In the secular age, popular conceptions of religion and spirituality have changed. Traditionally, spirituality was a component of religion. But in recent times these terms have become the antithesis of each other. As many identify as, ‘spiritual but not religious,’ we are must come to terms with new conceptions of these terms with concern to religious identity. As many of those in the ‘spiritual but not religious’ camp have a Christian background, it may be useful to consider these terms from a Christian standpoint.
The contemporary concept of religion largely did not exist in biblical times. Rather than denoting a set of beliefs, religion primarily described one’s system of worship (A.R. 1957: 188). Spirituality, and more basically the term spirit, carries numerous meanings throughout the Bible. That closest to our contemporary understanding is spiritual experience, usually attributed to the presence of the Holy Spirit. With this experience often comes enhanced mental abilities described as wisdom or discernment (G. Johnston 1957: 235); not dissimilar to the benefits of a rich spiritual life today. Jesus is described as a spiritual man because he closely associated the work of the Spirit of God to his own actions (G. Johnston 1957: 238). This too resembles modern spirituality considering its emphasis on holism and integration of beliefs into mundane actions. In both biblical and modern times, spirituality reaches outside cloistered ritual and worship into ordinary life. There is no doubt that these terms have always carried different meanings. However the near mutual exclusivity we see between religion and spirituality is a fairly new construction.
Both terms: religion and spirituality, have negative connotations. For example, religion is often considered hierarchical, dogmatic, patriarchal, and hostile toward other religious traditions. While spirituality is often thought of as loose, unregulated, self-gratifying, hippy-dippy mysticism. These negative connotations exist in a binary as extreme opposites. When people claim religion over spirituality or visa versa, they often cite the negatives of the undesirable label to support their choice. However when they do this they perpetuate the binary that includes the same extreme negatives for their chosen identity.
This binary is ineffective and damaging to those that use it and distort the ideas represented. Deconstructing this binary would involve using the terms to describe phenomena based on substance rather than to simply mark denominational boundaries.
A Theological Word Book of the Bible. Edited by A. Richardson, London: SCM Press Ltd., 1957.