Spirituality is not Religion



"Religion is for people who are scared to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there!"

by Bonnie Raitt



Historically, religion and spirituality have not been distinguished from each other. Some writers still use the terms spirituality and religion interchangeably, but typically spirituality is considered individual and personal, while religion is related to a set of practices shared by a group, most often linked to a formal institution. As an example of the distinction, English and Gillen (2000) state that "religion is based on an organized set of principles shared by a group, whereas spirituality is the expression of an individual's quest for meaning" (p. 1). The concepts are clearly interwoven, as a person's spirituality may or may not include religion, and religion may or may not be the outward manifestation of the spirituality of the individual (Sinnott, 2001; Westgate, 1996). Tisdell (2003) defined spirituality as "personal belief and experience of a divine spirit or higher purpose, about how we construct meaning, and what we individually and communally experience and attend to and honor as the sacred in our lives" (p.2 9). In 1997, the National Institute of Healthcare Research (NIHR) defined spirituality as 'the feelings, thoughts, experiences, and behaviors that arise from a search for the sacred" (George, Larson, Koenig, and McCullough, 2000 p. 104). Westgate (1996) deliberately described spirituality rather than attempting to define it, in order to emphasize that what can be observed can never fully explained. Wong (1998) included an extensive comparison of spirituality and religion summarized by seeing religion as a cultural creation by spiritual human beings.

Related terms are religiosity and spiritual practice. Both are related to intentional activity relating to the sacred (Wink and Dillon, 2002). Religiosity is behavior that can be measured to quantify participation in organized religious activities, e.g. attendance at a place of worship, membership in a religious organization, and donations of time and money to a religious organization. Spirituality is clearly a more inclusive concept and is more of a private matter, than religion or religiosity (Westgate, 1996). Although often a private matter, spirituality also frequently has a communal dimension, as persons participate in spiritual practices within a community. While difficult to define and even more difficult to operationalize, there is consensus in the literature that spirituality involves constructing meaning and believing in transcendence.

A major issue in operationalizing spirituality for empirical work is that while the recent literature distinguishes between spirituality and religion, participants in the research do not see the two terms as independent, and different groups differ in the definitions. Zinnbauer, Pargament, Cole, Rye, Butter, et al.(1997), reached those conclusions in a study of eleven different groups (even though most of the participants (n=346) were white Americans in Ohio and Pennsylvania; there were significant differences between the groups from different institutions, occupations, and age groups). The 1997 NIHR panel identified to following ten dimensions of spirituality and/or religion: affiliation with a group, history, participation in formal group, private practices, receipt of social support from a group, use of practices for coping, beliefs and values, commitment, motivation for reconciling relationships, and personal experiences with the sacred (George, Larson, Koenig, and McCullough, 2000).



English, L. M. & Gillen, M. A. Editor's Notes. In L. M. English & M. A. Gillen (Eds.) Addressing the spiritual dimensions of adult learning: What educators can do. (pp. 1-5). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
George, L. K., Larson, D. B., Koenig, H. G., & McCullough, M. E. (2000). Spirituality and health: What we know, what we need to know. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19 (1), 102-116.
Sinnott, J. D. Introduction: Special Issue on Spirituality and Adult Development, Part I. Journal of Adult Development, 8 (4). 199-200.
Tisdell, E.J. (2003). Exploring spirituality and culture in adult and higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Westgate, C. E. (1996). Spiritual wellness and depression. Journal of Counseling & Development, 75. 26-35.
Wink, P. & Dillon, M. (2002). Spiritual development across the adult life course: Findings from a longitudinal study. Journal of Adult Development, 9 (1). 79-94.
Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Spirituality, meaning, and successful aging. In Wong. P. T. P.& Fry, P. S. (Eds.). The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications, (pp. 359 - 394). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Zinnbauer, B. J., Pargament, K. I, Cole, B., Rye, M., Butter, E. M., et al., (1997). Religion and spirituality: Unfuzzying the fuzzy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36 (4). 549-564.