Is spirituality distinct from religion?

Jonathan Morgan

Young pretty caucasian girl praying

How do we categorize someone’s religiosity?  It seems easy enough when people choose their affiliation, but even that category can contain many different types of spirituality: not all Methodists are the same.  This complexity gets even trickier when it comes to categorizing the large group of people who are not affiliated.  The “nones” (a moniker for those who answer “unaffiliated” on survey questions about their religion) encompass everyone from atheists to agnostics to the simply uninterested.  And of course, each of these groups contains an even wider array of personalities.  The complexity is staggering and poses a difficult challenge to anyone studying religion.

On a more basic level, it’s quite difficult to even distinguish between spirituality and religiosity.  In everyday conversation, people readily make this distinction by identifying as “spiritual but not religious,” but new research by Boston University sociologist Nancy Ammerman shows just how blurry the distinction actually is.

From her research, Dr. Ammerman proposed an initial taxonomy for nine different types of spirituality.  The religion scholar, Nicholas DiDonato wrote an illuminating summary of these types of spirituality.  The taxonomy was further organized into four “cultural packages” that describe the different ways people talk about their spirituality.  Theistic uses of spirituality are specifically tied to personal deities, while the Extra-Theistic package evokes spirituality as a more naturalistic form of transcendence.  Ethical uses of spirituality deal with compassion, while  Belonging emerged as people spoke about their spiritual ties to specific religious communities.  Of course the boundaries between these four types are quite fuzzy, but this research begins to illuminate the complex contours of spirituality.

All that’s not too surprising, but Dr. Ammerman makes a more radical claim, when she steps back from distinguishing between types of spirituality to discuss the more general distinction between spirituality and religion.  Her research persuasively argues that the boundaries between spirituality and religion are, in actuality, very porous.  And yet, people still make a distinction between the two.

From insightful analysis, Dr. Ammerman reveals that such a distinction is primarily a moral distinction which rests on a particular idea of organized religion as an oppressive power.  This idea causes people to distinguish between the oppressive aspects of religion and the life-giving aspects.  Therefore the religiously affiliated often defend themselves as “not merely religious” while the unaffiliated distance themselves from organized religion while still trying to preserve what they see as virtuous.  In either instance, the distinction acts as a moral judgment.  In Ammerman’s words, “Spiritual-but-not-religious, then, is more a moral and political category than an empirical one.”

Bear that in mind next time someone tells you they are spiritual but not religious.  But also bear in mind the complex contours of spirituality which Dr. Ammerman describes.  While it’s difficult to categorize religiosity, it is a worthwhile endeavor because it helps us understand the sheer diversity of ways we engage what we consider to be ultimate.  This understanding might help us navigate our increasingly pluralistic world with a little more empathy.

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