People are less religious now than they used to be. One Pew Research survey showed that in 2017, the percentage of people in the U.S. who said they were not religious was 24%, a value that had tripled the percentage from only 25 years previously. However, there’s also been a rising interest in spirituality, particularly among gen-Zers and millennials (heard of Witchtok?). It’s confusing that religion is decreasing in popularity while spirituality is increasing. The question is: Can you be spiritual, but not religious? What about the other way around—can you be religious, but not spiritual? Are the two words interchangeable? If not, how are they different? Read on to find out.
What is Spirituality?
Spirituality involves accessing your inner “spiritual” self, defining your core values and beliefs, and finding meaning in life. Spirituality includes the notion that all of us are interconnected by something greater than us (and by “us,” we mean all of creation, non-humans included). To engage in spirituality is to experience a powerful force outside of yourself that is both grounding and elevating. Spirituality reminds you of what matters.
It’s definitely possible to have spiritual experiences without being particularly religious. A spiritual experience helps you connect to yourself, other people, the universe, the environment, or a higher power. It gives cause for you to think differently about the world. Some people know they’re having spiritual experiences when they get chills. Others feel a deep sense of peace, or an overwhelming amount of love. The word “awe” comes to mind. There are some things in life that compel you to pause, enjoy, reflect, or express appreciation. These are spiritual experiences.
Your spirituality affects all parts of your life, and it needs attention just like your physical or mental health. Establishing a spiritual wellness practice is a way to strengthen your sense of self and bring balance to your life. Some popular spiritual wellness practices right now are mindfulness, journaling, breathing exercises, and yoga. It’s called a practice because it involves creating personal spiritual routines, or regular rituals, that connect you to your higher power.
It’s also a practice because you may not be very good at keeping up with it at first! That’s okay—the Skylight app is here to help with that. It draws from several world religions to give you the tools you need for holistic spiritual development and healing. With hundreds of spiritual exercises, podcast episodes, journal prompts, and meditations, as well as daily reminders to take a break for stillness and you-time, Skylight makes it loads easier to stick with your spiritual wellness practice.
What is Religion?
To put it simply, religion is a way to practice spirituality. Religion in general refers to the standardized beliefs and organized practices of a group of people with the aim of connecting with some form of deity. Interestingly enough, the etymology of “religion” is under light debate:
“This noun of action was derived by Cicero from relegere ‘go through again’ (in reading or in thought), from re- ‘again’ + legere ‘read.’ However, popular etymology among the later ancients (Servius, Lactantius, Augustine) and the interpretation of many modern writers connects it with religare ‘to bind fast’, via the notion of ‘place an obligation on,’ or ‘bond between humans and gods.’”
Perhaps both derivations can be true in some way—practicing a specific religion helps people remember (relegere) their higher power, often through rituals or rites that bind them (religare) to that higher power.
When we talk about a specific religion (like Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam), we’re referring to a unique system of beliefs and practices. While there are distinct differences between religious sects, most religions involve five common elements:
1. Formal leaders. Formal leaders (ministers, shamans, priests, etc.) instruct members of their religion, administer sacred rites, and/or fulfill administrative duties. Many religions believe that these people have special authority from God to be in these leadership positions.
2. A set of beliefs. Every religion started with someone who defined a set of beliefs and faith practices, gained followers, and eventually formed a new sect. These beliefs are often related to the existence of a higher power, the origins of human existence, the notions of life and death, and paths to becoming better people.
3. Sacred written or oral texts. The main tenets of a given religion are often found in sacred texts, sometimes called scripture. Depending on the religion, sacred texts can consist of central beliefs, stories that teach lessons, or rules for sacred rites. Many people believe that scripture contains the literal voice of God.
4. Rituals. Rituals are prescribed practices for communing with a higher power. Sometimes, they’re done in the presence of a formal leader (like a bat/bar mitzvah); other times, they can be private (like meditation). Rituals tend to symbolize things of a spiritual nature—for example, baptism represents being washed from sin.
5. A community of believers. Community is an essential element of religion. Most religious groups have buildings (churches, synagogues, temples, etc.) where they meet together on a regular basis. These meetings are for rituals, learning, service, and friendship.
Both religion and spirituality attempt to explain and give meaning to the human experience. As you can see, there’s definitely overlap between the two, but they aren’t exactly the same.
Negative Experiences with Religion
The purpose of most religions is for their members to get closer to God. Religion should have an overall positive effect on your life. However, for a variety of reasons, some people have negative experiences. They feel fear and obligation rather than peace and love, sometimes even suffering from trauma. If this sounds like you, know that your experiences are valid. If you’re considering stepping away from organized religion for a bit, that’s okay. But try not to leave behind your spirituality—exploring your relationship with divinity outside of a religious context can be transformative.
Sometimes, though, completely turning away from religion isn’t required for healing. Typically, when you identify with a religious sect, you resonate with its belief system. But you don’t necessarily have to agree with everything to benefit from practicing the religion. You can embrace the good that comes from that particular religion and give yourself space to work through the stuff that doesn’t sit well with you. Perhaps you value the community aspect or appreciate the routine that religion brings to your life. Because religion is so much about ritual, you can still appreciate the significance of the practice without fully embracing the tenets. You can also integrate multiple religions into your personal faith landscape, building your own frame of spirituality.
It’s sometimes the case that negative experiences with religion stifle your sense of spirituality as a whole. Perhaps you’re not even sure if you believe in a higher power, or you’re simply disinterested in pursuing a relationship with them right now. That’s okay, too. There are other sides of spirituality that you can focus on, for instance, nurturing your relationships with others or getting to know your deeper self. Our goal is to make spirituality approachable and meaningful for you, so feel free to design your spiritual wellness practice how you’d like.
Starting Your Spiritual Journey
Maybe you’re nonreligious and nonspiritual, but you feel a pull to something more. This something can be found in spirituality. If you’re looking to start your spiritual journey, now is the perfect time. The Skylight app will help you see that tuning in your spiritual side is easier than you think. For example, take the spiritual exercise “Spiritual Self-Care: Affirmations” with Sade Jones, a spiritual wellness coach. It’s less than two minutes long and can leave you feeling refreshed and connected to yourself.
In the exercise, Sade explains what affirmations are: “declarations of the positive, declarations of support and encouragement for what your soul needs at the time. They define the state of what you want with confidence and authority.” Affirmations are meant to be reviewed (read, listened to, or spoken aloud) on a regular basis, preferably daily. This is so that eventually you believe the affirmations and they have a positive effect on your life.
She then shares her top ten favorite spiritual self-care affirmations:
1. My life is a blessing.
2. My spirit is always guiding me.
3. I feel the power of divine love.
4. My spirit is whole.
5. I open my heart to the guidance of God.
6. My spirit and courage are unwavering.
7. My energies are in harmony with the universe.
8. I am a beautiful soul.
9. I’m aligned with my higher purpose.
10. I acknowledge God in every creation.
Try repeating these affirmations each day. Perhaps you can write them down yourself and stick them to your bathroom mirror, or another place where you’ll see them regularly. After a month, reflect on if things are different for you spiritually. Do you think about a higher power more often? Do you feel more connected to yourself? Do you feel more grateful or confident? From there, you may have an idea of what you’d like to bring into your spiritual wellness practice next.
Your spirituality is your personal religion, whether or not you identify as part of a specific denomination. You can be a spiritual person: You can be more grounded, find peace when life gets hard, and learn to listen to your intuition. You can become one with God.