Spirituality and Religion

In my introductory post I revealed my inspiration for the title of this blog, and while I expect it might have some readers scratching their heads – at least initially, I certainly don’t anticipate it raising anyone’s ire. I’m less sure of that, however, when it comes to my description of this blog as “an exploration of spirituality.” Spirituality is one of those charged words, it seems, loaded with connotations, crying out for precision, begging for clarification as to the user’s point of view. As such, I’ll spend the rest of this post clarifying just what I mean when I use the word.

Perhaps the first order of business is to clearly differentiate spirituality and religion. All too often the two words are used interchangeably. Throughout my posts in this forum, however, I will strive for consistency and specificity in their usage. Here goes: Spirituality is something that we all possess or manifest simply by virtue of being alive in this human form. Religion, on the other hand, is something that we choose to take part in or not. Spirituality is a universal human experience or quality, whereas religion asks that an individual’s spirituality be brought into accord with its dictates – its rituals, teachings, and beliefs. Spirituality and religion might coincide, as in the case of a healthy individual functioning in a healthy religious organization, or they might be divorced from each other, as in a religious organization that is more about wielding power over its members than facilitating their spiritual growth. The following Venn diagram shows this relationship between spirituality and religion quite clearly. I’ll leave it you to decide how realistic the relative proportions are.

As you can see from the diagram, spirituality, being a universal quality, is the larger of the ovals. The fact that religion overlaps with spirituality instead of falling entirely within its domain relates to the fact that religious practice may or may not be imbued with spirituality. For instance, if a religious ritual is performed without regard, without meaning, without any investment on the part of the practitioner, then that practice lacks the quality of the spiritual and would, therefore, fall into that part of the diagram on which the N of religion falls. It is religious without being spiritual. When an individual finds a religion that is a good fit it is because the structure of the religious organization provides an appropriate context for that individual’s spirituality to flourish, gain direction, become actualized, etc. When there’s not a good fit it is because the religion is stifling or somehow suppresses that individual’s spirituality.

The reason spirituality is such a charged word, I think, is because our hearing it prompts us to access our own deeply held views regarding what constitutes reality and then compare them with the views of others with whom we may or may not agree. For instance, staunch adherents to methods of science and rationality, in general, and strict materialists, in particular, might chafe at the insinuation that some other (spirit) realm exists outside that which is accessible to the scientific method. At the other end of the spectrum, doctrinally-oriented religious practitioners might decry the growing tendency of individuals to engage in (invent) their own brand of spirituality outside the bounds of organized religion. Yet another group of people might simply be so fed up with all of the violence, repression, sexual abuse, and gender discrimination perpetrated either in the name of religion or by individuals in positions of authority within patriarchal religious hierarchies that they turn their back on both religion and spirituality entirely. Perhaps you, as well, have already made up your mind as to what camp you fall into. However, such haste is not required. It’s just you and me with a couple of glowing computer screens between us. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Yes, some people do use the word spirituality in reference to matters of the soul and, yes, such usage almost invariably involves either a belief in a deity that the soul is striving to merge with / rejoin, or a belief in some other metaphysical system wherein a soul transmigrates and progresses through a series of reincarnations, ultimately leading (perhaps) to oneness (whatever that may be.) So, if you place utmost value in those truths that only science is able to discern, then the realm of the spiritual may hold little of value for you. Likewise, spirituality, to the extent that it is practiced outside the confines of a structured religious system, might be viewed with suspicion by those who place ultimate value in the truths promulgated by the doctrines of those various institutions. If your truth comes to you fully formed and beyond question right from the pages of your holiest of books, then the realm of the spiritual might not be of much interest to you, either. Finally, with respect to those who’ve had enough of religion – who've seen far too much of petty humans spouting high-minded ideals even as they destroy people’s lives – can you be sure that you’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Can you be certain that you’re not turning your back on yourself?

