Spiritual but not religious (SBNR) is a new buzz phrase often thrown around within new age circles. What exactly does that mean? How are spirituality and religion different and how are they the same?
A religion can be defined as an institution with a set of organized beliefs and practices shared by a community or group. The social network of a religion can provide structure and peer support in following prescribed codes of conduct for daily living. For the most part a religion is a public entity and the general premise of the religion’s doctrine including creed, code and ethics is documented, tangible and openly shared.
Spirituality on the other hand is a personal and uniquely individualized discovery and set of beliefs and practices that evolves over time. Through study, experience and self-reflection beliefs and practices evolve that support an individual in their unique connection to something outside of themselves. Spirituality is deeply personal and while some practices like yoga may be performed alongside others the actual belief structures and connection is unique to the individual and often completely known only to themselves.
The following 7 differences between religion and spirituality will help you to distinguish between the two.
Individualized vs Group
Spirituality is an individual and unique experience. A person who is spiritual has developed their own set of beliefs and practices along with their own connection to the Divine. This is all personal to the individual. Religion is an organized group with members that all subscribe to the same basic beliefs and rituals of that religion. While equally powerful individual views and beliefs that vary from the group are not typically embraced or supported.
Private vs Public Entity
Spirituality is something personal to the individual. A person’s spirituality is not a separate entity from the individual, but rather just another of many aspects of the individual. As such a person’s spirituality is most often only truly known to the individual and kept private and sacred to that person. A religion has a set creed and dogmas that are public information and often publicly promoted in order to increase membership. Many religions have actually formally structured themselves as institutions with a hierarchy for management of the organization becoming a full-fledged business entity.
Solitary vs Social Network
Since spirituality is such a private and personalized approach it is primarily explored and practiced by the person themselves, on their own and without peers. Religion by nature involves a group of individuals often within the community. As a result religion also provides an opportunity to socialize with like-minded peers and partake in group activities. A person practicing their individual spirituality typically does not have a support system for their practice, while the structure of a religious peer group provides a great deal of support for living by the code of ethics and diligently practicing the rituals of the religion.
Freeform vs Predefined
What beliefs and practices comprise someone’s spiritual practice are discovered and developed by the person. Additionally those beliefs and practices are not stagnant. A person’s spirituality tends to evolve over time growing and changing as the person develops their spirituality. The ideology and beliefs of a religion are predefined for the members of the religion. The religion’s creed, code of ethics, beliefs and rituals are typically documented and tangible. The ideology of a religion does not tend to change. Any changes or adjustments in that ideology occur very slowly over decades at best. The hierarchy which manages the religious organization sets and communicates any changes to the ideology of the religion for all members to follow.
Truth Discovered vs Truth Defined
As a person develops their spirituality they also discover their own truth(s). Those truths, just like the practice of spirituality itself, tend to evolve, change and expand over time. Through spiritual practice an individual defines their own truth(s). When a person subscribes to a certain religion the religion defines the spiritual truth(s) for the members. These defined truths are documented in a tangible document for all members to reference and often shared with the general public as well.
Your Experience vs Their Experience
In the words of Deepak Chopra, “Religion is belief in someone else's experience. Spirituality is having your own experience.” This statement is very true. Another perspective is that when a person is solely spiritual they are learning from their own experiences, their own trial and error. When a person is a member of a religion they are able to learn from the experiences of others, typically parables told and or experienced by the religion’s founders.
Either or Both
It is possible to be spiritual but not religious (SBNR), where one has a personal practice but does not belong to an organized religion, or religious but not spiritual (RBNS), where on belongs to and practices with a particular religion and its members but does not have personal spiritual connection. However most commonly people who are spiritual with personal beliefs, practices and connection to a greater energy than themselves and also are religious, practicing and affiliating themselves with a particular religious group or ideology. Religion supports the development of a person’s spirituality by providing a framework within which one can seek knowledge and draw one’s own conclusions. For many people their spirituality and religion become so intertwined it is difficult to separate the two resulting in a holistic approach to religion and spirituality.
Whatever approach or combination of approaches a person takes it is important to remember that everyone’s individual experiences and beliefs are equally valid. Sometimes these beliefs may contradict each other, but that is ok. We are all learning and evolving. What I believed to be true 20 years ago is not necessarily what I believe to be true today. No one person’s journey or set of choices is any better than another person’s. It is just different. Find what works for you based on where and who you are today. If you decide to change that in the future, then change it. Each person’s journey is worthy of respect, some just choose a more scenic route as we go through life. In the words of Thoreau, “Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”