Religion vs Spirituality?

Transcend the Dichotomy

“Spiritual but not religious”

Are you a noner? That is someone who doesn’t identify with formal religion. If so, you wouldn’t be alone, recent surveys and polls show that the percentage of people who opt for none is on the rise. Likewise, many people consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” Such identification and juxtaposition of spirituality in opposition to religiosity is a common theme even in academia, especially in the West. In this article, we will examine the historical roots of this worldview, and present a perspective that transcends the dichotomy that has resulted from it. 

Religion – where it all went wrong

Religion as a means to connect with Divinity is largely a recent phenomenon in human history. The word religion itself is said to have evolved in the early medieval period from the Latin, religare, to connect or bind indicating the need to reconnect to the Divine Ideal. This formulation suited the spiritual currents of the times, especially in the West namely, the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic perspectives. 

These traditions formalized what was once only loosely interpreted and often left to an almost individualistic interpretation. Even in the West, the Romans were loathe to put into writing anything that was considered sacred as it was felt that the act of writing down essentially esoteric concepts would ossify them and lead to singular and misleading interpretations. The events that followed, wherein religion was dominated by a fanatical and often violent adherence to dogma, suggests that their fear was not unfounded. 

Unfortunately, religious aspiration, which is essentially human and personal was now stifled to the point that all things spiritual could only be interpreted by a select section of medieval society. Combine such elitism with strong political and economic motivations, and we see a heady combination of religious zeal and political power. It was hardly a wonder then that a natural protest against such an atmosphere found expression in the form of the Protestant movement led by men like Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Science vs Religion vs Spirituality

In the decades and centuries that followed, the primacy of the Church was challenged by this schism and ultimately overtaken by its rational counterpart, the scientific impulse, which benefitted from this divide. And the inability of religious authorities to construct any coherent argument against the logic of observation, verification, and empiricism brought about by the Age of Reason hastened the demise of religiosity. In time, the spiritual impulse, which was first usurped by organized religion, became utterly sidelined by the scientific community as well, ostensibly in the name of empiricism but quite likely, due to its obdurate insistence on material solutions for human and spiritual phenomena. The tendency was to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In our times, this disaffection with organized religion has taken the form of the aforementioned responses to popular polls and surveys. In the East this human need to connect with something greater than one’s physical existence was surprisingly resistant to the trend of large-scale religious organization. Even with movements that were organized, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and much later, Sikhism, the spiritual need of human beings remained personal and open to interpretation. Interestingly, with the advent of reason and the democratization of thought, which was accompanied by advances in technology and communication, science found itself quite compatible with the openness of Eastern traditions. Not surprisingly, the scientific West slowly, but surely, started to embrace spiritual ideals, as espoused by Eastern traditions and teachers culminating in the present “spiritual, but not religious” phenomenon. 

Science, Religion and Spirituality

While we sympathize with this iconoclastic reaction to the claustrophobic nature of organized religion, a complete abandonment of tradition seems not only hasty but a reaction based on impulse more than deliberation. Upon deeper reflection, it becomes clear that the religions of the world (including the Abrahamic traditions) can provide great insight and meaning through an esoteric reading of primary sources. Moreover, there is plenty of scientific research that points to the beneficial impact of religion on individual, human outcomes including mental and physical health (Koenig, 2012). The spiritual perspective, which was once part and parcel of all religions, is given to multiple interpretations. It is flexible, relevant, and evergreen. It provides the outward expression (religious form) with meaning and depth, just as the heart and soul give the body life.

For instance, if one feels an inclination towards a given religion, say, Islam, it is deepened and enhanced through a Sufic lens (like that of Bulleh Shah or Ibn Arabi, among others). Similarly, if Christianity evokes a powerful resonance within the seeker, then the writings of the Desert Fathers or mystics like St. Francis or Thomas Merton are essential reading. Religions can provide excellent structure and cohesiveness for the seeker, a secure framework for their inward spiritual impulse, which needs to be nurtured and protected. This framework is mainly in the form of practices and rituals (more than credos and doctrines). 

In summary, the world can use the salutary effects of religion if, in the light of contemporary openness, exclusivist dogma can be reinterpreted. In other words, one doesn’t have to be spiritual or religious, one can just as easily be spiritual and religious. Stick to the essence, take what is uplifting, and leave that which is of little use. 


Koenig, H. G. (2012). Religion, spirituality, and health: The research and clinical implications. International Scholarly Research Notices2012.