Difference Between Religion and Spirituality

This paper draws from six published works that deal with psychological and scholarly research on religion and spirituality. The works vary in their definitions and use of the concepts and terminology of religion and spirituality. Hood et al. (2009) suggest that that social scientists have traditionally been able to make a distinction between religion and spirituality in their research. However, other psychologists contend that the definitions overlap. Therefore, the conceptual and operational definitions have been inconsistently used. This paper examines Hood et al. 2009) research in relationship to other works to suggest that a definitive definition of religion and spirituality should be developed and agreed upon to advance the science of religion. Keywords: religion, spirituality In order to explore the differences between religion and spirituality one must attempt to define these terms. However, religion and spirituality are complex concepts not easily or definitively definable; at least not universally. Their meanings have changed over the course of time. At times they have been used synonymously. Yet, at other times religion and spirituality are considered distinct concepts having no overlap.
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Furthermore, religion and spirituality are sometimes viewed as if one encompasses the other. It seems to simply be a matter of opinion; who is defining religion, when and for what purpose. To compound this quandary, social Science research suggests that lay people, religious and psychological educators and researchers define religion and spirituality inconsistently. This makes it particularly difficult for the scientific world to even compare research findings on religion and or spirituality. Religion and spirituality are complex and diverse cultural phenomenon.

