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Are You Spiritual or Religious? Does It Matter?

Where do you fall on the spiritual/religious continuum?

Diverging paths, by Pixabay
Source: Diverging paths, by Pixabay

I have been writing in recent posts about the intersection of psychology and faith. Oftentimes, when asked about their faith, people will answer "I'm spiritual but not religious." I think what is usually meant by this is that the person believes in something larger, values that connection, but is not able or not interested in trying to find that connection through organized religion. Many people see those who go to church/synagogue/mosque as somehow not on the same wavelength as they are when it comes to a life of the spirit, and don't understand how or why connection to something larger is dependent upon or even remotely connected to institutionalized religion. Why muck up a beautiful sunset with having to get dressed up to go to church?

To answer that question, I will start with this formula: Spirituality is to religion as romance is to marriage.

Before I unpack that further, let me acknowledge my bias: I consider myself to be a spiritual person who chooses to express that spirituality primarily through organized religion. Obviously, I find that a better alternative or I wouldn’t be investing myself so heavily in my particular faith. I want to try to explain why in a way I hope will not push too many buttons, because I think organized religion so easily slips out of the realm of spirit and so easily into the realm of ego that many people miss some of the obvious advantages of organized religion.

Okay, here goes….

There are innumerable ways to experience the spirit. Nature is one of the easiest and most direct ways: a hike in the woods, time at the beach, a mountain vista, gazing up at the stars at night. All of these inspire us in ways only poets seem to be able to really capture because these experiences simultaneously connect us to our deeper selves and to our relative smallness in the grandeur of life. Our ego is temporarily suspended and we feel ourselves as the souls we are. Even if this connection does not happen in nature, I think it happens when we connect to the spirit that animates a particular thing, be it a baby’s smile or the artistry of a piece of jewelry.

To me, this is what it means to be spiritual: (1) to be able to recognize and experience spirit in the everyday world, and (2) to value it and consider it more important than the material surface of life. In other words, these experiences of spirit are more important than experiences of ego, such as status or material goods. I believe this is an important stance, as so much of our culture is based on the assumptions that only that which is physical is real, and only that which is material has value.

I compare this stance to romance because it is the romance of the spirit. It feels very good, it is something we value and want more of, and many of us actively seek it out.

Just as many people consider the next step in romance to be the commitment of marriage, many will find the next step in spirituality the commitment of an organized path, which usually (but not always) means an organized religion. Just as there is a tradeoff when moving from the thrill and excitement of the romance of dating to the security and challenges of a marriage, there is a tradeoff when moving from being spiritual to being religious.

Here’s what I think organized religion offers that I can’t find just by going to the beach. I will include the challenges that come with these gifts:

  1. Discipline: If you go to church every Sunday, you are more likely to have uplifting spiritual experiences than if you stay home and watch football or go shopping. Leaving spiritual experiences to chance means you are likely to have less of them, with the pulls and seductions of secular life as close as your smartphone. The challenge is to keep the church experience fresh and not just go through the motions.
  2. Accountability: How do you translate the lofty feelings inspired by a sunset into action that makes a difference? Organized religion provides a set of guidelines: This is how much you should be giving to charity, this is how you volunteer to help those less fortunate, these are the rules for proper speech when talking about others. The challenge here is to be tolerant with oneself and others, and not let the ego co-opt these rules into a means of establishing one’s moral superiority.
  3. Safety: There is a certain spiritual vetting process that occurs over time, where processes and practices that work are retained and those which are harmful or ineffective drop away. Of course, there are egregious exceptions to this in organized religion which make the news, but that itself is part of the process I’m speaking of. The organization continues, ideally with course corrections in place. The danger is that this vetting dilutes vitality and creates mediocrity of spirit.
  4. Literature: I am repeatedly astounded when I connect to the brilliance and profundity of religious writers of all stripes from centuries past. Their works have withstood the test of time for a reason: They address universal spiritual truths with depth, clarity, and precision. Some of today’s New Age bestsellers will not be around in 10 years, let alone 10 centuries, in part because some of what allows a book to become prominent in the marketplace is about fad and fame more than spirit and truth. The real challenge with religious literature for most people is that its language and concepts can be difficult to access in ways that seem relevant to us today and oftentimes require a teacher to help one connect.

I am not trying to convince anyone reading this to get religious. I am trying to help those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” understand better what makes people give themselves so fully to organized religion. We are not unevolved Neanderthals. Most of us are sane, sincere people who are trying to translate our spiritual experiences into a life that embodies those experiences and organized religion gives us a grounded and healthy means to do so. Are there problems with organized religion? At least as many as with the institution of marriage.

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