Being religious generally refers to believing in a specific deity (or group of deities) and the regulations of a particular religion and tends to take place in a relatively formal, organized context. In contrast, being spiritual may or may not involve belief in a particular god but does imply that the person is trying to follow a specific moral code, such as being loving and kind, and is seeking a meaning in life that’s bigger than him or herself.
In other words, a person can be both religious and spiritual. In contrast, someone can be religious but not spiritual, as in the case of adhering to religious dogma such as tithing 10% of one’s income but being consistently cruel or unjust. Or, an individual can be spiritual but not religious.
Unfortunately, some organized religions have become associated with hypocrisy and worse, due to a few (or more) individuals of high standing in such communities behaving in regrettable and hurtful ways. Some spiritual pursuits have found themselves under scrutiny, for that matter. As a result, the very concept of religion or spirituality can turn some people off, which is unfortunate. It isn’t necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Participation in organized religion and in a spiritual community can offer many benefits, including the following:
- social contact and support
- a chance to volunteer and to feel useful
- a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself
- a sense of belonging and identity
- a sense of connection with a loving, powerful, and wise Higher Power
- the opportunity to learn universal moral principles
- greater ability to forgive (McCullough & Worthington, 1999)
- greater emotional and physical resilience after trauma (Ellison & Levin, 1998)
Everyone needs to find out for himself, herself, or themselves what religious or spiritual path is the right fit. Even if another person’s faith sounds wonderful in many ways, it still may not ultimately be your chosen personal path. For instance, let’s say that you believe in marriage. This doesn’t mean that you’re going to wed just anyone.
It helps to actively participate in your spiritual community and also to practice (however imperfectly) the principles of your faith (by which I mean your chosen spiritual path). Depending on your faith, such principles can involve:
- reading spiritual literature
- attending Bible, Torah, Quran, or other literature studies with fellows in your faith community
- going to religious or spiritual services
- volunteering to help in your community (building homes for Habitat for Humanity, visiting home-bound individuals, donating to food drives, etc.)
It is, however, to abuse religion or spirituality. Some signs of this include:
- passively turning your problems over to God or your Higher Power without doing what’s within your power to do yourself
- engaging in religious or spiritual rituals to the point of jeopardizing important and healthy relationships
- berating yourself mercilessly for falling short of what you consider your “ideal self” and “God’s will” for you
- joining a cult and mindlessly submitting to its rules and regulations
- being angry and intolerant toward those who do not share your belief system
At its best, both organized religion and spirituality will help you answer in the affirmative to the following questions:
- Are you becoming capable of compassion to others as well as to yourself?
- Do you strive to practice kindness, even “under fire”?
- Are you becoming more patient with apparent obstacles or delays, recognizing that such occurrences may turn out to be for the best? Or, even if there seems to be no conceivable way that the situation in question could be beneficial, can you accept this without resentment or fear?
- If you falter in any of the above, are you capable of compassion while also being accountable for your actions or attitude, knowing that nobody is perfect?
- Are you willing to believe in a power greater than yourself, whatever you conceive that power to be, and are you willing to cooperate with this power?
Ellison, C.G., & Levin, J.S. (1998). The religion-health connection: Evidence, theory, and future directions. Health Education and Behavior, 25: 700-20.
McCullough, M.E., & Worthington, E.L. (1999). Religion and the forgiving personality. Journal of Personality, 67: 1141-64.