What is spirituality and how does it differ from religion?

Essay, 2016

5 Pages, Grade: 93%

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Rosie Ung

It is easy to categorise religion as organised, communal and traditional and spirituality as improvised, modern and individualised (Ammerman 2013). However, these popular perceptions do not do justice to the complexities of these two concepts (Ammerman 2013). Accepting this individualised view of spirituality has therefore meant it being neglected by sociologists who, in turn, have focused their attention on religion. Since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s, the interest in the sociological study of spirituality has increased (Wuthnow cited in Ammerman 2013). Arguably a metanarrative, it would seem that individuals are choosing to stray from organized religion and choosing individual spirituality instead (Ammerman 2013). This may be attributed to globalisation as awareness of a ‘spiritual marketplace’ increases (Roof 1999 cited in Ammerman 2013). Finding a definition that pleases everybody is impossible, nonetheless many attempts and approaches have been made and while every definition has its limits, each perspective adds to the understanding of these two seemingly different phenomena. We will discuss these different definitions as well as frameworks in approaching spirituality and religion.

The term spirituality has increased in use in modern Western societies and is often used as an alternative to religion: described as something essential to religion, as well as something that goes beyond it (Singleton 2014, p. 10). A religious person may experience a connection with the divine during a religious ritual, such as communion, whilst a non-religious person may have an experience with the transcendence during meditation. Singleton (2014, p. 11) suggests that this something greater, ‘might be some ethical ideal, supernatural concepts (like karma or reincarnation), supernatural being (the spirits of the deceased) or it might be something more nebulous, like a sense of oneness with all living things’. Ammerman (2013) argues that to understand spirituality we must not aim to find a definition but instead to observe how spirituality is used in telling of everyday experiences. How individuals construct their own meaning of the word and ‘what spirituality is as a cultural phenomenon rather than whatever it's psychological (or theological) essence may be’ (Ammermam 2013). During Ammerman's (2013) discursive analysis a taxonomy of spirituality was created. Eleven themes were found, the top three saw spirituality as; a religious tradition, a way of ethical living and in relation to God (Ammerman 2013). Amongst the eleven themes four distinct ‘packages’ emerged: a Theistic Spirituality where individuals who believe that spirituality only concerns God, a practice that is intended to develop one’s relationship with God, and also spirituality is about being open to mysterious experiences and encounters. God personifies the meaning of spirituality (Ammerman 2013). An Extra-Theistic Spirituality where individuals who believe that spirituality is centred in the self, philosophies created during the search for life's meaning and the awe created by various forms of beauty (Ammerman 2013). Ethical Spirituality was a common denominator across the Theistic and Extra-Theistic, these individuals believed that spirituality related to living a virtuous life and doing what is right (Ammerman 2013). Finally, a Belief and Belonging Spirituality was described by some as a ‘check all the boxes’ type of spirituality. Religious authority was interwoven with spirituality. This is the spirituality non-affiliated individuals believe religious people have, and it is something they reject (Ammerman 2013). These four ‘packages’ reveal how diverse the concept of spirituality is and most importantly the top three themes associated with spirituality; religious tradition, ethical living, God reveal how heavily spirituality is interwoven with religion. Ammerman (2013) mentions a large majority in her study are both religious and spiritual. Spirituality is important to being religious and also that one can be spiritual without the need of religious authority.

Defining religion is problematic. Scholars believe definitions may be too broad, exclusive and Western. Bouma (cited in Singleton 2014, p. 4) defines religion as a ‘shared meaning system which grounds its answers to questions of meaning in the postulated existence of a greater environing reality and its related sets of practices and social organization’. Smart (cited in Singleton 2014, p. 5) suggests that religion consists of seven elements; ritual; actions that are deliberate and traditional that forms a connection between a person or community to the divine, mythological; consisting of teachings and stories about the origin and nature of the universe, rules to living and the history of the religion, doctrinal; accepted teachings that guide a religious individual, experiential; religion has to be experienced directly via means such as ritual, social; where religion is practiced collectively and finally, material; all religions have sacred materials, be it objects, spaces or places. Individuals who partake in these dimensions are considered religious (Singleton 2014, p. 8).

Religion and spirituality have changed significantly over the past century but not in the direction often predicted by scholars (Woodhead 2011). Overall religion has proven to be resilient in the face of globalisation and modernization. Secularization was predicted to be the inevitable product of modernity but religion seems to refuse to ‘yield ground in the face of its presumed replacement by diffuse individualized spiritualities’ (Ammerman 2013). Religious faith continues in opposition to the structures of modern society and intensifies in retaliation to contemporary globalisation (Berger 2002). In a modern world that is constantly changing and expanding a sense of identity and belonging is as important as ever. Stibli (2010) argues that terrorism, which may be masked by religion, philosophy or politics, and the growing popularity of religious fundamentalism, may be a product of globalisation. The relationship between religion and globalisation can be seen in the extraordinary influence and growth of Christianity which has caused a large network of followers in every corner of the globe (Berger 2002). This can also be seen in other religions like Islam and Buddhism as well as newer religious movements such as Scientology and Neo-paganism (Berger 2002).

The idea of religion and spirituality is as diverse and complex as the definitions and frameworks proposed above. Both cannot be neatly defined within categories of traditional or modern, organised or spontaneous, theistic or monotheistic (Woodhead 2011). All these elements can be found within and outside religious institutions. Both may have institutional producers that encourage and organise each practice and belief and both can be experienced collectively (Ammerman 2013). Sociologists must not be tempted to measure religion in association with traditional belief and organized belong, and spirituality as non-traditional and individualized, in reality, the two are not exclusive, binary concepts but have a considerable overlap between them (Ammerman 2013). This overlap not only must be taken into consideration but the boundaries and frameworks in sociological research must be reshaped and revised to adapt to the ever changing world (Woodhead 2011).

Word Count 1096


Ammerman, N.T 2013,’ Spiritual but not religious? Beyond binary choices in the study of religion’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol.52, pp. 258–278, doi: 10.1111/jssr.12024

Berger, P 2002, ‘Globalization and religion; Introduction’, The Hedgehog Review, vol. 4:2, pp. 5-6

Singleton, A 2014, Religion, culture and society; A global approach, Sage, London, UK, pp. 3-16.

Stibli, F 2010, ‘Terrorism and Globalisation’ , AARMS, vol. 9:1, pp.1-7

Woodhead, L 2011, ‘Five concepts of religion’, International Review of Sociology, vol.21:1, pp. 121-143, doi: 10.1080/03906701.2011.544192

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What is spirituality and how does it differ from religion?
Deakin University
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spirituality, religion, sociology, Australia
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Rosie Ung (Author), 2016, What is spirituality and how does it differ from religion?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/356215


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