Are Religion and Spirituality Incompatible?

Antonio Paucar, Altar. Exhibit at the Museum of Latin American Art.


I increasingly come into contact with folks who have a difficult time understanding why anyone in their right mind would self-identify as religious—while I walked the Camino de Santiago this summer, when I meet people in activist circles, or even on dates—I hear a very similar line of argument: Religion and religious people are rigid, outdated, dogmatic, violent, and judgmental; whereas spiritual people are open, accepting, non-dogmatic, fluid, expansive and personally fulfilled.

While listening to a Podcast from Catholic Bishop Robert Barron, I came up with a pithy paraphrase for one of his common arguments for the necessity and beauty of religious life. I posted it on my Facebook page to generate some discussion, knowing that it is an increasingly unpopular position these days. I wrote: “Saying that one is spiritual but not religious is like saying that one is athletic but doesn’t play sports.”

For those of you who know me this might seem an unexpected analogy. As a child I was literally the worst member of every sports team I was part of from soccer, to T-ball, to junior high volleyball. I am not very athletic at all really, I like walking, and birding, but that’s about it. I don’t even like riding bikes!

But the more I thought about it the more this analogy seemed to express a frustration I have been feeling with the dominant secular and anti-religious zeitgeist. Spirituality has come to mean a state of being comfortable, fit, relaxed, and centered; while religion is a cultural hold out for pre-scientific, dogmatic zealots. Religion is a dinosaur going extinct, spirituality is an iphone app that keeps you connected, fit and hip.

The word religion has morphed into a dust bin for things we don’t like about the way religious institutions and religious individuals behave. It becomes part of a binary straw-person argument that pits spirituality against religion, with spirituality getting all the positive aspects and religion the negative ones. So, what is gained by insisting that religion and spirituality are inextricably connected as I often do?

It is a defensive stance against those who look down on anyone who would consider self-identifying as religious. This is not a calling out of those who have been hurt by religious institutions and religions people to rejoin their native folds. It is an explanation of what religiosity means in a rapidly changing world. It is an insistence that both religion and spirituality continue to mean something in our complex and messy lives.

A Few Conventional Definitions

The human phenomenon of religion is notoriously difficult to comprehensively define, but that doesn’t mean the term is useless. The European colonial roots of the concept initially measured religiosity through a Christian lens; but again, that doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about other cultural practices as religious in a broader sense.

As often happens in abbreviated forums like Facebook, several of the commenters simply dismissed the efficacy of words to grasp reality. ‘Religion can mean whatever we want!’ Or, ‘it depends on how you define it.’ What do you mean by religion? Spirituality?

To make my argument that religion and spirituality are inextricable, I am not going to gerrymander a super-inclusive and only positive definition of religion. Religion accounts for plenty of human good and evil. To begin, here is a narrow and clearly Euro-centric definition by Oxford English Dictionary: “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” The emphasis is on belief, and that belief is centered on a Supernatural being. Many of the world’s religions then do not qualify as religion under this narrow definition because it take as its cues Christianity’s central focus on Creed and God as a being. A definition that should rightly be abandoned.

However, to swing to the other pole is equally undesirable. I am not trying to trick you into thinking you are in fact religious; that even atheists can be religious (though I have said this). I think being religious includes certain criteria, and that spirituality are the means of seeking that criteria. Max Lynn Stackhouse defines religion as “A comprehensive worldview or metaphysical moral vision that is accepted as binding because it is held to be in itself basically true and just even if all dimensions of it cannot be either fully confirmed or refuted.” Under this definition, all human meaning making is religious. He is essentially equating religion with ontology, the bedrock assumptions of ‘what is’ to a give society. For my purposes here, I do not take this more expansive view, though I certainly sympathize with its intuition.

I think Emile Durkheim’s classical sociological definition gets closer to a universally relevant but still meaningful definition of religion: “A unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them.” There is an emphasis on the sacred, which doesn’t necessarily mean God; and there is an emphasis on praxis carried out in community. Merriam-Webster’s approach simplifies Durkheim’s as “A personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, beliefs and practices.” And, I would add, in relation to the sacred or transcendent dimension of existence, which as Paul Tillich writes, are our “ultimate concerns.”

Oxford University Dictionary’s definition of spirituality is surprisingly dualistic: “The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” This seems strange in a time when spirituality is earthier than ever, with Yoga, nature and energy work being popular spiritual activities. Conventionally defined as an interest in self-understanding, growth, connection to the world or cosmos, spirituality is often conceived as something that gives one a deep sense of meaning, satisfaction or physical wellbeing.

Now, when I compare religion and spirituality to sports and athleticism, here is what I mean. Oxford defines sports as: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” So, yes there are competitive sports, but there are also lots of non-competitive sports that simply involve physical activity that requires some measure of skill. We engage in sports for a sense of wellbeing, but also to improve. Oxford defines athletic as someone who is “physically strong, fit, and active.”

