“Religious” vs. “Spiritual”

People are increasingly describing themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious,” at least in the United States.  In the 12th century, “religious” pertained to a “state of life bound by monastic vows,” as well as “conduct indicating a belief in a divine power.” So the term did not necessarily imply alignment with a church.  In addition, “religious” also describes one who is “scrupulous” or “conscientious.” “Spirit” is derived from the Latin spirare¸and the Greek pneuma, referring to breathing or breath.  “Spirit” originally described the breath of life or life principle that animated the body and acted as a mediator between the body and the soul.  But, by the mid-14th century, “spiritual” came to mean “of or concerning the church.” See “Online Etymological Dictionary” (2001-2012), at http:///www.etymonline.com .

In a sense, then, “religious” points away from established religion and “spiritual” points toward it.

People commonly say, “I don’t believe in organized religion,” as if to imply that “disorganized” religion would be acceptable.  This statement touches on a critical issue.  If you hold a belief system based on vague notions of God, the soul, the afterlife, or morality—which have not been incorporated into your being—such a system will rapidly fail in times of crisis, and it will be easily overmastered by emotional forces such as rage, lust, or racism.  Such a system will also be debilitated if not obliterated by less potent impulses, such as for example, being dishonest in financial matters, telling expedient lies to avoid confrontations, fabricating biographical incidents in order to impress others, or feigning emotions as a tactic for seduction.

A disciplined habit of life-affirming practices, a deep-rooted sense of equity, honesty and selflessness, an unshakably transcendent viewpoint—these are the virtues that can bring you comfort in grief, strength in peril, and the ability to see beyond the moment when circumstances seem to entrap you; these are the qualities that can powerfully sustain your life, whether you label them “spiritual” or “religious.”


About Tom Ukinski

Tom Ukinski is an attorney in state government in the Midwest. He's been writing plays, novels, short stories, comedy sketches and screenplays for many years.
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