Spiritual versus Religious

This summer, at the inaugural conference of the Mormon Chapter of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy* held at USC, James Burklo**, Associate dean for Religious Life, posed the question: Are you spiritual or religious.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that simple. He related how, while welcoming the incoming freshmen, he had asked for a show of hands of students who felt they were religious. There were a few. Then he queried the group as to how many thought they were spiritual. There were more hands this time. There were even a few who wanted to change their initial response from religious to spiritual. At the time, I chalked it up to increasing levels of cynicism and distrust of organized religious related to ecclesiastical/physical abuses (and the depths went to hide them) that had been headlining the news. However, I’ve been thinking about it since then, and how it can be applied to the LDS church. Are we more spiritual or more religious?

College is generally a time when young minds are exposed to a more diverse array of knowledge than one has ever experienced, and, more often than not, away from the constraints of family culture and custom. College-age students explore not only their academic life, but also their emotional, physical, social, political and spiritual lives. I thought it telling that the students understood the implied difference between being spiritual and being religious.

When I contemplate what I would like to term religiosity, I think of the letter of the law. An emphasis on works. Routine. Ceremony. In terms of physiology, I think of religiosity as the skeleton, the bony structure which gives form and protection to the body. Remembering back to an institute class, I think of the phylacteries the Jews wore to keep the word of God present in their lives. One can religiously pay one’s tithing, attend church meetings, brush one’s teeth, and pluck one’s eyebrows.

The term spirituality brings a very different, if complementary, set of images to mind. I think of spirituality as the meaning of the law. Faith. The marrow in the bones, and the organs of the body. Having the scriptures inscribed in our hearts. Alternatively, the word also conjures of images of crystals, chanting, incense and meditation.

In an ideal world, we would all be both spiritual and religious. We would do all the important things that need doing, and do it with an understanding of how loved we (and everyone else on the earth, through all generations of time) are by our Heavenly Parents. But, we’re imperfect. Sometimes we forget to put the trash cans on the curb, or fall asleep before brushing our teeth. Sometimes we’re short-tempered with the checker at the supermarket, or cut someone off on the freeway.

Without the spiritual component, our religious services can become rote and cold. I particularly remember a fast and testimony meeting where a convert noted that sometimes church felt very corporate, and not in a good way. Conversely, without the religious component, our spiritual actions can become chaotic and disordered. I suspect that this dichotomy can be compared by the current US political climate. The spiritual (bleeding heart) liberals, and the religious (disciplinarian) conservatives. Basically, most of us are in the middle, leaning just a little to the right or left. There’s a lot of name-calling and blame-throwing, but we’re generally more alike than not.

So, where would you place yourself on the spiritual-religious continuum? Do you find comfort or constraint in ceremony? If you view yourself as more spiritual, what types of religious practices might you be more inclined to practice? Conversely, if you view yourself as more religious, how could you incorporate more spiritual practices?

* I was only able to attend one panel discussion: Challenges of Secularism and Religious Indifference, and really enjoyed the presentations by J. Burklo, K. Haglund and R. Hancock. However, if you are interested in reading more of what transpired, Lynnette over at Zelophehad’s Daughters reviewed some of the presentations here and here

** Burklo is not LDS. I think he is Unitarian, but I can’t state that with absolute confidence.


Dora is a pediatric critical care nurse. Therapy to alleviate the stress in her professional life include traveling around the world, reading, partner dancing and hosting dinner parties.

You may also like...

17 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Great post, Dora.

    I think I am both spiritual and religious. I’m religious in a Mormon sense because I generally attend church, pay tithing, keep the WOW etc. (Not that i do everything a good Mormon is told to do, but I do some.) I am spiritual because I am inspired by the idea of God and the Spirit moving people to transcend their smaller selves, and helping set us on our way to divinity. Not that I’m a mystic. I wish I were, but I don’t feel God in my life like that. But I’m attracted to the idea of God, I think about God, and I think that means I’m spiritual in some sense.

    • Dora says:

      Caroline, I love how your view your spirituality, “I am inspired by the idea of God and the Spirit moving people to transcend their smaller selves, and helping set us on our way to divinity.”

      Besides, I don’t think anyone does everything a good Mormon should. There are so many rules (written and non), it sometimes feels a bit lit Deuteronomy!

