The Difference Between Religion and Spirituality

Spirituality and religion are often thought to be synonymous with each other. I’ve spent much of my life as a hard-headed scientist who would dismiss all things labeled spiritual for sake of denying the atrocities committed in the name of religion.

Yet as I started to explore different paths of spirituality, chiefly Zen Buddhism and Tantra Yoga, a deeper truth revealed itself to me: that spirituality, as an intangible path of self-discovery, is utterly and completely different from what’s generally perceived as religion in the Western world.

Religion, Path of the Collective

When I think about religion in a Western sense, one thing immediately comes to mind: belief. In Christian terms, and other traditions as well, a religious follower is expected to believe and have faith in the truth as communicated by a holy book, a priestly authority, or a social organisation seemingly focused on control. Religion tends to express itself in telling us how we ought to live, what things we ought to do (or to not do), and in suppressing independent or unconventional thought and behaviour.

There are rather noble intentions behind all this: religion would have us protected from the mistakes of our ancestors. We know through generational experience that certain behaviours, such as drinking alcohol and fornicating outside of marriage, can lead to pain, suffering, and chaos at both individual and social levels. Religious dogma might be there to protect us from stepping in the darker paths of existence which our forebearers have already explored.

In theory, this seems to make a lot of sense, but it all fails for sake of one crucial false premise: humans are not slaves, nor are they robots — we are independent individuals with innate needs for exploration and discovery. Life itself, if it has a purpose, might be said to be a process of exploration and discovery. Should we be given all the answers and be expected to simply sit back and follow the instruction manual to life, then many are likely to remain deeply unsatisfied. A child told not to touch one thing will almost surely touch it. It’s not enough to know the facts of a thing — true and meaningful knowledge ultimately relates to actual experience.

The idea that humans ever truly grow out of childhood is but a mythical fabrication. The sense of youthful and naive desire for experimentation and discovery is deeply bound to our nature and forever remains within our conscience. A social fabric governed by belief would have us quell these fundaments of our beings, a process it calls adulthood — but deep inside, the little child will remain alive, imprisoned only to eventually rebel in a fit we sometimes call mid-life crisis.

Surely, true and meaningful fulfillment requires one to connect with and to follow these most essential longings — the quest for knowledge and experience into every corner of existence, the quest I like to call life.

Spirituality, Path of the Self

Spirituality is in sorts diametrically opposed to religion — a polar opposite, made of the same stuff but of the opposite charge. They both overlap, in that they each concern themselves with finding the ultimate answers to the meaning of life. But where one would look left, the other chooses right.

If religion is about suppressing individuality and providing pre-conceived answers to all the essential questions of life, spirituality is the process of looking for those answers ourselves. It is coming to the truth of who we are, independently and individually — a process most obviously exemplified in Eastern spiritual traditions labeled as Buddhism.

Is Buddhism a religion? Yes and no. At its foundation, it’s not — it includes no set dogma or belief. The Buddhist spiritual path is one that aims at dissolving the ego-mind, that place where are born the false illusions about who we are, those things conditioned in us since birth. This process of dissolution is meant to leave only truth behind — for truth is said to be the great void of no-thingness that gets left behind once conceptualised existence has vanished, the pure wisdom of an untarnished mind.

In its popular version however, as understood by general lay people throughout Buddhist societies, Buddhism may have the flavour of religion. Governments and social institutions have done well to twist Buddha’s words into doctrines as a way to further their moralistic domination on society. Thus, a country like Thailand sees its social fabric afflicted with the same sort of religiously induced shame as do traditionally Christian countries: obey and be patriotic otherwise you won’t earn the right to enter heaven or nirvana — sex is wrong and shameful — life is suffering, but if you work hard then perhaps the next one will be better.

Within this vision, it can be surmised that Christian institutions appear to be well rooted in a very pure spiritual message, largely similar to Buddha’s — but that social institutions of the West have twisted the meaning of Jesus’ good news to an extent far surpassing that of most Eastern cultures relative to their own teachers.

The Way of Freedom, The Way of Control

Spirituality is a path that aims at the resolution of the inner conflicts society instills within us. Where society would have us obey and follow in other people’s shadows rather than becoming the true masters of our own destiny, spirituality gives us the tools for finding strength and harmony in embracing and expressing our individuality — in becoming all that we are meant to be.

Religion would have us provided with ready wisdom and all the answers to the fundamental questions of being, but in doing that it only serves to create a great divide within us. The mind will accept dogma and beliefs and strive to live by them, but the deeper intuitive self — the non-rational part we might refer to as the subconscious — knows these beliefs to be in conflict with its own truth.

In constantly reinforcing mind-beliefs which are fundamentally at odds with our deeper intuitive senses, we serve only to create a rift between heard and mind, between body and soul — inducing a great amount of suffering within our beings.

Perhaps most prominently, religion would have us convinced that sexuality is an evil which must be purged out of ourselves — that it is a shadow blocking all hopes for salvation. Yet sexuality is perhaps the most fundamental aspect to life — evolution being entirely focused on its attainment and perfection as a means of reproducing and reaching for a higher and better version of humanity. Sexuality is, taken in its essential form, an expression of the divine power of life as a force of creation and change in the universe. Should we repress it, we repress the very meaning of creation — the core of our beings.

These things we all know — deep inside we all know — yet for sake of control it comes practical to religion, as a social organism, to condition us with shame from an early age — this shame forming the strings on which it can pull in calling us back to order whenever necessary. Little thought or care is given to the repercussions of these means of controls — the true evils of this world: emotional detachment, depression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction and emasculation — ultimately leading to sexual abuse of all sorts.

