Increasing numbers of people in the developed world consider themselves spiritual without belonging to a religion. Some of the dominant world religions believe there is no spiritual life outside their confines. Let’s take some time now then to explore the differences between spirituality and religion.
Both spirituality and religion, at a core level are about our relationship with God, the Divine, the Mystery or Absolute truth, by whatever name you give it. From my point of view the similarities end here.
Spirituality as I see it is an innate dimension to our existence and our relationship with the Mystery of life. Religions are manmade structures that seek to define and control our spiritual nature. Religion used to be a cultures one size fits all spirituality and in many parts of the world still are. Spirituality is personal, fluid and evolving. Religions are constructed with rigid and moralized belief systems.
Religion is based on faith and accepted beliefs which define the parameters of what is allowed to be believed. Ideas and beliefs beyond these boundaries are often considered heresy and usually punishable one way or another, even with death. Religion has strict codes of what is right and wrong and applicable punishments in both this life and beyond. This polarized moralizing of human behavior is a system of control based on fear. Neitzsche pointedly dispelled this cannon of religious dogma when he said “there are no moral phenomena only the moral interpretation of phenomena”.
What is amazing is that despite all of this there are people who are able to find authentic spirituality within the confines of their accepted religion.
Spirituality tends to be independent of religious doctrine and belief systems, although most people who consider themselves spiritual and not religious construct a belief system that they feel comfortable with. If this personal spiritual belief system becomes inflexible and rigid it can be as limiting to spiritual development as those of religion, though less likely to fill you with fear, guilt and shame.
The human mind creates systems of belief one way or another. The majority of these beliefs are received as conditioning from the culture that we grow up in. Spiritual development can be seen as a process of freeing ourselves from the conditioned state of the mind and therefore a limited experience of self. For it is beyond the conditioned state of mind that we experience the Mystery of the Divine. In the depths of this experience of Self beyond mind the boundaries of separation dissolve and the Self is experienced as One with the Divine. This process of spiritual evolution into awakening is the very nature of life itself.
Religion being manmade, being made in the consciousness of separation, places the divine outside of ourselves. This is true even when the source of the religion taught the spiritual truth of unity with God. Christianity is a great example. Jesus in his teaching clearly said that the kingdom of heaven is within all of us. How then did it become a place where God lives and we go where we go after we’re dead if we’ve been good and lived by the prescribed rules?
One answer is that spiritual teachers like Jesus spoke from a more evolved state of consciousness, and those who came after them and formulated religion in their name, were of a less evolved level of consciousness, and interpreted the teachings from this low level of consciousness thus distorting it.
Another interpretation is that religion was identified as a means of controlling an entire population of people, and its teachings were distorted to this end. Taking Christianity is an example again it seems quite apparent to me that both these interpretations are aspects of how Christianity became what it is today. Don’t think so? Well how is it that hundreds of years of war and countless atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, when pretty much all religions hold a core tenant of Thou shalt not kill, and Do onto others as you would have them do unto you, or the like?
Spirituality in its nature requires the questioning of beliefs, which tends to set it at odds with religion. Professing being spiritual doesn’t necessarily mean that we do question our beliefs, but freed from the confines of religious dogma, life will inevitably provide the circumstances for us to more readily do so. Accepting this opportunity to keep stepping beyond the boundaries of the identity that we hold, is the means of living spirituality. Spirituality then requires forging your own unique path of awakening to our true nature.
Religion requires conformity, discourages independent thought, self inquiry, it requires followers. That anyone finds spirituality in religion is amazing to me, that they do is testament to the power of truth to shine through. So is religion all bad? No, for clearly many thousands of people are inspired to be of service to their fellows by their religious beliefs. And when religion inspires seeing beyond the appearance of difference and is a vessel from which to expand ones beliefs and seek direct experience of the Mystery that manifest and animates life, then it still serves it’s spiritual purpose and spirituality and religion unite.