So, let’s try to step back from our various viewpoints and take a look at first principles, so to speak. Hey, I said this was an exploration. Let’s explore! Webster’s Dictionary notes that spirit is derived from the Latin word, spiritus, which relates to “breath, courage, vigor, the soul, life.” On one level, then, spirit might merely refer to that which animates the otherwise inanimate matter of our bodies – thereby making us alive. It need not refer to any metaphysical reality at all. Sure enough, the definition does go on to mention souls and deities and supernatural beings, but it also refers to “the thinking, motivating, feeling part of man,” as well as the “life, will, consciousness, thought, etc., regarded as separate from matter.” It would seem, then, that the definition of spirituality is big enough for everyone – from avowed atheists to those who simply cannot conceive of a life not accompanied by an afterlife.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in spirituality and religion within the disciplines of counseling and psychology. Progress is being made in the areas of measuring spirituality, determining what constitutes enhanced/diminished spiritual well-being, and determining the impact of spirituality on recovery, resiliency, and coping. Mansager (2002) distils much of this research and summarizes individual spirituality as comprising the four aspects of striving, personal integration, self-transcendence, and the determination of that which is of ultimate value. This beautiful summary of what constitutes spirituality seems like an excellent trailhead from which to embark on this exploration. I hope you’ll stay with me a while in order to see where it leads.

Benjamin, P., & Looby, J. (1998). Defining the nature of spirituality in the context of Maslow's and Rogers's theories. Counseling & Values, 42(2), 92-100.
Burke, M. T., & Hackney, H. (1999). Spirituality, religion, and CACREP curriculum standards. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77(3), 251-257.
Buss, D. M., & Larson, R. J. (2002). Personality psychology: Domains of knowledge about human nature. In J.E. Karpacz (Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.
Corveleyn, J. (2000). In defense of benevolent neutrality: Against a "spiritual strategy." The Journal of Individual Psychology, 56(3), 343-352.
Curtis, R. C., & Glass, J. S. (2002). Spirituality and counseling class: A teaching model. Counseling & Values, 47(1), 3-12.
Eliason, G. T., Hanley, C., & Leventis, M. (2001). The role of spirituality in counseling: Four theoretical orientations. Pastoral Psychology, 50(2), 77-91.
Griffith, B. A., & Griggs, J. C. (2001). Religious identity status as a model to understand, assess, and interact with client spirituality. Counseling & Values, 46(1), 14-25.
Larson, D. B., & Larson, S. S. (2003). Spirituality’s potential relevance to physical and emotional health: A brief review of quantitative research. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 31(1), 37-51.

Mansager, E. (2000). Individual psychology and the study of spirituality. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 56(3), 371-388.
Mansager, E., & Eckstein, D. (2002). The transformative experience questionnaire (TEQ): Spirituality in a couples context. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 10(2), 227-233.
McKechnie, J. L. (Ed.). (1979). Webster’s new twentieth century dictionary (2nd ed.). New World Dictionaries/Simon and Schuster.
Polanski, P. J. (2002). Exploring spiritual beliefs in relation to Adlerian theory. Counseling & Values, 46(2), 127-136.
Stanard, R. P., Sandhu, D. S., & Painter, L. C. (2000). Assessment of spirituality in counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78(2), 204-210.
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.
Zinnbauer, B. J., & Pargament, K. I. (2000). Working with the sacred: Four approaches to religious and spiritual issues in counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78(2), 162-171.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. The definition of spirit, with its distinction between matter and consciousness brought to mind that in the Christian tradition, man is described as having three separate yet equal and intertwined entities - a spirit, a soul, and a body. However, that is not the prevailing belief today. Man is thought of as a purely physical being, which creates confusion. In order to attain spiritual growth, man is required to evolve or regenerate.

    I really enjoy your posts! Looking forward to more soon!

  2. Thanks for commenting, K. I actually like the mind/body/spirit conceptualization. When I hear it mentioned I quickly know that the user essentially means all aspects of human existence as we generally understand it. The danger is when we think that the conceptualization is an absolute description of reality. I'm thinking of the id/ego/super-ego conceptualization in this context as well.


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