  2. EM says:

    I regard myself as a religious person and sometimes spiritual. I find that I’m more spiritual while attending church and doing all that goes along with attending; less so during the week even though I say my prayers and read my scriptures. In my mind, I feel that the two go hand in hand, or one can’t have one without the other – so to speak. There was a time in my life that I did not go to church on a regular basis and felt less spiritual and it was difficult for me to get that feeling of being spiritual. When I started going back to church on a regular basis, and also involving myself with serving others, my spirituality increased significantly. I struggle to maintain a high level of spirituality during the week, so I find myself reading and studying the scriptures daily just to have that feeling of spirituality. I would be interested to hear if anyone has had the experience of not attending church but still feels spiritual. My husband says he can feel more spiritual while exploring nature – while that maybe be true for some, it sure didn’t work for him; for him it was an excuse not to attend church. For me I need the connectedness between other people and teachings we hear on Sunday.

    • Dora says:

      EM, I think you’re onto something here: “For me I need the connectedness between other people and teachings we hear on Sunday.” It’s all part and parcel of our baptismal covenants, and the meaning (not just the structure) behind visiting and home teaching.

  3. Jesse says:

    I think of this dichotomy in terms of gospel/church and find parallels to other splits: being/doing, theory/application.

    I am currently in a “rice and salt” stage of life. I’m focused on practical applications. I’m not asking the big questions: who am I, why am I here, where am I going? Frankly, right now, I just don’t care. Right now, I find myself more interested in the mundane: what can I do now to find joy, to enrich someone’s life, to improve my community, to teach my child?

    Where does that put me on the religious/spiritual spectrum? I’m not sure. My questions seem to reflect gospel principles, but church structure often provides an outlet for their application.

    • Dora says:

      Jesse, these are interesting questions. When I think of gospel versus church, the church bit always loses out. For example, thoughtfully taking the sacrament is a gospel-based act for me; men wearing white shirts and suit jackets to pass the sacrament is a church culture practice that doesn’t really matter to me. But I like how you’ve phrased it: “My questions seem to reflect gospel principles, but church structure often provides an outlet for their application.”

  4. spunky says:

    This is an interesting and complicated concept, thank you for writing about it, Dora.

    I think I am an analytical person, so I perhaps over-analyse and even compartmentalise what is religious to me, i.e. attending church is religious, attending a relief society craft meetings is not.

    Likewise, your perception of spirituality being in part “The marrow in the bones, and the organs of the body” does not speak to me. When I read this, I immediately flashed to D&C 129, where in my head, I differentiate organs from bones, probably akin to religious vs. spiritual, (bones= spiritual, immortal. Organs= religious, mortal, temporary). So for me, religious is temporary… but as a mortal, religious behavior is necessary for the functioning of my spirit, just in the way that my bones and organs much thrive together in this life in order for me to maintain a mortal existence. (similar to a degree to what EM expressed).

    But my religious practice is not only paying tithes, attending church when possible (we are remote and attend a tiny distant branch when possible) and attend the temple when possible (temple is even further). It also is my routine of prayer, FHE and scripture study. There are some days when I am blown away by spiritual revelations I obtain in scripture study, and other days where it seems like I am just reading along in a story. But the religious structure of my day allows a path or a method in which I can gain a spiritual mind frame and a relationship with God. The structure is necessary for the spirit.

    But… the spirit is what brings me back to do the routine. I could not be bothered to maintain a religious routine unless it brought me a sense of spirituality. But I also suspect that in the next life, I may not need to read scriptures daily (whatever a day may be) as I do in my mortal schedule in order to obtain a degree of spirituality. Hence, my personal concept that religious behavior is the mortal practice that is necessary to moves me to spirituality and develops my relationship with God. To me, this makes religion mortal, and not bad, but leads me to suspect that being religious and having religious structure is a vehicle for mortality only and may not exist in the next lifetime. So, although I strive to teach and use the spirit daily, it would be false for me to say that I am more spiritual than religious because I am mortal and need a mortal routine in which to obtain a spiritual state.

    Anyway, this has been excellent to consider. Thanks again for the post. I have really enjoyed thinking about this.

    • Dora says:

      Spunky, thanks for participating! So, in your view, to use another metaphor, mortal/religious practices are like training wheels. They help us gain proficiency when we begin to ride a bike. However, they are not meant for long-term use. It is expected that one moves beyond the need for them. Just as this life is a training period for the eternities. I like it. I like it alot.

  5. Deborah says:

    “Without the spiritual component, our religious services can become rote and cold . . . Conversely, without the religious component, our spiritual actions can become chaotic and disordered.”
    I think there is something to this, for my own devotional practices. In fact, I find that even the spiritual yearnings of mine that fall outside of the traditional Mormonism tend to seek structure — think yoga, or certain types of prayer and meditation. Religion as giving some structure to my our expansive spiritual souls — seems obvious, but I like that way of looking at it, as long as the structure stimulates growth . . .

