Religion vs. Spirituality
Which one enhances your mental health?
Posted December 11, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
There are several different religions around the world, many with their own profound spiritual texts. As a student of various world religions, one might be able to find things of great value in each of the religions.
The purpose of religion, in general, is to unite a group of people under the same values and principles and to facilitate their collective and individual communication with a Higher Power and/or philosophy. In other words, religion was meant to enhance spirituality.
That said, it must also be said that it is entirely possible to be a very religious person yet be totally out of touch with spirituality and its essential connection to an authentic Self. On the other hand, true spirituality unites a person with his or her authentic Self.
That is not said to separate the two, for it is also entirely possible to be both religious and spiritual. On the other hand, it is also possible to be so caught up in religion that one does not make room for the spirit (or Spirit) to express or become known at all.
Only if one is fully open to the spiritual element of religion will religion enhance one’s mental health. If one is religious but not spiritual, mental health is not enhanced—in fact it might be very disturbed.
Religion that teaches or encourages judgment of self and other is often very disturbing to the psyche. Spirituality, on the other hand, would encourage compassion for self and other. Judgment of self not only diminishes self-esteem and a sense of well-being, but it also often causes us to repress aspects of self that we might deem to be unworthy of approval. Judgment of others causes us to cut off relationships with those we deem to be less worthy and to fear their judgment of us.
In fact, in some religious communities, the suffering that naturally occurs in the lives of the members is worsened by the fear of judgment of others. For example, a church member might not ever tell others in her church that she is thinking of divorcing her husband because he is emotionally abusive to her, because she fears that they will judge her—say that she is sinful—for thinking of divorce. Therefore, her suffering is prolonged and she lacks vital support during one of the most difficult times in her life.
Or, a man who has lost his wife to cancer might not show his grief to others for fear that will judge him for not accepting God’s will for his wife. Or, a person who is unhappy in his job might not share his concerns with those in his meditation group for fear that they might tell him that he’s just being negative and he is drawing negative experiences into his life through the law of attraction by thinking these negative thoughts.
Religion that teaches us that we must rely completely on external advice or external books—as opposed to listening to the urging of one’s own soul—is a religion that is destructive to mental health. Certainly, external advice can be useful, but only in the case in which the person receiving that advice authentically agrees with that advice. Certainly, sacred texts are useful, but the interpretations of those texts should be processed through the mind, heart, and soul of each individual, rather than set down as final truth by an external authority.
When an external authority, be it a book, a person, or a religion, has final control over everything we do, say, and think, it is impossible for us to find and begin to live out of our own truest, deepest souls. We live oppressed by the external authority—this is definitely not good for mental health. It is the same as if a government came in and told us how to think, feel, believe, and act. The external authority has final and absolute control. Where, then, are our original thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions? Rather we must learn to find our own internal authority and come to trust its guidance—that is true spirituality.
Religion that teaches us how we are to think and feel about the world does not allow us room to grow into our own understanding of life and the world. For example, many religious authorities are currently teaching members of their community how they should view politics and how to vote. Rather than trusting and even encouraging the membership to educate themselves on the world and to search their own souls, they are telling them how to think and feel. And they are adding that to think and feel any other way is wrong, or sinful. And they are further adding unique and frightening prophecies about what it will mean for the world if the membership doesn’t vote as they instruct. This is not only oppression, but it is spiritual and religious abuse. Yet many followers of these external leaders are too afraid to even consider any other option.
Spirituality is a very personal and individual journey into the inner terrain of one’s own soul. The person on such a spiritual journey may use all manner of external tools to facilitate that journey—including attendance to a church, temple, or mosque, and/or reading of certain sacred texts, and/or joining and engaging with others in various spiritual practices, and/or spending time in one-on-one conversation or counseling by and with certain spiritual leaders. But the person on the journey is deciding on the direction of the journey; it is not being decided on for him by external authorities or texts.
Spirituality allows a person to come to terms with life on life’s terms. It allows one to process through difficult experiences and become stronger and wiser because one stayed conscious as one walked through the experience. Spirituality allows one to develop healthy self-esteem and to respect and appreciate the journey of others. Spirituality encourages one to walk through the deep recesses of the heart, mind, and soul and come to know one’s Self in deep communion with a Higher Power or philosophy of one’s choice. Spirituality enhances the quality of life of the individual practitioner.
So, unless religion is leading to a deeper spiritual experience, it is likely not enhancing mental health. It is possible to be religious without being spiritual, but it is not possible to be spiritual, truly spiritual, without enhancing one’s mental health.