Religious dogma, rather than nurture and protect our souls as it would so claim, often serves to sow chaos within the depths of our beings. The more organised and advanced a society, the more dogmatic the beliefs, the greater the suffering — something which hardly exists in so-called primitive, tribal societies. The teachings of Buddha were a direct response to this anxiety-induced suffering, inherent to the development and advancement of civilization.

Religion, along with the social fabric which harbours it, often serves to instill conflict between our minds and the truths of our hearts. This turns the mind into a prison, yet pacifies us by instilling depression, anxiety, and all the addictive patterns that follow: consumerism, cigarettes, alcohol, entertainment in whatever form.

Think of all the money, time, and energy we spend on entertainment within rich and advanced societies — all these means we pursue as a way to avoid feeling bored. Yet what is boredom, but an intolerance to the sound of our thoughts? What is this aversion to silent aloneness, but a reaction to the troubling voices of shame, guilt, and anxiety conditioned into us since birth? Something they call morality...

Into Uncharted Territories

The spiritual paths of the East are largely centered on meditation as a means of witnessing ourselves and this existence, from a perspective free of judgment. Thus practiced, meditation forms the basis of a process very scientific in nature, one that pivots on experimentation and observation from a perspective which is as objective as is conceivable.

Rather than teaching belief, meditative spiritual traditions suggest guidelines where one may begin their own individual journey. These guidelines, such as non-violence, are as a prescription or doctor’s advice — advice on where to get started on a journey of healing. They are neither rules nor dogma — they are meant to become unnecessary and superfluous once the seeker has come to meet truth in themselves. Buddhism contains no higher universal principle that would dictate violence as evil, it merely facilitates the process for one understanding that violence will in no case serve them — that it can only bring suffering, to the offender as well as the victim. Thus is the meaning of karma.

Once you cross the river, do no carry the boat on your shoulders. These words of wisdom, attributed to the Buddha, are meant to purvey the importance of leaving all guidelines, tools, and beliefs behind once someone has reached a certain stage in their spiritual development. On the path towards self-discovery, no tool or doctrine provided by the masses will be appropriate or adequate. The journey into self is one of uncharted territories, unique to each of us.

If this sounds scary, it certainly should — there is simply no real guide to a life of freedom. Spiritual teachers may teach you to walk, but beyond that we’re all on our own. This is drastically different from what religious messages may convey — where one may be expected to weekly consultations with priestly authorities, to be reminded of the path clearly traced before them, and reprimanded should they step one toe out of it.

Religion, in its most organised form, would have us all turned into sheep — always following, never questioning. A true and wise spiritual teacher would have us all be shepherds — masters of our own destiny and leaders within ourselves.

A genuine spiritual path is not one of feeling good, nor is it one of easy answers — it is one that goes through the shadows, those darker corners of our beings that are in most dire need of illumination. Should we wish to live a life of freedom and bliss, then those anchors of pain and trauma must first be released. Every corner of our beings allowed to flow unabated.

The spiritual path is therefore one of pain and difficulty at first, but it does get easier. Once confidence grows — once we begin to have faith in ourselves (as opposed to having faith in an external authority), the light of truth, this deep and meaningful inner truth, finds its way out and begins to shine for all to see.

Unlearning Our Way to Freedom

The path towards this truth is one of unlearning rather than learning. It’s undoing the beliefs and the conditioning, emptying the mind and voiding the soul. It’s akin to removing ourselves from the matrix, society and religion forming the control system that would program subconscious patterns into us — turning money into God, national identity into life, and longings into shame.

The process of cleansing ourselves from social conditioning is that of coming to the profound reality of the self — the very truth of who we are, as opposed to what we’ve been made to believe we are. The reality of this truth is what Buddhists call nirvana: the complete dissolution of the mind-illusion, the beliefs, and the inner conflicts which are responsible for this inner sense of separateness that Buddhists call dukkha (suffering).

In Christian terms, nirvana might be akin to heaven whereas dukkha might be the experience of hell — except the Buddha’s version of heaven and hell is very real and an integral part of this worldly experience. The promise of liberation, as a spiritual concept, is not one to be relegated to a future existence — it is one which may be grasped as the very truth of the here and now.

Religion would rather have us aspire to a life of suffering for sake of something better in the thereafter, but what does this achieve other than turning this existence into one of willful slavery? Who are these authorities we choose to trust and vow our existence to?

The Answers are Yours

There are those in this world who you tell you to believe. They would tell you that the more firmly you believe, that the less evidence you need in order to believe, the stronger and more beloved you become in the eyes of God.

God is, this way, used as excuse for having you do as you are told. The same sort of message is used by nations, social organisations, and even friends and families as a means of manipulating us into complying with their agenda. At the personal and individual level, they call this narcissistic manipulation. At the highest and most organised level, they call this religion and patriotism.

The path of spirituality is not one which is opposed to a relationship with God. It is one that is based on creating a personal and individual relationship with the divine — whatever meaning one may place in the concept of divine. Words are but words, after all — a mere mask or illusion — only experience may support the foundations of a reality based on truth. Only experience injects life into words.

The spiritual journey is one of personal experience and exploration, of building a true and profound understanding into the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. The answers to all your questions are yours to have, should you choose to seek them yourself.

Above all, remember to have faith — faith in yourself, that is. You are the very culmination of life, and the universe is yours to explore — your own personal playground.