When Does Religion Support Spirituality?

For some, the word “religion” brings up bad memories and cold feelings of manipulation, control, fear and harsh dogma that pushed them away from spiritual life. For others, it conjures fond memories and warm feelings of belonging, fellowship, love and connection to the Divine that has deepened their spirituality. And for some, bits of both.

How can this be? What is the relationship between religion and spirituality? Is there a place for both together in the future? In your future?

Here is one perspective: spirituality is our common yearning to respond to the spiritual impulse, the vibrant pull that draws us toward the Sacred. This impulse drives our search for self, for meaning, and for connection to something larger. It draws us beyond ourselves while also drawing the best from within ourselves, inviting us on a journey of exploration and, ultimately, of return.  

Spirituality as sacred inner experience has existed since the dawn of consciousness, before the creation of formal religion. But humans having this wondrous experience naturally wanted to understand, share and deepen it in a sustainable form. And so, the need was born for structures supporting and evolving the inner experience of spirituality.  

Ideally, the external form supports the internal experience; that is, religion serves spirituality. In fact, without the structure of religion, spiritual growth over the millennia would have been severely restricted, each person limited to their individual experience with few meaningful ways of sharing it with others. Religion provides many critical functions that serve spirituality:

  • Provides practices to deepen spiritual experience;
  • Develops theologies that explain and give context to spirituality;
  • Performs rituals and ceremonies that connect people in communal experience;
  • Holds moral codes that guide human behavior toward the good;
  • Preserves sacred texts and explanatory material that can be passed down;
  • Gathers social groups to support each other’s search for the Sacred.

My perspective that religion should serve spirituality is not universal. Many people view their religion as being the vehicle for Truth and see spirituality as serving religion; that is, spiritual experience validates the religion’s tenets. Under this view, inner experience that is disconnected from the True religion is subjective, perhaps even narcissistic.

I acknowledge this traditional view, but I do not support it. To me, Ultimate Reality is unfathomably rich and vast. It far exceeds our ability to understand or describe with ordinary human consciousness. Our best vehicle for engaging this Reality is through inner experience that connects with the Sacred, informed by wisdom and discernment, that guides our action in the outer world toward greater awareness and love. People claiming to know the Truth for everyone are not demonstrating aspects of the Divine; they are exhibiting the very human characteristics of wanting to understand the world and have some measure of control. 

The momentum of a religion can take on a force of its own. Like all human endeavors, they attract a complex mix of people. Some are committed to service, helping people flourish and adding goodness to the world. But some are attracted to power, resources and status. They rationalize decisions and interpretations that benefit themselves as gatekeepers.  

Sometimes, the interests of the structure grow to outweigh the interests of the spiritual experience. Forms are revered over the spirit the forms were meant to support: beliefs about the Sacred become more important than the experience of the Sacred; rituals invoking the Divine are worshipped above immersion with the Divine.

Throughout the ages, religions have been both positive and negative forces in human affairs. They have provided solace, comfort, fellowship, love, and incredible acts of generosity. Religions have also supported heinous acts of repression, violence and cruelty. It is hard to imagine another institution that has been responsible for such a vast and complicated record of both inflicting and alleviating suffering. Religion seems to draw the worst and the best out of humanity.

This history of profound goodness and despicable evil helps explain people’s divergent reactions to religion. Add to this the various personal experiences people have had, feeling either supported or attacked, and we see why the idea of religion is both exalted and reviled.

The fundamental question is, does the religion encourage your exploration of inner spiritual experience? Does it prioritize its creeds, rules and interpretations at the expense of your own inquiry and discovery?  

Here are some questions to consider to help grapple with this nuanced and complicated balancing process. Use your inner discernment and see if these offer valuable insights.

  1. How does the religion view its relationship to Truth? Does its understanding of Truth resonate with your own? Is there a sense of humility and wonder regarding the complexity of Ultimate Reality and the limits of language to convey its meaning?
  1. How does the religion approach its theology and sacred texts? Do these provide a final authority and end point, or are they a jumping-off point for study, conversation and discovery?
  1. How does the religion hold its social community? Is it a safe home for fellowship, friendship and mutual support of questioning and exploration? Do you feel welcomed for who you are at your inner core? Are the boundaries defining the group used to exclude people or invite them in?  
  1. Do the rituals, ceremonies and practices speak to your soul? Do they transport you to visitation with the Sacred?
  1. Ultimately, does the religion offer you a place to openly express your spiritual life, questions, doubts and all? Does it see itself primarily as a steward of inner experience or primarily as an organization committed to its structures?

Anyone on a spiritual path benefits from the supports that religion typically provides: an overarching narrative that explains our place in the world; rituals and practices that help us go beyond ourselves to the realms of the Divine; a community that supports our growth, loves us and holds us accountable.

If you don’t have these elements in your religion, it may not be serving your spiritual needs. But if you were to leave, consider how you would replace the structures you are losing. The forms of religion have benefitted humans since we first looked at the bright stars and asked the foundational human question: why?

I am curious about other views on the connection between religion and spirituality. What are your thoughts? Comment below to participation in the conversation.

Photo by Aron Van de Pol on Unsplash

8 Replies to “When Does Religion Support Spirituality?”

  1. Absolutely excellent essay, Steve. Religion, for me, has always been a negative. You reminded me of the other side of the coin where, to some people, religion provides solace and peace, while inspiring acts of kindness. Thank you for a fresh perspective.

    1. Hi Diane. Thank you for your comments. Religion has been a mixed bag throughout history, so I understand the negative feelings. It serves many millions of people though, which was one of the reasons I wanted to write about it.

  2. Nice job weaving together important, well conveyed concepts on this topic! You have covered salient points from in, out and around the elements that need to be spoken. Thank you for your careful attention.

    1. Hi Teresa! Thanks for your kind words (aw, shucks). With so many people leaving formal religion, but still wanting a spiritual life, it seemed like a good topic.

  3. Thank you for putting into words what I have felt for many years. I was raised Catholic and I appreciate the foundation it provided. Yet, I grew beyond that foundation and am still exploring my “spirituality”. I love that there are more and more avenues for exploration. I feel more grounded in my connection to “Spirit” than any religion has ever afforded me. Thanks for your eloquence!

  4. Having been raised by strict Catholic parents and now living in, largely Catholic, Ireland I have thought a lot about why people are Catholic. For my parents, especially my dad, it was about following the rules to get into Heaven. For me as a child it was about the rituals, the candies, the incense, the music. For my friends in Ireland it is about the sense of deep personal connection with the Sacred when they are in church.

    I knew the catechism by rote and didn’t understand a word of it. I knew all the stories in the New Testament which give us a moral code for living – but many people who are not religious follow a similar code. Reading “A History of God” by Karen Armstrong many years ago, confirmed my suspicions that Catholicism was set up by men to control the people and I became sceptical about the stories in the Bible which were Chinese-whispered down through generations before even being written.

    I applaud anything which helps individuals to find inner peace and a connection to the Divine (however they perceive It). My upbringing as a Catholic gave me my first taste of that connection and I will always be profoundly grateful for that. I have found my peace by creating wedding ceremonies which are sacred but not religious, which celebrate love and joy and connection, which include the rituals I so missed when I left the Catholic Church, and are inclusive of all who might be there – whatever spiritual persuasion they may be or with no spiritual affinity at all.

    There are many truths but there is only one path and for me that path is love

  5. Your comment is a beautiful sharing of your own journey. It is amazing to me how many people have left a formal religion but still feel drawn to the Divine spark they felt within that religion. It convinces me that there is a spiritual impulse that is behind all of the rules of religion, and it is that impulse that draws us.

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