What Is the Difference Between Religion and Spirituality?

Religion without the Spirit is moral bookkeeping. Spirituality without religion is self-involved and directionless. The only way to keep the law, however, is with the kind of help only the Holy Spirit provides.

Candice Lucey
Chains breaking into doves

What is the difference between religion and spirituality? Spirituality is personal; religion is institutional. Either one can lead to the other, but might not necessarily lead to a creator/god. They can also be experienced independently of each other.

Spirituality can be mistaken for religion and vice versa, and they do complement each other, but they are not the same thing.

What Is the Difference between Religion and Spirituality?

Religion is “‘human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, divine, or worthy of especial reverence.” Religion also deals with “concerns about [one’s] fate after death.”

Certain books are revered for providing “moral authority;” religious law. Judaism has the Torah, Muslims follow the Koran, and Christians read the Bible. God in each case is the supreme moral authority, although definitions of him differ.

Religious participation involves collective and individual “prayer, meditation;” “worship, moral conduct, right belief, and participation in religious institutions.” There are rules about behavior, the outward expressions of reverence for a particular god or institution. These rules pertain to dress, marriage, healthcare, justice, and more.

Society’s Reactions to Religion

Criticism often focuses on abuse, hypocrisy, and extremism; distortion of religious texts to satisfy a personal or minority agenda. Large-scale acts of terrorism give religion a bad name but those guilty of such acts account for only a minority of individuals associated with a religion.

These include bombings and racist rallies. Small-scale, secret terrorism (spousal abuse or threats against non-compliant children) contributes to the number of worshipers, statistically speaking, but these abusers have chosen to read sacred texts incorrectly.

Meanwhile, many professional and lay preachers have taught moral behavior in the name of God while living sordid lives behind closed doors. Those questioning the purpose of organized religion hone in on these events. The positives lie in the shadows.

But even the observer weighing up the good and bad of a religious life and seeing that most religious people are harmless might take no interest either way. The problem is not with oppression, terrorism, or hypocrisy.

One expert, John Blake, points out that it takes work to be a participant. “People don't feel like it.” They say, ‘I have better things to do with my time.’ It’s plain old laziness.” Religion is associated with behavior: Doing good things for other people.

Many people prefer to blend elements of religious practice and thought, which validate the way they live now rather than studying the tenets of any faith. They eschew the work involved with weighing up evidence or involving themselves in wider society.

Religion receives good publicity when participants feed the poor, house the homeless, or sponsor refugees escaping corruption and violence. Those committed to regular religious participation appreciate routine, structure, and tradition.

Many adherents are glad to serve, although, the appeal is not necessarily spiritual. A survey of participants will often reveal only a shallow understanding of core tenets of faith. Religious busy-ness might even disguise unbelief.

What Did Jesus Say about Religion?

The Pharisees “make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others” (Matthew 23:5-7). “Jesus had nothing personal against the Pharisees,” writes Patrick Mabilog at Christianity Today, “but opposed their beliefs and teachings instead.”

He explains that the Pharisees missed “the core essence at the heart of any of the laws,” which were designed to lead believers into a “right relationship,” not promote a moral hierarchy. “God is a relational God and His commandments are given to draw us near to Him, not drive us away.”

Pharisees looked good on the outside, but their hearts had turned from God. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25).

After Christ’s ascension, religious observance moved from temples to homes. Participation was humble and heartfelt. Christians were the church, taking the gospel to others. Mel Walker at Christianity.com, quoting Ephesians 4:11-16 explains that the “church exists to reach people for Christ and to disciple them to maturity in Christ.”

The church does not exist to nag people into better behavior. Mature believers tell the truth lovingly for the good of the body but are wary of pointing out specks in the eyes of others lest they overlook the planks in their own eyes (Matthew 7:3).

How Society Views Spirituality

“Meaning ‘quality of being spiritual’ is from c. 1500,” today spirituality is more complicated. “For some, it’s primarily about a belief in God and active participation in organized religion. For others, it’s about non-religious experiences,” which help a person “get in touch with their spiritual selves through quiet reflection, time in nature, private prayer, yoga, or meditation.

