“Spirituality” vs. “Religion”

“It has recently become commonplace to differentiate “religion” and “spirituality,” which is yet another interesting definition. According to this view, “religion” is institutional, rigid, dogmatic, and authoritarian, whereas “spirituality” is alive, vital, experiential and personal. This judgment, common among Baby Boomer writers, may contain a degree of truth, but it often tends to obscure more than illumine, because it soon becomes apparent that “spiritual” here simply means a religious truth or experience that is true for me, but if that spiritual truth gets passed on to another person, and certainly if it gets passed on to another generation, then it must by definition become institutionalized. It soon becomes apparent that individuals who use the distinction between “religion” and “spirituality” are pointing to a spiritual truth for themselves, but they haven’t given much thought what happens if they wanted to pass this spiritual experience or truth on to another human being, because as soon as they do so, their “spirituality” starts to look a lot like “religion.” In other words, in most cases of how these words are used, “spirituality” is simply religion for me; once my spirituality is shared with another, or passed on to another generation, then I am faced with all the same problems of “religion” that I temporarily avoided by introducing the distinction.”

–Ken Wilber, A Sociable God

8 thoughts on ““Spirituality” vs. “Religion”

  1. That quote jumped out at me too when i read “A Brief History of Everything” (i guess he recycled the idea?). It reminds me of how much offense some christians take when you insinuate that they are “religious.” They will protest absolutely with a something along the lines of “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”
    I understand the sentiment, but it often comes across as a bit naive.

  2. Yeah, there are definitely some sections in his books that provide a basic background for his overall theory so often you find some repetitive material throughout his books. I read ABHOE a few years ago so I don’t remember this specific quote. ha.

  3. I’m not seeing how “spiritual” is any less valid than “religious.” Just because I attend a “fellowship” and not a “church” does that mean I’m less tuned in to things that are “holy”?

  4. No, not at all, Emmy. This excerpt isn’t trying to say that spirituality is less valid than religion. It’s really to say that the distinction often made between the two isn’t always that helpful. After all, both words “spirituality” and “religion” include many different meanings so any kind of big blanket statement is going to be unhelpful.

  5. Ah thank you for the clarification Zach. I did agree that certain words scare off people, our “fellowship” chose to be so because we accept Christians and Jews and Hindus and whoever wants to come and discuss God and the prophets and also share similarities in their own backgrounds. It was agreed by a committee that “church” would not facilitate the same sort of learning. The world it was argued frightens people who are not steady in their beliefs with a certain finality. What do you think of that? Has “church” and God and the lot become too scary?

  6. just to add to that….

    take for example your fellowship. it’s different than what a church might look like, but in the end both organize and bring people together by shared beliefs and practices. The common bash against a church is that it is institutional, organized, etc. Your fellowship may be different in many ways, but once we begin to meet in a group, that group is forced to organize and in some ways institute itself in the lives of those in the group.

    Whether or not this critique of the church is valid is beside the point here. it’s just that it is one of the most common critiques the church receives. (i.e. “I don’t like organized religion, but I’m still a spiritual person”)

  7. emmy, if you are a group that really wants to include people from other faith backgrounds, then I think you’re right in your conclusion to not call yourself a church. the word church does seem to bring with it negative connotations with many, so I think it’s good to really think through what your group really wants to be and go from there. it sounds like that’s the case and that’s great. but i don’t think God and Church have become too scary, but those who represent both, me included, have done a very poor job in somehow allowing our religious practice to truly transform our way of life. this is the struggle. thanks for the comment.

  8. I think this all stems from a simple fact, people have been hurt by “religion,” myself included. I’m not saying when it get’s tough, pack up and leave, but that seems to be what happens. In the fellowship I am a member of we are all individuals who have left our respective religions for one reason or another in search of that which we felt church couldn’t provide.

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