Spirituality and religion: what’s the difference?

Linda Woodhead

Linda Woodhead

‘No religion’ is steadily becoming the norm in the British population, according to Professor Linda Woodhead’s sociological research . I have referred to this before but it continues to attract attention. Here I focus on whether the meanings of the words contribute to this pattern. Linda says:

The growth of no religion isn’t sudden; there has been a steady and gradual rise over a fairly long period. I suspect it’s been taking place for at least a century or more. The question is whether it’s speeding up now.

Those who count themselves as ‘no religion’ (‘Nones’) question organised religion and traditional religious authorities but are not necessarily anti-religious. Many subscribe to forms of spirituality and a range of views on about God.

Dr Fraser Watts, former President of the British Psychological Society and of the International Society for Science and Religion, has responded . He agrees with Linda’s position but divides up the Nones. Some are actively hostile to religion while others are indifferent to it. The main increase has been in those who are indifferent. Some Nones are ‘spiritual but not religious’, others not spiritual at all. Indeed,

if you ask people whether they are ‘spiritual’, many people are not sure what you are asking. I suspect that the spiritual group (or at least those who are potentially spiritual) may be larger than we have yet been able to demonstrate.

He offers some pointers. Spirituality prioritises experience. Although it does not have the same emphasis on belief that religion does, it is characterised by a belief that there is ‘something more’. Belief in the afterlife, the soul and angels is increasing. While religion ‘is generally still locked into a culture of duties and obligations’ spirituality reflects the pragmatism of the age: it ‘always looks for benefits’.

So to call yourself spiritual you don’t have to commit to anything. Even the ‘something more’ isn’t obligatory. I know a materialist atheist who talks about his spirituality. However I guess that the belief in ‘something more’, and perhaps a related practice or two, characterise the idea of being spiritual. Calling yourself spiritual doesn’t add up to a lot.

If this is what ‘spiritual’ means, what about ‘religious’? Religion has a clearer definition. In the Middle Ages to be ‘religious’ was to be a monk or a nun. A priest who wasn’t a monk was a ‘secular’ priest. Roman Catholics still sometimes use the words in these ways. However, from the late seventeenth century onwards, increasing elements of society were separated from church authority. The word ‘secular’ was used to describe those elements that were nothing to do with Christianity or God, and ‘religion’ came to mean its counterpart. Meanwhile atheists claimed it was possible account for reality without any reference at all to God or Christianity or prayer or life after death, so they needed a word to describe the package of beliefs and practices that were no longer needed. Put them in their own box, on a shelf in a cupboard where they can be forgotten. Religion.

This use of ‘religion’ was firmly embedded in English-speaking culture in the 1880s and 1890s. The campaigns of Thomas Huxley and his disciples succeeded in changing popular understandings of reality. They established the idea that ‘science’ and ‘religion’ were not only separate but opposed to each other.

This was when the word ‘scientist’ was invented, to divide up what had previously been known as ‘natural philosophy’. The point was to separate out empirical research from theorising about the nature of reality. 20 years earlier, when Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published, the separation was yet to be devised. But from the 1880s onwards, to the people who opposed religion in the name of science – and there are plenty still around today – science was to be based on reason, religion on dogma.

Most church leaders, instead of resisting the separation, welcomed it. In the short term it worked to their advantage. It meant they could insulate church doctrines from scientific disproof. They could offer the faithful a richer, more spiritual account of reality.

This is how religion came to be defined as commitment to dogmas that cannot be established by reason. When the unchurched conceive of religion like this, what on earth can it offer them? Nothing but a fantasy. When a church gets to define itself like this, it creates endless conflict for itself. It feels it ought to defend the doctrines on which it was founded, however unconvincing they have become. As a result it characterises itself by its belief in indefensibles. One church insists on rejecting evolution, another women priests, another gay marriages. The virgin birth and physical resurrection of Jesus become the only things about him that get talked about.

If this is what religion is about, anybody with an ounce of spirituality in them will rightly reject it. But it doesn’t have to be. Churches don’t have to maintain it. What the late nineteenth century church leaders did may have worked well in the short term, but in the long term it has been disastrous. Of course. It had to be. We are now paying the price.

‘Religion’ will carry on declining until churches learn to care less about the rules they have created, and more about the unfettered search for truth about the divine.

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3 Responses to Spirituality and religion: what’s the difference?

  1. Paul Doran says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    After reading your blog post (Spirituality and religion: what’s the difference?) and as I suspect that the materialist atheist in the paragraph below could possibly be myself, I thought I would let you know the understanding of ‘spiritual’ I, at present, hold. Moreover, feel able and justified in ascribing to myself.

    “So to call yourself spiritual you don’t have to commit to anything. Even the ‘something more’ isn’t obligatory. I know a materialist atheist who talks about his spirituality. However I guess that the belief in ‘something more’, and perhaps a related practice or two, characterise the idea of being spiritual. Calling yourself spiritual doesn’t add up to a lot.”

    I think it’s fair to say that, according to the above and elsewhere in your text that you believe that the only valid or substantial understanding of spirituality is the one religion or theism operates with.

