While dining with a new friend, we quickly discovered we had lots of people, places, things and ideas in common – friends, schools, careers, and what brought each of us to St. Augustine, FL.  In the midst of it all she suddenly said, “When I first asked you what you do you said that you write for people of all faiths or none whatsoever.  You used words like spirituality, psychology, and healing to describe your books. Why do you use the word spirituality instead of religion?” 

I replied that sometimes I include the word religion, but not always.  “Why choose one over the other and separate them?” she asked.  “Does it really matter which you are if you are faithful?”

Her question was familiar — one that often comes up in interviews – especially since I’m a practicing Jew and my husband is an Episcopal priest.  Not surprisingly, many people either smile or scratch their heads when they first learn about our interfaith marriage.  Some do both.  On this night, my friend’s questions about religion, spirituality, and my marriage seeded a conversation that quickly ticked away the time we had left to sip and sup that evening.

So what for you, besides semantics, are the differences when it comes to self–identifying with one word, the other or perhaps both? Does it really matter and if it does, why does it?  And what if you don’t identify with either?  Shouldn’t dictionary definitions clarify and provide all that we really need to know about perceived and real differences? 

As a writer I find that while Webster’s and other definitions serve many folk well, they are limited.  “Religion” and “spirituality” are not just words to be taken at face value.  They are loaded words with deep layers of subtle, comforting, contentious, emotional, intellectual, polarized and other meanings that have little to do with what we see on the surface in print.  Moreover, they are defined separately in dictionaries and not yoked together.  In fact, “religious” is a synonym for “spiritual” but not vice versa.  Therefore, when someone says, “I’m religious,” or “I’m spiritual,” or “I’m not religious but spiritual,” they are enfolding many hidden meanings into their statement that may be profoundly different from yours or mine.

Author Dale Matthews, M.D. is an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine who focuses his research on the psychological and spiritual dimensions of medicine, including the role of faith, religion, and prayer in clinical care and healing.  In The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer, he writes:

Concepts of spirituality and religion have much in common.  Both address a “search for the sacred” and fundamental, eternal issues–– issues about meaning, the use of our time, the nature of our relationships and our community with one another.  Both acknowledge the transcendent, that which is outside of ourselves, and both offer methods for coping with suffering, meaninglessness, loss, and issues of guilt and shame.  But whereas religion and spirituality often overlap, their differences are significant.

Those differences, he explains, are along a continuum. “In short,” he concludes, “spirituality poses questions; religion composes answers.” 

Whether or not you agree with Dr. Matthews, I believe it is important to see the places within us and in the world around us where those two words become instruments of harm instead of healing.  If we are to take seriously the function of spirituality and religion in our lives and not be overly focused on the form, they boil down to two things people worldwide proclaim for the sake of healing their lives and Mother Earth:

  • Live and love with all – with all your heart, mind, soul, strength and resources, and
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or do not do unto others what you would not want done to you.

 And so be it.

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