According to Psychology Today, many people identify as spiritual but not religious.” Many spiritual people believe religion limits exploration and self-love. It’s popular to be devoted to “love” as an energy capable of much good. Numerous individuals believe in a distant, uninterested deity detached from sentimental feeling.

Naturalists say that spirituality is “interpreted in the light of our basic beliefs; namely, it is taken to reflect the ultimate truth of our situation as we conceive it. The cognitive context of spirituality and the spiritual response is therefore linked tightly in reciprocal evocation and validation.” The spiritual life is what the individual makes of it.

What Does the Bible Say about Spirituality?

Christian spirituality is defined as “life lived in and with God.” Paul tells us that “we are to grow mature in Christ. We grow up into the head of the Body, who is Christ (Ephesians 4:15). “Such ‘growing up’ is the process of spiritual formation.” 

Spiritual formation is the Christian process of maturing in the Spirit; of becoming more like Jesus. This process involves other people by necessity since each Christian forms a part of the body as a whole, which only functions properly together. Christian spirituality points to one God, one truth, the evidence for which is both empirical and emotional. 

One cannot add Jesus to a long list of spiritual gurus: He asserted “I am the way the truth and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Micah 6:8 declares that God gives us our purpose too — to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” 

Humanists say they can do justice and love kindness without religion, but the Christian yearns to humbly serve a God who invites his people to walk with him, which is their Spiritual reality.

An Uneasy Alliance

Many people associate God with condemnation because their religious experience led them to religious moralists who said, as Tim Keller puts it, “I’m okay, you’re not okay.” Such individuals rejected the notions of “sin” and “hell” because they were being judged by regular people. 

Spiritual, non-religious people say they have found inner peace apart from religious despotism, although they often see Jesus as loving and accepting. They choose not to acknowledge the cross, Jesus’ resurrection, or the immutable fact that Jesus’ life unites God’s love with his justice. 

They overlook the evidence in order to focus on the gentle Jesus who permitted himself to be “circumcised on the cross” or “cut-off,” as Keller puts it. “He was getting the curse we deserve.” 

In the Failure of Religion, Dr. Keller explains how the Sermon on the Mount reveals the hearts of ordinary people. “I’m very angry if you hold me to this standard. On the other hand, actually I hold everybody else to this standard.” 

In that case, “you’re condemned from your own mouth.” Paul is saying that the law “is after a kind of person, a kind of heart, a life of absolute beauty, not just the external behavior, but the heart, the motivation, the attitude. 

When we see that and we see how we really demand it of other people, but we refuse to demand it of ourselves, we’re condemned.” No wonder Christianity as a religion is so fiercely criticized if it enforces standards that Christians fail to live up to and yet demand of others. 

On the other hand, hypocrites represent humans, not Christ, and the religion of Christianity is designed to help people become more like him. Religious adherents can represent the best of humanity and organize that “best” in ways which individuals cannot, or at least not as easily when they lack formal structure. 

Jennifer Walters says, “Religious communities excel at caring for members in difficult times, encouraging members to serve others and teaching religious practices that have been tested and wrestled with for centuries.”

Such communities practice “hymn-singing, forms of prayer and worship;” they teach “about social justice and forgiveness — all these things are valuable elements of religious wisdom,” which can be achieved independently “with great difficulty.”

What Does This Mean?

Religion without the Spirit is moral bookkeeping. Spirituality without religion is self-involved and directionless. Jesus learned Scripture from Joseph and at the temple. He adhered to and respected traditions such as tithing and celebrating Passover.

The Sermon on the Mount amplifies the message of the Ten Commandments, the essence of religious law. The only way to keep the law, however, is with the kind of help only the Holy Spirit provides.

For further reading:

Are There Dangers in Being ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’?

3 Reasons Why Jesus Opposed the Pharisees

What Is the Purpose of the Church?


Spirituality Without Faith

The Failure of Religion by Dr. Timothy Keller

What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, ‘I Never Knew You’?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Boonyachoat

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

Originally published December 21, 2020.