    • Dora says:

      I tend to think about the spectrum of things a lot. Consider poetry. Blank verse can be very beautiful, but sometimes I feel adrift in the free-flowiness of it all. OTOH, sonnets and haiku are highly organized and structured, as are limericks. But the structure does nothing for me unless the words speak to my soul.


      I love dancing. Dance without structure, pure creativity, reminds of me of contact improvisation, which I’ve seen and talked about with others, but never tried.

      Conversely, structured movement without creativity is marching. And while it can be very impressive when you have a large number of people moving in highly synchronized fashion, it doesn’t move me.

      For me, really good partner dancing is the perfect combination. There are rules about steps and movement. But depending on the expertise of the dancers, there is also a lot of room for improvisation, especially when one knows how to creatively break the rules in ways that still maintain the dance.

      As long as the structure stimulates growth …

  6. CatherineWO says:

    My spirituality was always so tied to my religious practice that I never really thought of them separately until about three years ago when it became necessary, for health reasons, for me to quit attending church meetings and activities. For about a year, I was pretty much on my own spiritually. It made me see religion from a very different perspective, and, in the long run, made me a much more spiritual person. So I would say that now I definitely lean toward being more spiritual than religious. I do, however, have a need to express that spirituality through ritual practice, such as the sacrament and daily prayer and meditation. With the Christmas season, I am attending some weeknight services at other churches–to get my fill of Christmas ritual.

    • Dora says:

      This reminded me of how the bodies of our first parents were made of dust, and were like clothes of clay, until they were given the “breath of life.” In this way, our bodies are the structure, our spirits are, well, our spirits. United, as I’ve often heard in mormon discourse, the body and spirit are the soul, and it is only as the soul that we can progress.

  7. Corktree says:

    I love the body metaphor.

    I don’t quite know where I fall on the spectrum just now. I had such a hard time feeling anything spiritual at church, and any spiritual experiences in the last year or so have come from other sources, so I think I associate my spirituality with everything but religious practice at the moment. But I’m absolutely one that finds it easier to feel the spiritual component in nature, so it’s hard for me to find those experiences in a building with no windows.

    I hope that I feel that tug to express my spirituality by attending to religious practice again someday soon. I feel drawn to ritual, and if I could easily attend sacrament meeting to partake of the sacrament and nothing else, I would probably do that. As it is, we’re planning to attend Christmas mass at one of the downtown Cathedrals for an extra perspective this year. I’m strangely excited. I don’t feel that the rest of church in the LDS Sunday block gives me opportunity to expand my practice of pure religion, so it will be harder to go back to that part.

    • Dora says:

      It can be very heartening, and sometimes disheartening, how people’s church experience can vary. Yes, I understand how a large part depends on the individual, but there is something large to be said about the local leadership. Some wards/stakes have a very corporate feel, and things flow in a mostly unilateral direction: top down. Other places may be much more grassroots, where there is a bidirectional flow of communication.

      Cruelestmonth, a friend of mine who has guest posted in the past, talked once about being the body of Christ and his church, and how there is information flowing both ways. Yes, the direction comes from the brain, but the response to external stimuli also goes from the hand (or the foot) back to the head, influencing how decisions are made, and how they are prioritized.

      It can be very difficult to feel at home in a structure that feels foreign. We’ve all experienced it, and it’s probably the reason why women are reaching out and finding mormon feminist blogs. Caroline wrote an excellent post about ways feminists, should they choose to stay engaged, can try to be the fingers and toes of the church body.

  8. SilverRain says:

    I love this post. I always called it the “feeling” and the “doing”. Religion doesn’t have to be organized to be religion.

    I would add the other side, too. Without the religious component, the spiritual side is without meaning. If you aren’t willing to act on your testimony by manifesting it in generosity and charity, it is nothing more than selfish feel-good.

    At different times in our lives, one or the other might have ascendency, but without both to varying degrees, you lose meaning.

    • Dora says:

      I agree that spirituality doesn’t have to be organized as religion to bring one closer to deity. However, having some organization makes it easier. Rather like the gift of the Holy Ghost. One can still feel the light of Christ, and feel connected to deity without having undergone baptism and confirmation. How else would the church have even gotten started? But having once learned about prayer, having a plan or schedule for scripture study, undergoing religious ceremonies/rituals helps channel spiritual yearnings.

  9. Olive says:

    I think the church is moving towards being more religious-appearances are more important than intent of the heart, following orders is more important than personal revelation. Oh, we may *say* we value those things, and that’s what we’re all about…but in action, its not at all.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.