“Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.” – Albus Dumbledore
Religion and spirituality are both grounded in trying to understand the meaning of life and how a relationship with a higher power may inform that meaning. While religion and spirituality are similar in foundation, they are different in practice. Religion is viewed as consisting of beliefs, doctrines, and practices associated with being a congregant in a religious institution. On the other hand, spirituality is considered to involve an experientially developed, individual connection with some form of higher power or consciousness. Therefore, while religion may facilitate and encourage spiritual unfoldment, it is not required for spiritual emergence to occur.
Religion is an organized, community-based system of beliefs, while spirituality resides within the individual and what they personally believe. Spirituality is the dynamic process of faith development, whereas religion provides static belief systems. The rituals, practices, and traditions in religion are taught as unchangeable rules that should be adhered to strictly if one wants to be considered a faithful practitioner. In spirituality, the individual can determine which practices and rituals they feel enhance and promote their connection to their Soul and to Spirit. Followers of religious doctrine begin their learning process with a firm belief that the basic tenants of that religion are true, and they anchor their faith in those teachings, leaving no room for doubt. Spirituality practitioners typically begin their journey without a defined belief system and their exploration inward and engagement in spiritual practices is how they develop their beliefs and faith in something beyond themselves. This is a perpetual and fluid process, leaving the door open for doubt, reconsideration, processing, and integration in order for the individual to find meaning and connections among experiences and determine their personal belief system.
Religion is, for the most part, an external experience. It is centered on the existence of a supreme being or eternal principle that is outside of the individual and includes an agreed-upon set of beliefs and practices that are performed outwardly/publicly in recognition of that external supreme being. Religion can exist separate and apart from the individual as it is taught as a fixed belief system that is not dependent on any one individual for its advancement. Spirituality is juxtaposed to religion in that it begins and is forever an internal process. Ultimately, it can be expressed outwardly, but it is through the inner world expanding to include the outer world and integrating the two. This is done through connectedness to the Soul, Spirit, and to others, as well as engaging in relationships with that which lies beyond the known world.
Religion, with its beliefs, practices, rituals, and spiritual exercises, can be a beneficial means through which one can begin to explore one’s spirituality and promote spiritual unfoldment. It provides a language, a context, and a social community through which an individual can embark on their spiritual journey. However, there have been moments in history and in our current society where religion, and people acting in the name of a religion, have engaged in behaviors that run afoul of notions of wholeness, connectedness, and authenticity. The spiritual aspect of the religion becomes lost when static religious beliefs and practices are proffered as dogma and doctrines. It is this disconnection between the spiritual journey inward and fixed religious belief systems that many young people struggle to reconcile, leading them to identify as spiritual, but not religious. The key to remember is that religion without spiritual accountability can become more about governing outward behaviors than a path to enlightenment. If our “aims are identical, and our hearts are open,” practitioners of religion and spirituality can work together to aid each other on their spiritual paths, and individuals can enjoy self-identifying as spiritual AND religious.
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