The difference between religion and spirituality. (Identity, authenticity, action.)

Back when I was a mentor at The Interfaith Seminary, the question came up again and again from the students I was supporting of the difference between religion and spirituality.

For some of them, this was a matter of having rejected religion and embraced spirituality; for others, they were strongly committed to their religious faith and community, and could not imagine separating spirituality out from that.

In an era when mainstream religion appears to be declining, while both spirituality without religion and fundamentalist ‘our way or the highway’ religion appear to be on the increase, this question about the differences and relationship between religion and spirituality is an important one.

As a mentor, in order to help my own understanding and thus better support the students, I came up with two sets of questions:

Am I a good…

Christian?

Muslim?

Jew?

Buddhist?

Taoist?

Student of A Course In Miracles?

Sikh?

Pagan?

Hindu?

For it to make sense to answer ‘yes’ to these questions, one would have to identify as a member of that particular religion, faith or spiritual tradition, and – where necessary – accept its tenets and dogmas.

This is the core issue with religion that I see both in people who reject religion in favour of spirituality, and those who seek to impose their faith and dogma on the whole world:

Group identity and individual authenticity are pitted against one another.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the many things I learned from my training in Interfaith Ministry was that there is a deep well of wisdom and spirituality at the heart of each and every religion, regardless of how it has been practiced by its followers over the centuries, and what has been done in the name of its God(s).

So here is the second set of questions to consider:

In this moment…

Do I love God/the Source of All/the Universe? Do I love and forgive my neighbour and myself? What fruit do I bear?

Am I surrendered to God/the Source of All/the Universe?

How am I expressing my humanity? Do I have a living relationship with God/the Source of All/the Universe?

Do I practice loving-kindness?

Do I allow everything its own nature?

Am I willing to be as God/the Source of All/the Universe created me?

Do my deeds sing a love song to God/the Source of All/the Universe?

Do I relate to humans, animals, plants, minerals and spirit beings with reverence and love?

Am I free of ego-attachment?

Each question or set of questions relates to the equivalent faith in the previous set of questions, but these questions can be answered freely by anyone, regardless of their religious identity.

They are a set of questions not about identity, but about emotion, action, integrity and authenticity.

When we look beyond the identity of a religion or faith group, and instead look to the roots of its spirituality, we see that at the core of each faith there is fruitful wisdom and a challenge to each one of us as human beings.

This does not mean that we can ignore the injustices carried out in the name of religion, but it gives us the tools to challenge the people who carry them out in the terms of what they say they are, and what they claim as the source of their values.