    Okay, for me spirituality is essentially human connectedness. Connectedness with nature (we are part of that nature). It is not essentially to do with the idea of a deity; it is not essentially to do with any ideas/concepts. Cognition comes into it, but latterly. It is primarily to do with our senses, particularly our aesthetic sense. When experiencing a sunset; mountain scene, or anything of that kind of great magnitude, we are naturally filled with awe. The oneness, the oceanic feeling that usually accompanies that is the connection with nature (or the divine) manifest.

    I use the word ‘divine’ here, not in the sense of a divine being or individual entity, but divine as used by the ancient Greeks (theion), to do with a divine order of the world (kosmos) around us. Arguably this was personified by early religious groups into a being (Yaweh, God, etc). In the tradition of the Stoics for instance the essence of the world was harmony, order. So I mean it in the sense of a divine order or nature, with which, at these moments, we connect with, become interconnected.

    Walking in a city when it’s raining – we can experience a similar poetic moment, when we suddenly transcend our mundanity and perceive the beauty of the wet streets. Immanuel Kant in one of his Critiques speaks of when we encounter the world (a sunset, etc) in such a way (spiritually) that we don’t have a concept for the experience to stand under. So we’re left trying to under-stand the experience, but it won’t fit under any concepts we have, so this effort is experienced as ‘awe’, or an unsettling, a feeling of wonder. The difficulty of fully grasping spirituality makes sense when you consider Kant’s thought here.

    For me the metaphysical (non-human or external) explanation is not an explanation. Conventionally, most of us understanding the word spirituality in a completely vague manner, we have no clear understanding of what it refers to, except what we are brought up to believe – that it has something to do with religion. I believe organised religion realises this vagueness, and in practice, trades on it. It is less interested in clarifying, or coming by a wider understanding of it. I am reminded of the chap who spoke on ‘spirituality’ at St Brides last year (his name slips my mind). I was quite disappointed, I felt he didn’t explain or go into its meaning at all; he simply used the word in the conventional theistic sense, with all the quasi poetic terminology that accompanies that usage.

    It is my understanding that human spirituality predates religion. Thus spirituality surely does not come from religion. Religion however, probably did, and does arise from spirituality. It is no surprise, given human spirituality’s constant and endearing nature that religion would endeavour to claim it.

    • Thanks Paul, this is really helpful.
      I think the main responses I would make are:
      1. I am not a reductionist. I think the idea that the human mind is capable of understanding everything that goes on in the universe is extreme arrogance – especially in the light of evolutionary accounts of how the mind developed.
      2. Because I am not a reductionist I am not a materialist, and here I think I may disagree with you. To believe that everything is basically physical matter is not proved by science, it is the product of positivist philosophy. Some sciences can work within this model, others can’t.
      3. Your account of spirituality isn’t the sort I usually come across. The sort I usually come across believes there is ‘something more’ than bare reductionist matter, but is reluctant to buy into any particular religion because they have a reputation for being dogmatic.
      4. Richard Dawkins writes about the sense of wonder about nature, but I am not convinced by his argument. He says he feels that the world is wonderful, but his materialist reductionism cannot give any substance to the feeling. According to his theory all he can be describing is the effect nature has on his hormones. I don’t know how much of this applies to your thinking. When I say nature is wonderful I mean it has value and significance greater than the human mind can understand.
      5. What is important to me is that the forces of nature cannot be explained as historical accidents. There must be some mental process designing them. This then raises all the religious questions.
      6. I agree with your criticisms of organised religion. Institutions, once established for a purpose, tend to become more interested in maintaining themselves.

  2. Paul Doran says:

    Thanks for this Jonathan, it’s helping me refine and more fully understand my experiences and thoughts on this.

    I believe the reduction involved in my position as a philosophical materialist is a justified one. It’s interesting to note that the ascription ‘reductionist’ is used these days as a sort of accusation, when it is argued that the positing of entities or states of affairs without reason or need is the position that requires explaining and justifying. Moreover, history tells us that all the various reductions made in the past have proved true and were beneficial to humanity.

    If I understand your third point correctly – you have only, up till now, come across (atheistic) accounts of spirituality that believes there is something more than bare reductionist matter, but won’t go the whole way regarding the theistic notion of spirituality because of a tendency towards dogmatism of some religions. I don’t think it’s simply dogmatism that puts people off religion and the conventional view of spirituality. It is more the fact that that notion of spirituality requires the existence of an external entity that has agency.

    Interestingly, the phrase bare reductionist matter (ignoring its rhetorical use) presupposes a naïve or reductionist understanding of ‘matter’ itself. The idea that you need more than matter as a primary substance of the universe in order to enjoy mentality, spirituality, etc, requires a very limited idea of physical matter, and its effects. Our physical bodies’ phenomenal experience gives testament to the incredible complexity of the nature of matter involved – feeling is not immaterial. When involved in discussion regarding various theories of mind one will often hear people say there must be more than just the physical brain. The ‘just’ here again assumes a very limited idea of what the brain is; and is capable of. But here I’m opening a whole new thread regarding consciousness, which is connected, but one we can pursue another time.

    My general position on human spirituality, to quote Comte-Sponville (contemporary philosopher), is that “it seems spirituality and religion have become so intertwined that we have lost touch with the nature of true spiritual existence. In order to change this we need not reject the ancient traditions and values that are part of our heritage; rather we must rethink our relationship to these values and ask ourselves whether their significance comes from the existence of a higher power or simply from the human need to connect to one another and the universe.”

    This then, as you say, raises the whole religious question.

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