Christ.


When we look at the definition of spirituality, we see again how the terms religion and spirituality become interwoven. American Heritage Dictionary defines spirituality as religious beliefs or religious ways of life. However, it first defines "spirituality" as being spiritual.

Looking at the term "spiritual" instead, we find a more concise definition. Spirituality involves matters of the soul and personal growth. It may also refer to power considered as non-material and even supernatural.

It also involves that which isn't mundane, although some religions and spiritualities may well use worldly examples to explain concepts and beliefs that others may consider mundane.

Here's where we really see the difficulty in living a purely secular life.

One may not believe in a soul and not strive for personal growth. One may assume that because all individuals have the same "power" that it's nothing special and requires no real attention.

However, even those who aren't religious or spiritual may find they have beliefs or thoughts that go beyond the physical world that's observed. Perhaps they pondered if a plant has feelings, what the clouds are made of, or what happens to the sun after it sets each day.

Many of the advances in science come about only when we take the time to ponder such thoughts and go beyond what's readily observable. We may argue that what's found is still worldly, but had no one pondered what was once considered non-worldly, they wouldn't have found the worldly answers.

The Difference

Now that we see the differences between the secular, religious, and spiritual, we can better recognize the difference between religion and spirituality. Spirituality involves personal power, acknowledgement of the soul and the pursuit of personal growth, and beliefs and thoughts not currently considered as worldly fact.

Religion takes spirituality, organizes it into a specific structure with a belief in deity, and utilizes leaders who can provide teachings that will lead other individuals to spiritual growth.

You may relate to a particular religion, but focus more on individual spirituality rather than relying upon religious leaders and structure to lead to growth. In such cases, you might refer to your lifestyle using a religion as a sort of identifier, such as Pagan spirituality or Christian spirituality.

This shouldn't be confused with the actual religions that have a more structured approach to spirituality.

© 2012 by Evylyn Rose