The Difference Between Religion and Spirituality
Rebecca M. Sherman
University of California, Davis
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. 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.g. 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. 8). 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...
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