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"Spiritual, but not Religious"

Is there a god? Do humans have souls? Is there more to life than just the physical?

These are the types of questions that anyone, no matter one’s religious affiliation, often ponders. Even those who are antagonistic towards religion are usually willing to discuss matters of the spirit or soul. This is because metaphysical ideas are not usually considered inherently religious topics. They could, however, fall under the category dubbed “spiritual.” This distinction between spiritual and religious is often what people will point to when they do not want to associate with organized religion. In fact, people often reject Christianity, in particular, in an effort to avoid religion, while still wanting to remain “spiritual.” These actions stem from the presupposition that spirituality is based on love, unity, and freedom, while religion is grounded in fear, separation, and dictation. I would argue, however, that the Christian religion is in fact intertwined with spirituality and finds its foundation in love.

Defining Religion

The vast variety in religions make religion itself very difficult to define. Buddhism, for example, is a religion that often challenges our assumptions about the nature of religion. According to research institutions like the Pew Research Center, it is one of the world’s greatest organized religions. [1] However, it often appeals to the “spiritual but not religious,” because there are no traditional Buddhist gods (gods as we think of them in the West), nor is there one way to practice Buddhism. Most religions, however, operate like Buddhism in this way; there is not one way to do any religion. The assumption that all practitioners in a religion act the same way or believe the same things is one of the myths that prevents people from experiencing the goodness of religion.

Many people think that belief in a god is fundamental to religion. In fact, the New Oxford American Dictionary defines religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” [2] Prominent religious studies scholars, however, counter that religion can in fact be defined differently. [3] American historian Jonathan Z. Smith writes, “‘Religion’ is not a native term; it is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes and therefore is theirs to define.” [3]

Given this, it is unreasonable to assume that all religion must include the belief in a god. Thus, I would define religion rather broadly as a set of beliefs that one holds about the origin and purpose of one’s existence.

Foundation of Love

The Spirit Science, a site which strives to engage people in issues of spirituality and mindfulness, lists several differences between spirituality and religion. [4] One reads, “Spirituality is based only on love and not fear.” [4] This assumption that religion is inherently tied to fear, however, is antithetical to the Christian doctrine. The very foundation of Christianity - the gospel of Jesus Christ - is rooted in love. The Bible reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [5] Although some churches have twisted Scripture to control their congregations through fear, the Biblical Christian doctrine is that God sent his Son out of love for our redemption and salvation.

On the other hand, fear can in fact be a good and useful thing. The Spirit Science states that “any choice made out of fear is not good for your soul.” [4] However, it is usually fear that protects us from crazy, life-threatening activities such as disobeying traffic laws or placing our hand over an open flame. We instinctively fear pain, and this is a good thing. Fear helps us rationalize and make decisions. To enjoy life (and God) to the fullest, I would argue one needs both a mixture of fear and love.

Unifying Nature

Many often point out the unifying tendency of spirituality and contrast it with the separating tendency of religion. [4] The argument follows that because so many different religions all claim to be true, conflict and division ensue. The Spirit Science asserts that spirituality is unique in its ability to perceive the truth in every religion, therefore leading to greater unity. This argument assumes that only the “spiritual” know what is true and that the “religious” are blinded by their belief in absolute truth. However, this assumption seems to demonstrate the very intolerance that the “spiritual” attempt to avoid. Exclusive truth claims are unavoidable. Thus, what we need is not the absence of absolute truth, but an absolute truth that humbles and unifies. I believe we find this truth in the Christian religion. While Christianity may have many denominations, its followers are united under a central figure — Jesus Christ — and a central belief — that Jesus, the Son of God, humbled himself to redeem us and welcome us into his kingdom of perfect unity, even while we were still sinners. [6] Rather than dividing, this belief should motivate us to the same humility and pursuit of unity.

Origin of Truth

Another difference between spirituality and religion listed on The Spirit Science is this: “religion tells you the truth, while spirituality lets you discover it.” [4] Spirituality is often believed to encourage the discovery of one’s identity and purpose in life, while religion is assumed to dictate it. [7] However, this distinction between personal discovery and instruction reveals a negative perception of authority.

The incorrect assumption is that all religious authorities will lead their followers or congregation in a series of lies, rather than truth. Truth, by this line of thinking, must be discovered inherently in each individual — to escape the restrictions imposed by authority. Our society, however, is set up in such a way that having no outside influence on an individual’s beliefs is impossible. Therefore, authority is inevitable and not always bad (authority helps establish beneficial institutions such as language and systems of education). That being said, Christianity does not advocate for dictatorial authority figures. There is an element of discovery that is important when considering whether anything is true, even within Christianity.

The discovery of truth requires both faith and reason, as does any type of belief, whether “spiritual” or “religious.” [8] Even if one “discovers” a truth, faith must have been used at some point to get to that conclusion. On the other hand, reason is also involved in any decision to accept something as true. For example, if someone tells me that they had coffee this morning, I believe them, because according to my sense of logic, they have no reason to lie to me. However, I did not see them drink coffee, so I use faith to trust that they are telling me the truth. This is a very simple example of a concept that gets rather complex, especially when considering the varying thoughts on what is considered logically possible. Despite the complex nature of this topic, I argue that one needs self-discovery as well as authority to determine truth. Both faith and reason are required in the processes of self-discovery and accepting authority.

Spirituality of the Christian religion

At its core, the Christian religion seeks to touch the individual – it is a profound process which transforms the soul. In this way, it is deeply spiritual.

It is based in love while respecting the purpose of fear. It seeks to unite while celebrating diversity. Finally, it emphasizes the importance of the collective whole as well as the individual. At the core, Christianity is a religion through which Christians enter a spiritual process. The Christian belief of salvation rests upon sanctification by the Spirit. I believe we are not saved by our own volition. It is the work of the Holy Spirit (and therefore God) to adopt our souls. The human desire to be “spiritual,” I would argue, is evidence of our longing to be in communion with God.

While it is not ultimately up to us to save ourselves, it is the aim of the Christian to grow in the fruits of the Spirit as laid out in Galatians 5:22-23 of the Bible: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. These virtues are valued not only by Christians, but also by those who consider themselves to be “spiritual.”

It is simply not possible to be wholly religiously Christian without also being spiritual. While I will concede that it is possible to detach some spiritual aspects from religion (i.e. consider oneself spiritual but not religious), I do think that those spiritual aspects, at their origins, stem from religion. Thus, religion and spirituality are quite intertwined. Christianity is a fundamentally spiritual form of organized religion.


1. Hackett, C. and McClendon, D. (2017, April 5). Christians remain world’s largest religious

group, but they are declining in Europe. Retrieved from


2. New Oxford American dictionary (3rd e.d.). (2015). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

3. Smith, J.Z. (1998). Religion, religions, religious. In M.C. Taylor (Ed.) Critical Terms for

Religious Studies. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

4. Khan, K. (2015, June 7). 6 Fundamental differences between religion and spirituality.

Retrieved from


5. John 3:16, New International Version

6. Romans 8:5, New International Version

7. Braddock, S. Spirituality vs. religion, which is best for you? Retrieved from


8. Tilley, T. (2010). Faith: What it is and what it isn’t. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

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