In common usage, the words “religion” and “spirituality” are often used as synonyms. I would like to suggest that far from being the same, they are in many ways opposites. A brief listing of differences:
- Religion tends towards boundaries and limits, in particular that between “us” (the tribe or the group of true believers) and “them”; spirituality breaks through boundaries, in particular the boundary between the self and the divine (God, the Tao, Nature, etc.). Spiritual traditions frequently insist that we are all one.
- Religion is about correct belief and faithfulness to the group and the religious tradition; spirituality is about direct experience and each person ultimately becoming her or his own master. (As the priest is to religion, the shaman is to spirituality.)
- Religion seeks clear boundaries and categories; spirituality is comfortable with the ambiguous.
- Religion is ancient and virtually universal; spirituality is comparatively recent and far from universal.
- Religion usually is very concerned with events of the past (the originating myths and covenants), and events of the future (the special destiny of the group); Spirituality is deeply concerned with the present.
Religion and spirituality exist together in “religion,” but the difference between the two often is manifested in contradictory messages. For instance the spiritual part of Christianity says that “God is love,” “God loves each equally.” The religious part of Christianity keeps finding groups that God excludes from his love (such as a current focus of exclusion, gays).
Personally, I do not believe that the religious spirit can ever be made compatible with naturalism and I think the term “rational religion” is a genuine oxymoron. I do believe that spirituality is highly compatible with, even enhanced by an open naturalism, and that while spirituality requires a transcending of reason, reason is the best guide up to the point where spirituality alone can tread. Dante portrays this idea wonderfully with the figure of Virgil (a personification of reason) serving as his guide as far as the summit of heaven.
In all my postings on this site, this distinction between religion and spirituality is kept.