The Difference Between Spirituality and Religion

Meteora Monastery - photo by Dragan Sasic

Meteora Monastery in Greece (upper left). Photo by Dragan Sasic.

By Doug Marman

There is only one way to see the difference between spirituality and religion: Through experience. Only by walking the two paths can we see how different they really are.

They start off similarly. A person finds a connection to something larger than themselves. It might come from a book they read, a person they meet, or they could discover it by just being in a certain place. Whatever form it takes, it inspires the person and uplifts their view of life to a new perspective.

At first, it is just a glimmer, but the sensation grows that life is more meaningful than they realized. They find themselves involved in a new reality, at a higher level than ordinary life. This isn’t yet an idea, a pattern, or a teaching. In the beginning, it is simply an experience.

This is where the path forks. Actually, the difference is so subtle that it is easy to miss, because everyone takes the same next step. If we want to experience inspiration, we naturally return to the book, person, or place where we first found it, to feel that spark again.

The similarities diverge here. For religious followers, the form that uplifts them becomes the object of their worship. It becomes holy and sacred to them. They see it as the source of their experience.

On the other hand, for those who walk the spiritual path, whether they realize it or not, it is the experience, itself, that draws them on. Something comes through the words, or the personality of a leader, or the atmosphere of a location that inspires them. This flow of what we might call Spirit is what they are after.

The difference is subtle. In fact, religion begins with spiritual experiences. Therefore, it is almost impossible to distinguish a religious follower from a seeker of spirituality, based on the first steps of their journey. It is the tests of time that prove out which path they are on.

The most significant parting of the ways takes place when a person stops feeling inspired by the form that once awakened them. What do they do now?

Religious followers often question themselves, first. Was there something they did wrong, to lose the feeling of grace they once felt? Most religious teachers encourage this. There is actually a valid reason for this, since the experience of Spirit requires a delicate state of receptiveness; a willingness to align with a new perspective. The flow of spirituality is most dramatic when we willingly let go of our moorings to move with Spirit. This is so subtle we often don’t even realize what we are doing.

If we learn to grow into the new way of life that Spirit shows us, the spiritual experience changes us. It is as if we found a new state of being. This is the promise of inspiration: It alters us and the way we see life. However, once we’ve learned to see with new eyes, the books, teachers, or sacred grounds that moved us, may not uplift us as they once did. In fact, sooner or later the form can hold us back.

This is when we make a choice: Will we place our loyalty to the form above all else, or will we follow Spirit, itself? It isn’t easy choosing, especially if we realize how valuable the gift is that we received. We grew into a new life through the grace of that form. However, there is no middle ground on this decision. We must take one path or the other.

It is this crossroad where questioning one’s self produces different results. The religious follower concludes that the problem is with themselves. They are not worthy. They must have sinned in some way, to bring about this dark night of Soul, as it is called. This is the only conclusion they can come to, because they see the form as sacred, and this holiness exists outside of themselves. Therefore, they are dependent on that form.

Seekers of spirituality take a different course. The experience of Spirit has changed them in such a deeply personal way that it has become a part of them. It exists within them – not as if it took root – but more as if they remembered it was always a part of their being. Therefore, it is no longer something external. It is this experience of Spirit that matters, and nothing but this experience.

This is when they discover an amazing truth that changes their lives forever. They learn that when one door closes, another always opens up. Spirit shows itself through another form, leading us on, to change us again and again, until we can’t see any separation between who we are and Spirit.

When followers of spirituality question themselves, it is to see how they might be holding themselves back, or standing in their own way. What new change do they need to make? What new lesson is life trying to teach them?

The challenges of Soul’s dark nights are no easier. In fact, they can become more difficult as one grows spiritually…until the day comes when we realize that when we feel absolutely alone, with no purpose, this is Soul emptying itself of old meanings. After we’ve experienced this emptiness over and over again, we eventually realize that darkness comes before a dawn. A new beginning. A whole new life is ahead.

The difference between these two paths begins as something too subtle to recognize. Over time, they diverge in dramatic ways. Is it the form that is sacred, or the experience of spirituality, itself? There is only one way to learn the answer: Through experience.

12 thoughts on “The Difference Between Spirituality and Religion

  1. How much liberty do organized religions sincerely provide for critical questions that challenge the “facts” behind their recorded history and dogma?

    I believe one of the things about “religion” that makes it different from “spirituality” is simply that organized religious dogma and written history have an inflexibility for change even when change is pointing away from fiction and pointing in a direction closer to the truth.