Athletic is related to the word ascetic which comes from the Latinized form of Greek asketikos which means “rigorously self-disciplined, laborious, or skilled worker, one who practices an art or trade, especially “athlete, one in training for the arena, to exercise, train, especially to train for athletic competition, practice gymnastics, exercise.” An athlete is someone who practices a disciplined activity in order to improve upon it, often giving up certain pleasures and comforts, even suffering pain, in order to achieve a greater level of skill.

In other words, religion is an interest and a seeking for God and the Transcendent, and spirituality is the way we do that. Spirituality is not just feeling good, or connected, or happy; spirituality is a discipline that promises a payoff. To claim to be spiritual without having a spirituality seems meaningless if we keep with the analogy.

Objection 1

The first and most obvious objection to my analogy that religion is to spirituality as athleticism is to sports, is that one can be generally athletic without playing competitive sports. I concede this point, but would respond that in the above conventional definition of sports, competitive and non-competitive sports are included. Rock climbing is a sport that can be contemplative or competitive; running can be part of a race, or a personal practice. In fact a focus on winning in sports seems a great analogy for how religion goes wrong. My point being, that when I say sports I am talking about lineages of physical activities that have taken a particular form. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone that gets exercise by periodically flailing around. Usually it takes a form: Weight training, aerobics, Zumba, running, walking, golf, tennis, football, rowing, kayaking, etc. Even Crossfit, which is a medley of physical activities has become itself a particular lineage of physical fitness with its own set of rules, techniques, gyms and culture. I am not however saying, using the sports analogy, that there is One True Sport; Christianity’s claim to Truth leaves the analogy, and is fodder for a different discussion.

The religions developed rules, practices, sacred spaces, organizations around a particular end: Union with God. By reclaiming the word religion, I am saying that to engage in a spiritual practice it is inevitable that it take a certain form, usually embedded in a certain tradition of practitioners who know something about how to ‘play.’ To take spiritual practice seriously is to behave religiously. To take the spiritual life seriously, you should probably listen to people who have done it before you. You wouldn’t show up to a football game with bat, or try to tackle a fellow marathon runner.

Objection 2

Another objection is that some religious people really aren’t that spiritual. I would whole heartedly agree with this criticism of religion. Sometimes we become so obsessed with the rules of the sport that we forget to have fun. In light of this, many have left formal religious affiliation opting instead for a generalized spirituality. I sympathize with those who have been bored by religion, and especially those who have been hurt by it. I am not making excuses for religious abuse. One friend who I deeply respect wrote: “Because I’m not religious, I’ve been trying to assert for years that I’m not spiritual, because I had this same dualistic conception. But now I’m just being honest with myself, that for better or worse, as ridiculous as it is, I am spiritual, even without a religion.”

I have no quarrel with this statement, or this very common journey. I understand that when one no longer identifies with a particular religious institution, we might therefore assume that we are no longer religious. Sure, I feel safe in Christian religion and spirituality, but what about those who do not have a tradition, or who have needed to leave one? This is an important and difficult question. I would simply ask, what do we mean by spiritual as a state of being? As I have defined it above, spirituality is a thing we do, not something we are or feel. To BE spiritual is like saying that I AM baseball. I would be interested to know what folks mean when they say that they ARE spiritual outside of what they DO that makes them feel that way. I am arguing analogically that religion is the sport of seeking union with God and that spirituality is suit of rules, spaces and techniques we engage in to achieve that state. I am calling religion to a deeper engagement with its spiritual practices, and spirituality to a deeper honoring of its own religiosity.

Done right, religion, as a universal human phenomenon, leads us into a deeper spirituality that transcends but does not render obsolete religious traditions and structures. Our most beloved spiritual leaders, poets, mystics, etc. have each been rooted, tethered, loyal to particular religious traditions. Rumi is a classic example, of a poet who has found an international and interfaith audience, but whose actual life was deeply rooted in his Muslim faith. The Sufi orders are Muslims first.

From where I stand, the danger of an untethered spiritual identity is twofold: First, it is easily assimilated into a capitalist framework of identity marketing, and second, it then reinforces rather than breaks down our obsession with self, body image, ego and pleasure. Spirituality is not a sensibility, a lifestyle or an identity; it is a practice in which one engages to deepen one’s awareness of God and the Transcendent dimension of existence. Like practicing sports, it can sometimes be difficult, painful and fraught with challenges.

For those of you who identify as spiritual but not religious I would simply say that I love you. I have so much to learn from you. If my analogy still doesn’t convince you then let’s keep talking. I think words like religion and spirituality should mean something, and I want to know what they mean to you. I continue to identify as both spiritual and religious, but this does not mean I am any better at playing the game than the rest of you. I am often very discouraged by just how bad I am at it! But I love this game, I want to know God. These days, the field is getting more and more sparse; please, come and play.

6 thoughts on “Are Religion and Spirituality Incompatible?

