Religion and spirituality: How are they different?

HH the Dalai Lama

The debate about spirituality and religion is not new. More often than not, a lot of us tend to use these two terms interchangeably. While there is no denying that religion and spirituality can be intertwined, there are very clear distinctions between the two in certain aspects. To understand these differences, let us first clearly define what a religion is and what spirituality is.

A religion is a particular system of faith and belief where the followers worship a particular superhuman power or powers. Many religions around the world have their own set of scriptures, holy places of worship, organized practices and behaviours, members of the clergy and a set of codes that define membership and devotion to the religion.

Spirituality, on the other hand covers a broad spectrum of themes out of which religion is just one. The term spirituality is derived from the Latin word spiritus which means the ‘the vital principle in man’. Therefore, spirituality can be described as the process of personal transformation in order to realize one’s vital principle or one’s search for meaning in life.

The tenets of spirituality often times overlap with the principles of religion. This is because many religions around the world have narratives, symbols and sacred histories that aim to explain the meaning of life. People derive their sense of morality, ethics, behaviour and lifestyle from their religious beliefs. However it is these exact concepts that spirituality also tends to address and therefore we see that spirituality is interlaced with religion in these aspects.

However, overlapping features doesn’t mean that religion and spirituality are one and the same. In fact, in many occasions they are at odds with each other. The biggest such difference is that religion is collective while spirituality is individualistic. All the major religions in the world define a set of codes of conduct that the followers of the religion must abide by. On the other hand, one individual’s process of personal transformation might be different from the other and therefore each individual would view spirituality from a different perspective. For instance, Mother Theresa found meaning in serving the poor while Mahatma Gandhi found meaning in fighting for the freedom of his fellow countrymen.

The second major difference is that Religion tells us to follow a particular ideology or obey a certain set or rules while spirituality lets us follow our heart and do what we feel is right. Religion tells us what to believe in, what is correct and what is wrong. On the other hand, spirituality lets us discover answers to these questions through the process of experience. Therefore, by being spiritual one can create one’s own life journey. But by being religious we follow the path set down by others.

In many religions, when the followers don’t follow the rules they are threatened with certain set of punishments such as hell, reincarnation as lesser life-form etc. On the other hand, through spirituality we can realize that every action of ours has an equivalent reaction and the punishments we receive for our wrong actions will be in the form of reactions to those actions.

Hence, one can say that Spirituality is universal while religion is just a perspective. Therefore, the principles of ethics and rules by which one has to live cannot be restricted to the realm of religion alone. To quote the words of his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”

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