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Twelve Qualities of Authentic Spirituality

Criteria for authentic and inauthentic religiosity

We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned,

so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

--Joseph Campbell

For many reasons, those who take their belief in God seriously personally often tailor their course of spirituality rather than "religiously" follow institutional practice. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that 87 percent of Americans view themselves as religious, yet only 57 percent participate regularly in worship and activities within their denominational tradition. While some steadfastly following the rituals and guidelines of their faith, others develop an eclectic direction to meet their spiritual needs. Still others prefer to commit to their own personal interpretation of God and religion outside of given practices.

What do all of these variations in spiritual paths suggest? How do we know if we are on a legitimate course in our spiritual development? A transformative, vital spirituality is not a process of picking and choosing what is convenient to us. We cannot have it both ways; we cannot grow spiritually while controlling our goal. If we establish our own criteria for our spiritual growth, we lose the role of learner and feign the role of teacher. On the other hand, can we expect to make lasting progress if we only follow a ready-made path that may have worked for others yet may not be genuine?

Discovering our path entails distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic expressions of religiosity and spirituality. Consider the following comparisons of authentic and inauthentic religiosity and spirituality to assess the quality of your religious and spiritual process:

Inauthentic Religiosity

1. Controls through an authoritative structure by fear and power.

2. Maintains control within leadership and a hierarchy of leaders who may not be accountable for their actions.

3. Focuses on institutional objectives, not particularly introspective.

4. Serves group identity over individual interests.

5. Protects the organization primarily, though identifies universal objectives.

6. Holds narrow perspectives on spiritual problems, focusing attention on ritual and tradition.

7. Is dogmatic.

8. Promotes religious goals over direct experience of the Spirit.

9. Lacks openness and attention to sexuality and other complex aspects of a human life related to spirituality.

10. Predominantly serves institution.

11. Promulgates positive goals but employs diffuse actions.

12. Identifies but does not demonstrate powerful engagement of Self, Others, and God.

Authentic Religiosity

1. Inspires and earns respect through concrete manifestations of spiritual Truth.

2. Accounts to a broad power-base that accepts responsibility for actions of all in the community.

3. Emphasizes personal contact with the Spirit of Truth.

4. Promotes group identity and individual cultural awareness; encourages openness to differences.

5. Protects everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

6. Takes broad perspective when challenges arise.

7. Remains accountable and self-critical.

8. Couples tradition with emphasis on direct experience of the Spirit.

9. Establishes holistic balance regarding all aspects of a human life.

10. Identifies activities with intrinsic good.

11. Is Truth-seeking in both words and actions.

12. Demonstrates interrelation and effective engagement of Self, Others, and God.

We all know smart, passionate people who have rejected all spiritual paths in the name of science, humanism, or self-reliance. They regard religious organizations skeptically, observing how formal religion can squash the power of individual truths, or argue that conflicts of faith are a reflection of the human will and odds, and one’s desire to believe in something. Though the sanctity and substance of genuine spirituality is not subject to material or intellectual reductionism, inauthentic religiosity defeats and discourages the Spirit and dampens the encounter for spiritual Truth. Only you can confirm whether or not your experience of faith meets criteria of authentic spirituality. The significance of this challenge cannot be understated: confronting this challenges may determine whether or not you are on the right path for your life.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit, and

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