Religion and spirituality

As a counsellor I have worked with people whose religion has been a great support to them through very difficult stages of their lives. Yet I have also worked with those whose religious upbringing has been toxic for them and has left them feeling deeply scarred by the experience.

So this can be a difficult and sensitive subject. I’m prompted to write about it by a recent article on the nature of reality by the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli who raises some interesting questions on issues of time, impermanence and the nature of existence.

How do people react to the words ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’? What assumptions are made? It depends of course on what one associates with them. The word ‘religion’ in particular is likely to carry a particular meaning or series of memories very personal to our own individual experience. For some the word may remind them of their own beliefs and traditions, for others it may leave them cold, seem irrelevant or even provoke fear or feelings of or antagonism.

‘Spirituality’ may be less troublesome, but maybe only slightly so if one finds it hard to separate it from religion. For many who may describe themselves as religious the distinction may seem unnecessary anyway, perhaps because their religious tradition is in fact their route – and there are many routes – to their own personal spirituality. What’s the difference between the two terms anyway?

There have been many academic explorations of this question, but in simple terms I think it is helpful to consider religion as being organised, or related to a particular tradition or code of behaviours and rituals. Spirituality on the other hand is more individual and bound up more purely with our sense of who we are and how we relate to the non-physical world beyond ourselves, with that sense of the transcendent or ‘something other’.

In his 1998 publication Beyond Religion, David Elkins notes that many people left organised religion in the latter part of the last century. While 25% eventually returned to mainstream churches, over 40% remained unaffiliated. Elkin’s main point though is that many of those who stayed away actually remain deeply interested in spirituality. (These figures come from the US, but I suspect they apply broadly to many western cultures). In other words one can be deeply spiritual without being religious.

Whatever our views – religious, agnostic or atheist – spirituality is part of who we are and will have some place within our personal philosophy, even though we do not have the answers to the mysteries of existence, the universe or, as Rovelli says, ‘to the enigma of our individual identity and consciousness’.

Yet, however we describe ourselves, perhaps we should always make time to reflect in our own way on what Rovelli calls ‘the marvelous gift of our existence’.