Spirituality vs. Religion

Growing up, I have always been told that spirituality in religion is important, or else our deeds of worship would just be empty. I have believed that my whole life, until I moved to Malaysia and was challenged with the notion “Buat je dulu, ikhlas ke tak kemudian” which can be translated to “Do first, sincerity later”.

It went against everything I was told of Islam, which made me wonder: Does God really command blind faith? If He can read our hearts, would He not want us to act sincerely instead of doing it just to look good in His eyes? Is Islam only about outward acts of worship and superficiality, instead of what’s in our hearts?

Soon, I formed a distinction between spirituality and religion. I gave precedence to spirituality, instead of religion. In fact, I despise the term “religion”. When applicable, I would rather much use the word “spirituality”. And before anyone goes on a rant on how I am a kafir because I hate the term “religion”, this post is here to explain why I think and feel the way I do.

Although the two terms have been used interchangeably, I am speaking from the viewpoint in which it can be used in the context of “religious but not spiritual” or “spiritual but not religious”. If you have heard those being said and got confused between the two, let me define it for you:

Religion: A system of beliefs and practices observed by a community, supported by rituals that acknowledge worship, communicate with, or approach with the Sacred, the Divine, God, or Ultimate Truth, Reality or Nirvana.

Spiritual: The aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.

From the above, we see that religion concentrates more on what’s on the surface while spirituality concentrates more on what’s on the inside.

I can already hear people saying, “Of course rituals are important! God demands us to pray and fast!” While I am absolutely aware that these rituals are considered fardh in Islam, the question is however, does performing these acts give you the right to act/feel more superior than someone else and indulge in arrogance and cruelty towards others? This is where spirituality comes in.

Where religion is seen as an established system of symbols, beliefs, rituals and texts shared by a community of faith, spirituality is seen as the universal human need for love, hope, relatedness, value and dignity. It gives transcendent meaning to life.

There is “non-religious spirituality”, where one does not need to subscribe to a religion to be spiritual. This would mean finding strength, peace, or a sense of vitality in nature, incorporating humanistic philosophies in your life and developing personal growth as a reason for living. While “non-religious” gives the idea that it’s only for those who do not follow a religion, what it simply means is that this is a form of spirituality that anyone can experience; it does not need adherence to a faith.

Different definitions of spirituality:

  1. “… the search for transcendent meaning” — can be expressed in religious practice or … expressed “exclusively in their relationship to nature, music, the arts, a set of philosophical beliefs, or relationships with friends and family.” (Astrow et al. 2001)
  2. “A quality that goes beyond religious affiliation, that strives for inspiration, reverence, awe, meaning and purpose, even in those who do not believe in God. The spiritual dimension tries to be in harmony with the universe, strives for answers about the infinite, and comes essentially into focus in times of emotional stress, physical (and mental) illness, loss, bereavement and death.” (Murray and Zenter, 1989)
  3. “… refers to a broad set of principles that transcends all religions. Spirituality is about the relationship between ourselves and something larger. That something can be the good of the community or the people who are served by your agency or school or with energies greater than ourselves. Spirituality means being in the right relationship with all that is. It is a stance of harmlessness toward all living beings and an understanding of their mutual interdependence.” (Kaiser, 2000)

Different definitions of religion:

  1. “A set of beliefs, practices, and language that characterizes a community that is searching for transcendent meaning in a particular way, generally based upon belief in a deity.” (Astrow et al. 2001)
  2. “Formed within the context of practices and rituals shared by a group to provide a framework for connectedness to God.” (Davies, Brenner, Orloff, Sumner, and Worden, 2002)
  3. “An outward practice of a spiritual system of beliefs, values, codes of conduct, and rituals.” (Speck, 1998)

Many people see religion as the manifestation of one’s spirituality, but it is also important to note that a person can be spiritual without being religious. A person can also be outwardly “religious” in performing certain actions, and yet not focus on the underlying principles of spirituality. Spirituality may encompass religion for some, but it can also stand alone for others without any attachment to a particular faith or group.

In an essay written by Patrick G. Love entitled “Differentiating Spirituality From Religion”, he explains that spirituality is:

  • an internal process of seeking personal authenticity, genuineness, and wholeness as an aspect of identity development
  • the development of a greater connectedness to self and others through relationships and union with community
  • the process of deriving meaning, purpose, and direction in one’s life
  • increasing openness to exploring a relationship with an intangible and pervasive power or essence or center of value that exists beyond human existence and rationality

Now, of course the two are not always mutually exclusive. There are certain areas of overlap between religion and spirituality. For example, in both, there is a concern for that which exists beyond the corporeal, rational and visible universe. A spiritually religious person may identify this with God(s). A second area of overlap would be the issue of action and focus in activity. In religion, this is more superficial as it comes in the form of rituals, whereas in spirituality, it is more personal and comes in the form of internal self-development.

One other way to differentiate between the two would be that religion provides adherents with beliefs, while spirituality is faith development. I will try to make this easy to understand:

Religion tells you to believe that God is Fair. This is a belief that all Muslims hold. But there are still a lot of Muslims who do not have faith in this belief as they feel the need to impose their judgment on another human being, although they are fully aware that only God can be the judge of us as He is Fair. So what spirituality does is developing your faith in this belief. Being spiritual means being constantly reminded that “No, I do not have authority over this person’s matters of Hereafter” and to concentrate on the goodness of the community by being good to people regardless of creed or race. Spirituality gives meaning to religion, like how faith gives meaning to belief. And naturally, spirituality only makes your faith stronger.

One of the main reasons why I dislike the term “religion” so much is because it has been politicized and institutionalized so much to the point where it has lost its transcendent meaning. “Religion” is so superficial these days, and people tend to judge your relationship with God simply based on how you look. Like spirituality, religion is supposed to be personal and only between you and God. However, these days we have more and more people telling you how you should connect with God, or else they have the right to prosecute you, as though they are God’s mouthpieces. But if you were to ask me, I believe that “spirituality” and “religion” are two words that should mean the same thing, and probably initially had the same meaning as well.

And from my own personal observation? I have met many spiritual people who are not religious, but also many spiritual people who are also religious. But the most common people that I have met are those who at least claim to be religious, but are not spiritual at all. They brag about their acts of worship, impose their judgments on others, are rude to people, intolerant to differences, are arrogant and cruel. They believe in violence in the name of religion, but not goodness for the sake of humanity. Kind of reminds you of a terrorists’ mindset, don’t you think?

To me, the best would be a balance between spirituality and religion, and the only way this can happen is by understanding why we do what we are told to do, developing a sense of humanity in ourselves, relating ourselves to the community, opening ourselves up to differences, accepting that not all of us are the same and believing in goodness for goodness sake and not to earn brownie points in the eyes of God. This is something that I am still striving for, and I only hope that my other brothers and sisters in Islam would do the same. This is my jihad.

I truly believe that stigmas associated with Islam (radicalism, fundamentalism, terrorism etc.) would decrease if we just took the time and initiative to achieve the principles of spirituality that the Qur’an holds. Righteousness, sincerity, empathy. These are all the things that many Muslims turn a blind eye to, and only concentrate on the superficial facets of religion.

Blind faith is ignorance. Ignorance breeds violence. Spirituality transcends religion.

17 June 2014