    Another reason I think “religion” can differ from “spirituality” is when religious dogma, history and writings are over the centuries fashioned from popular beliefs and embellishments at the cost of discarding the actual truth. Spirituality becomes then as if a popular fad where only the “in crowd” are the most recognized.

    A good measure to determine the degree of “organized religion” over “spirituality” is when a person, guided by spirit, attempts to correct a falsehood contained within a written religious history and dogma. In my opinion, the degree of resistance for accepting the truth will indicate the degree to which “spirituality” has been ignored and supplanted by “organized religion.”


    Science is […] a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.”

    Charlie Rose: An Interview with Carl Sagan, May 27, 1996.

    • Richard,

      I agree with you that religion, by its nature, tends toward rigidity in its dogma. The reason for this is because people are looking for the establishment of truth outside of themselves. They want to know what is true, not from their own experience, but based on some kind of outward authority or consensus.

      However, this isn’t just a problem with religion. It is true for any big institution or organization. This is why we see signs of it creeping more and more into the institutions of science as well.

      Your quote from Carl Sagan is based on an idealistic goal of science, but this often falls short in practice. Careers are ruined, if they try to buck the status quo. Politics and the need for funding to support research, forces scientists to go along with the group, even when they think it might be wrong.

      Science is still young, compared to religion, so the problem isn’t nearly as bad. However, it has gotten worse over the last century. If you are interested in a good book that illustrates this issue, read The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin. For the last 40-50 years, physics students have been discouraged from trying to understand the foundations of their science. The mantra has been: “Shut up and calculate.”

      As a result, physics made a huge error, putting almost all of their efforts into super-symmetry and string theory. Both now look like dead ends. But, for 40 years, if you didn’t direct your research in those directions, you could lose your funding and find yourself without a job as a physicist.

      The reason this happens, even in science, is because science is also, like religion, focused on establishing a consensus based foundation for truth, where some people have more authority over determining what is right and what is wrong.

      The fact is that truth doesn’t work that way. It is what it is. More importantly, the recognition of truth is something that happens within us, so it always falls short when there are attempts to regulate it externally.

      Fortunately, truth eventually finds its way into the world. This is the nature of life, even if it has to break up rigid patterns.

      It’s an interesting subject. Thanks.


  2. Hello Doug,

    Ignore the personalities Doug and deal with the content for it is what it is.
    Very subtle Doug Yes, very very subtle. Where would WE be without you?
    That is the silent question the wise would ask and have the answer already. The gullible and naive would not. Which is where you come in right? Yes Doug, have another go at this subtle business. You are an open book for those with eyes that can see, with inner ears that doth hear clearly. A house divided against itself will not stand. A castle built upon sand shalt be washed into the sea.

  3. The difference between religion and spirituality.

    From “The Shariyat-Ki-Sugmad” book one, second edition p194, last sentence:

    “Therefore, The Living ECK Masters have always had the responsibility to not establish new religions, cults, or mystery schools. Instead they rejuvenate the religious thoughts of all people, instilling a higher understanding of life into them.”

    That’s the path of the Masters.

    “..the Living Masters have always had the responsibility to not establish new religions..” Each soul will have to follow their individual path. No religion will take them to their true destination. Only the true Master can do that.

    I believe the famed Danish poet, Hans Christian Andersen, gave an interesting angle on the human response to the calling of the sound of God in his fable “The Bell”. Only the poor boy and the noble Prince complete the journey all the way to the ocean of love and mercy, each following their individual path, while others are making all kinds of social establishments according to their perception of the “phenomenon” (my interpretation).

    “The Bell”: Link:

    • Kim,

      That’s a great story by Hans Christian Andersen. I haven’t seen it before. It is filled with lots of subtle spiritual lessons.

      As you say, all the other town folk reached a point and turned back, never discovering the source of the sound of the bell.

      They were satisfied with some idea of what the answer might be, rather than the experience of finding it.

      It’s a perfect story to describe the difference between spirituality and religion. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Andersen was trying to make exactly the same point.

      Thanks for sharing it.


    • One thing that impressed me about spirituality was the claim, by at least one spiritual group, of having living Masters. A long line of spiritual adepts passing teachings from one person to another in an unbroken line. This impressed me because it suggested continuity. And historical continuity at that! Other groups claim the same or similar things. Not to mention the Catholic Church with it’s “unbroken line” of Popes; in spite of the fact there was more than one at times.

      Long story short, what comes by written history, or word of mouth, is oftentimes different from the actual truth and the majority will tend to believe in fabulous stories without ever seriously trying to investigate and validate the truth.