  1. Religion and spirituality are definitely not incompatible, but I must question how you state your analogy about sport and athleticism. You are looking at things backwards. Sports are a specific form of athleticism, just as religion is a specific form of spirituality. Your statement should read religion is to spirituality as sport is to athleticism. Now we have a true vision of what you are trying to say.
    Allow me another way of looking at this. You cannot have religion without spirituality. However, you can have spirituality without religion. Similarly, you cannot have sports without athleticism, however you can have athleticism without sports. This is the flaw in your original statement, comparing apples to fruit, and then comparing vegetables to carrots. The generic does not have to contain the specific, but the specific must be contained in the generic.
    Then, you try to say spirituality is knowledge, not feeling, or some such misconception. I will make this very specific for you. I am spiritual, but I certainly am not religious in any way. I need no books, rules, or superior being to give my life meaning. I do not try to use specific definitions to try to contain what I believe and feel. My learning does not come from outside me, but rather from inside me. I do not believe in religious rebirth, but I do believe in reincarnation. I do not have physical knowledge of my beliefs, but I do have experiential knowledge of them. You tell me I cannot feel spiritual. Sir, please do not try to tell me what I can feel or not feel. You can only tell me what you can feel or cannot feel. That knowledge of experience is relative to you, and only you. My knowledge and experience are relative to only me. Until you walk a mile in my sandals, do not assume you think I wear shoes.
    Spirituality is the connection between all living beings and all other living beings–religion is not even 1% of spirituality. Meanwhile, religion is 100% spiritual. It can be no other way.
    If you want to continue believing athleticism is to sport as religion is to spirituality, I will never try again to disabuse you of your fallacy. But were I you, I would seriously look at what is a generality, and what is a specificity. When you make an error in your original equation, you cannot but make more errors as far as you want to go. Please start over, and see where the truth takes you now.


    • Hey there. Thanks for taking the time to read my writing and reply. I guess I would start here: “Spirituality is the connection between all living beings and all other living beings–religion is not even 1% of spirituality.” That is not how I would define spirituality, I agree that there is something spiritual about interconnection, but just being connected is not spirituality. Spirituality is praxis in my definition. And in that sense the analogy still holds. Saying you are spiritual in some vague sense is not valid if you don’t have some praxis and goal in mind. Just as saying you are athletic doesn’t make sense unless you DO something about it. And that typically involves a technique with some pedigree, even if it is outside of a tradition sport, or even competitive sport. My point with all this is simply to challenge us to put our spirituality to use. To deepen our connection, and then act accordingly. Cheers.


      • We do not see spirituality in the same way, and never will. Your definition does not work for me. Spirituality is not a hoal, or a means to agoal. Spiriyuality exists inside us, and inside all living beings. We are not born with religion inside us, but we are born with spirituality inside us. It has nothinging to do with divinity, deities,or theities. It has everything to do with living, and being alive.
        I do not expect you to understand, but understanding is not necessary at this juncture. Without trying to insult you, religion limits understanding. Religion is a very crowded box, and you either go along with all the other people in that box, or you get thrown out. If you are in the box, it is because you want to be part of that crowd–strength in numbers and all that.
        I will not fight with you. I said my piece, and that is all I wanted to do.


  2. Thank you again for your comments. I appreciate them, and am not offended that we do not agree. But it does surprise me that you have such an expansive and inclusive definition of spirituality and such a narrow and simplistic definition of religion. The religions are diverse, dynamic living creatures. We may not be born with a religion, but we are born religious. Human beings are fiercely religious creatures. It is only very recently that we have even considered not being religious. Peace be with you.


  3. I find that people who stick to the “spiritual but not religious” language are caught in a dangerous dichotomy. Those who I have met who engage this language, even myself, try to cut off themselves from the past, from the world. Like you said, “Spirituality is not a sensibility, a lifestyle or an identity…. the danger of an untethered spiritual identity is… [it being] easily assimilated into a capitalist framework of identity marketing… and [how it] reinforces rather than breaks down our obsession with self, body image, ego, and pleasure.” Untethering the practice from wisdom is a disaster. We see this in corporate Buddhism, the never-ending additions of Reiki practitioners and “shamanic healers” in middle-upper class white populations, and market yoga, etc., etc.,

    For me, people who use this language are standing amidst a bifurcation of themselves and a cultural bifurcation of something that should not, and really can not, be divided. You say it wonderfully here: spirituality (“a practice in which one engages to deepen one’s awareness of God and the Transcendent dimension of existence”) untethered from its mother, (religion – “lineages [of spirituality] that have taken a particular form) cannot survive and will result in a stillbirth. The stillborn is really us in our failed attempt at birthing that divine spark, full potential,, i.e., the horizon that religion has pointed to through spirituality. If our spiritual path does not take us back around to embracing religious traditions, i.e., continues to support our grudges, aversions, unconscious anger – anything opposed to unity – then it is something else masquerading as spirituality.


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