Hood, Hill, and Spilka (2009), stated “…what one person is sure to call religious may be far removed from another person’s understanding, especially when we begin to analyze religion across traditions and cultures” (p. 7). Western societies (especially in the United States) in the not too distant past, typically define religion as an institutionalized set of beliefs and rituals about God that is experienced and or practiced collectively. Conversely, other regions of the world (including eastern Asia) may define religion as encompassing multiple Gods or even no Gods (e. . ungodly supernatural entities) (Hood, et al. , 2009). Hood et al. , (2009) contend that Americans now use the term spirituality in place of religion. Nelson (2009), agrees with Hood et al. , that spirituality has become a synonym for religion. According to Nelson (2009), religion traditionally referred to all aspects of a human’s search for and relationship to a divine or transcendent (something greater than ourselves). Using the terminology of religion and spirituality interchangeably may be common practice but it doesn’t mean that they mean the same things.
Like religion, spirituality has been defined in a myriad of ways. In ancient times spirituality was associated with the Hebrew Christian traditions (Ottaway, 2003). Through the 19th century spirituality was often considered to be synonymous with spiritualism. Spiritualism referred to contact with spirits, the supernatural, and psychic phenomena (Nelson, 2009). Hence, spirituality was considered negatively up until the 21st century. According to Nelson (2009), presently “the term is often used to denote the experiential and personal side of our relationship to the transcendent or sacred” (p. ). Nelson suggests that the people who use this definition tend to view religion as a distinct narrow concept. They typically define religion as “the organizational structures, practices, and beliefs of a religious group”, (Nelson, 2009, p. 8). The rise in popularity of spirituality in the last two decades has exaggerated the distinction and or lack of distinction between religion and spirituality. Whereas, some modern Americans use the terms interchangeably, others (especially those who abhor mainstream religions and all they are associated with) do not.
The latter group might prefer to say that they are “spiritual but not religious”, (Zinnbauer, et al. , 1997). Conversely, people who unknowingly embrace Epstein’s (1993, 1994) Cognitive-Experiential Self-Theory (CEST) may view spirituality and religion as distinct concepts that are nonetheless related (Hill, 1999). I believe that religion and spirituality can be two distinct concepts but that currently the line between the two is too blurry to be able to distinguish one from the other. One could experience religion without experiencing spirituality (e. g. teenager forced to attend church but merely going through the motions). On the other hand, one could also experience spirituality (e. g. a sense of “awe” in the presence of nature or enlightenment during meditation) in the absence of religion. Additionally, one could experience both spirituality and religion in the context of the other. For example, one could meditate communally with others in an institutional setting (typical of a religious experience) and experience spirituality. Another example is that one could attend church (typical of a religious experience) and meditate individually during the church service.
At this point in time, religion and spirituality overlap in a plethora of ways. Each can have a reverence to a God, Gods, or a higher supernatural power or powers. Likewise, religion and spirituality can each have private, public, personal, communal, conscious, unconscious, tangible, intangible, subjective and objective components to them. One difference between spirituality and religion is that “spirituality does not require an institutional framework”, (Hood, et al, 2009, p. 11). Another difference is that religion does not require communal practices (e. g. an elderly invalid can religiously pray at home).
My views on religion and spirituality are that of a layperson and an aspiring psychologist and are indubitably confusing. However, my view doesn’t seem to differ substantially from others (laypersons, religious professionals and scholars, and social science professionals and researchers), as a finite definition for religion or spirituality is nonexistent (Zinnbauer et al. , 2010; Hood et al. , 2009, Nelson, 2009). According to Hood et al. (2009), a traditional distinction exists between religion and spirituality in the research literature, therefore the two terms are not used synonymously.
Hood et al. (2009) explains that spirituality is viewed as personal and psychological, while religion is viewed as institutional and sociological. Basically, Hood et al. (2009), contends that religion is steeped in tradition and institution, whereas, spirituality has to do with a person’s personal beliefs, values and behaviors. This definition seems to be consistent with how religion and spirituality were defined between the 19th and 21st centuries. However, it should be noted, that Hood et al. 2009) also, later state that “in fact it is safe to say that even we three authors of this text do not fully agree with each other about the meaning of these terms” (p. 11). To compound matters, other psychologists suggest that religion and spirituality are used inconsistently in the research literature. Zinnbauer et al, (1997) argue that although social scientists have attempted to define, study, and theorize about religion and spirituality, they have done so inconsistently. “Still, the ways in which the words are conceptualized an used are often inconsistent in the research literature” (p. 549).
According to Bender (2007) religion has been associated with a formal or institutional system and expression of belief and practices that is corporate, public, and conscious in scholarly studies. Conversely, spirituality has been defined as individual, private and unconscious, (Bender, 2007). Due to the inconsistencies in the definitions and use of religion and spirituality a pilot study was conducted to ascertain how religious professionals defined and evaluated religion and spirituality. The 2006 study conducted by Corine Hyman and Paul Handal at Saint Louis University in Missouri included Imans, Ministers, Priests, and Rabbis.
These religious experts were asked to conceptually define religion and spirituality and to identify if there were any overlaps between the two. The study findings indicate that there were overlaps between the two concepts. However, religion was defined in a traditional sense of objective, institutional and ritualistic and spirituality was defined as subjective, internal and divine or transcendent (Hyman & Handal , 2006). Another study, this time conducted at the Maryland University, attempted to discern how lay people define religion and spirituality and how they make distinctions between the two.
The participants in this study consisted of sixty-seven adults aged 61 to 93 who lived in three different retirement communities (Schlehofer, Omoto, A. M. , Adelman, 2008). The research findings indicate that the participants were better able to define religion concretely, than they were able to define spirituality. “In fact, some participants were not able to define spirituality at all”, (Schlehofer et al. , 2008). The afore mentioned studies illustrate that defining religion and spirituality is an ongoing task and not easily surmountable.
This of course, makes the task of operationally defining religion and spirituality even harder. According to Bender (2007), spirituality is typically measured by asking questions about psychological well-being, experience, and self-identification; while religion is measured by questions about activities and doctrine. Although, many operational definitions have been developed and used to measure religion and spirituality, how does one actually know what one is measuring if the thing(s) that one is measuring is not clearly defined?
CONCLUSIONS and Future Study: Ergo, in order to try to understand how religion and or spirituality affect all aspects of a person’s life, it is prudent for the scientific community to agree on what it is that they are actually researching. Once, the terms are defined and agreed upon, then they can operationally define each term. Only then, can psychologists more confidently conduct research and analysis to understand the true effects of religion and spirituality and make comparisons about those findings.

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