      I watched some Cosmos episodes recently. In one I saw the story of a man burned alive for pursuing the truth. In another someone said (in so many words) to investigate everything; I think he was a famous Islamic person.

      Umm … So what caused people to condemn that one person to burning at the stake? The program suggested he held views that were different from their own; some of his views were later proven to be true.

      Today I see that people are prone to believe in the fabulous and imagination can help to amplify fiction over fact. Imagination is not totally a bad thing, in my opinion, and a person can derive benefit from it. Problems come when different people imagination different things and then write their imaginations down as history. The history of things that happened in our world. The news is full of one person, or group fighting another with each believing they are right. The greatest of problems is when generations of people go on fighting for what they were told and imagine(d) to be true, but where none of them have the actual truth.

      I recognize that you, Doug, have written about historical people who probably actually lived. Like Rumi and Guru Arjan. That you include information about poems and books linked to real people. I think it a great need to do this, especially when so many people are sick and tired of all the fabulous-feel-good-fictions that require only a persons active imagination to sell. History is important when it records the truth and I think people have a right not to be fooled again. Have a right not to believe every fancy story as literally true and the right to investigate from whence came the information passed along and written down as world history.

      Whatever is the actual case with the words in Sukhmani, or the words in Rumi’s poems I think it would help to discuss what the world was like during the times when each of those people lived. Language is best understood, the actual meaning, in context to the times when a language was used. I think this is true especially for words that were written a long time ago. The contemporary world environment is important and can lend a lot of insight for discerning what a person was trying to say, and why. This is my thought and contribution.

      • Richard,

        I agree with you. There is something we gain from real historical cases. It does seem especially important for our modern times.

        While doing research for the next book that I’m working on, it has become clear that many people have gotten lost in theories, ideas, and concepts, to the point of losing touch with reality. I don’t just mean physical reality, but spiritual reality as well.

        Finding truth requires digging for it. We also need to be willing to walk away from popular ideas and find our own understanding. As you say, most people don’t want to go through that trouble. In many cases, the reason for this is that it is uncomfortable being unsure of what is true.

        We must pass through uncertainty before we can really understand something. We must also be confident in our own abilities to recognize truth when we see it.

        Thanks for what you added. I’m with you on this.


  4. Actually, it is a direct quote from the conclusion of Meyer’s “The Lost Slipper of Soul,” p. 284. (the publication of which resulted in Meyer’s defrockment)

    … to continue,

    “The League is twofold. The outer League is like a journey— the Journey to the East that Hesse wrote about, or the journey of the man from Cairo, retold by Borges in his lecture. The man from Cairo represents the seeker, and the qadi represents the Master. The seeker dreams of a goal, a treasure, a Holy Grail. His search takes him far and wide. At the end of the journey, the Master tells him that all he needs to do is to go back home. The Master is the dreamer, as well. He dreams of the treasure that resides in the seeker.”

    … or, to paraphrase Idries Shah, ‘even dry canals can carry water’.

  5. There is a lecture by the famous Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges, in which he recounts a tale from the Arabian Nights, called the the story of the two dreamers. A man in Cairo dreams that a voice orders him to go to Isfahan in Persia, where a treasure awaits him. He undertakes the long and difficult voyage and finally reaches Isfahan. Exhausted, he stretches out in the patio of a mosque to rest. Without knowing it he is among thieves. They are all arrested, and the cadi asks him why he has come to the city. The Egyptian tells him. The cadi laughs until he shows the back of his teeth and says to him: “Foolish and gullible man, three times I have dreamed of a house in Cairo, behind which is a garden, and in the garden a sundial, and then a fountain and a fig tree, and beneath the fountain there is a treasure. I have never given the least credit to this lie. Never return to Isfahan. Take this money and go.” The man returns to Cairo. He has recognized his own house in the cadi’s dream. He digs beneath the fountain and finds the treasure.

    “The story illustrates the difference between religion and spirituality. …”

    … shades of Stefan G. Meyer, n’est pas?

    • Great story, Dick. Thanks for sharing it.

      Spirituality often comes in this way: Unexpected and closer to home than we expect. We think that what we are looking for is something we can find out on the world – an answer or a valuable key – and yet the real wealth is buried in our own backyard.

      I tracked down a good translation of the original Arabian Nights many years ago and found that it was filed with Sufi teaching stories like this one.

      And yes, it has a remarkable resemblance to some of Stefan’s stories, in his book The Karma Seeker.

      Thanks for sharing that.


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