Religion Versus Spirituality?

March 21, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

The most recent Point of Inquiry podcast was a very interesting discussion about the increased use of the term “spiritual” to describe oneself, as opposed to “religious.” The Point of Inquiry discussion revolved around whether it was legitimate to describe science as intimately connected to spirituality. The discussion more or less took for granted that science would be opposed to “religion,” but “spirituality”? Maybe not so much…

My thoughts on this topic are not directly applicable to that particular question, but I also work in a secular discipline, social work, in which discussions of the general topic have become common in the last decade. In my social work classes, when I lecture about the concepts of religion and spirituality, I use the image of a glass and water. Water (spirituality) is the substance, which can be poured into any number of containers. The glass (religion) is the particular container holding the water in one particular time and place. Both the water and the glass are conceptually separable. But the glass without any water isn’t of much use or interest, while the water without the glass just runs all over any which way, maybe more interesting but also not of much use. As with creative processes, which need both the creative energy and a concrete project toward which to direct that energy and give it form, religion and spirituality are integrally linked and in need of each other. At the same time, what is most precious is the substance, and it can be a great adventure to notice how this substance can fill itself out in many different containers. We get into trouble if we become attached to a particular container even at the expense of the substance. Most of the time, that analogy seems to be useful, though like any analogy, it is flawed if you push it too far. But anyway, see what you think!



  1. Nicely put, Dan. An analogy that gets us thinking & wondering constructively.

  2. Dan, surely, given the title of this post, you are familiar with Sam Harris’s work. If you’re not you need to be. Let me know what you think.


    • Sam Harris is a skilled debater, though I tend to come down on the other side of his debates.

  3. Thanks for the very fluid analogy. Well said, Dan. I’ll be using it in my classes.

  4. Okay, if you humanities/social work people must continue w/apparently little knowledge re. the amount of research being done in the name of science about spirituality, let me at least humbly suggest that Dan’s fluid analogy doesn’t hold water. Consider instead that the water may remain spirituality, but the vessel/glass become humanity. Religion and spirituality are not ‘integrally’ linked; spirituality does not ‘need’ religion. Can you think about that?

    • I don’t agree with you. I think it does need religion for context. It’s almost a moot point because any behavior, in service of spirituality, can conceivably be defined as religious. The expression of spirituality is religious, or religion. It may be one of your own invention, but it is nonetheless religion. Spirituality means nothing otherwise. Lots of people say, “I am spiritual, not religious.” What does that mean in real terms, in real behavior? What happens?

    • Many people very well informed about scientific research into human spirituality do not see it pointing in nearly as specific a direction as you apparently do.

  5. Hi, Dan,

    I’ve often considered how religion and spirituality are so often used interchangeably, so I think the analogy is useful. However, I’m still a bit stuck in what spirituality itself is. Isn’t the concept of spirituality also ambiguous? In other words, what is the essence of the “water?”

    -Warmest regards,


    • Andre, the whole problem with trying to delineate the essence of spirituality, in my understanding, is that the very attempt is one of trying to view the water without the bowl. There is a philosophical term “qualia” which is somewhat helpful in this regard, but only in the sense of assuring us that serious philosophers have the same delineation problem the rest of us do! There are a number of very important aspects of human existence that are very difficult to approach head on directly – the very act of doing so distorts the focus. Yet we needlessly impoverish ourselves if we therefore summarily eliminate these things from our sense of what is real. The best we can do with such things is tell stories, parables, give analogies, and point when we see it (but of course by the time the gaze fixes on where we are pointing, what we saw has already moved on!)

      • Hi, Dan,

        I agree with you that perhaps the best we can do is create stories, parables, analogies that can offer some sort of definition or identifier to an experience, sensation, or feeling such as spirituality. That said, I’m often conflicted about using the term. While I understand how and why we use it and understand the social and cultural value of word, I simply can’t ignore how the vastness of experiences that are identified by the term/concept in many ways render the term meaningless. Ok,now I’m chasing my own tail here!

        Dan, can I ask you what spirituality means to you, personally? What feelings or experiences do you equate to the concept?

      • Andre, the same could be said about love, philosophy, family, social justice, and an endless list of other things I would never want to have hounded out of usage. In the broadest sense, I suppose I use the term spiritual to refer to just about anything that leads me rather directly into a felt sense of deep connection to that which is beyond myself.

  6. [to Jon] You may choose to define religion any way you wish, although you should be aware that the word, according to etymology sources, came into use between 1300 & 1500ce, whereas archeological sources note evidence of spiritual behaviors many centuries prior.

    Andre, yes, both terms are abstract and complex, with many meanings (unlike H 2 O)). But not interchangeable as Jon seems to think. And not, once again, integrally linked: most typical definitions would probably agree that religious beliefs require spiritual values, but those with spiritual values do not necessarily consider themselves religious. I’m leaving this discussion. The sun is shining, and as a spiritual atheist, I’m forcing myself to put down my new iPad, and go outside for a hope renewing ritualistic walk.


  7. I’m sorry you are leaving the discussion just when it gets interesting. For clarification, I don’t think the terms religious and spiritual are interchangeable. That people say they are spiritual but not religious is very common, but what does that mean? That they have spiritual values only? Then to express it (action),there must be ritual(observance of)– and the two taken together– religion; any kind…e.g., humanistic, etc. Both terms are complex, as you and me and Andre agree, but you mention that complexity is unlike water. I urge you to consider that water is the only element that can exist in three different states, solid (frozen), fluid and vapor. It also is highly sensitive to its surroundings and it has been discovered that it even retains memory. It is in fact, abstract and complex. (See the online documentary Water:The Great Mystery–online)

  8. I read this again and it occurred to me that in the analogy some “containers” for spirituality are like water guns while others are like watering cans.

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