Religion and spirituality: A false dichotomy



Religion and spirituality are frequently posed as different, mutually exclusive, even opposite modalities. This juxtaposition presents a false dichotomy based on a misunderstanding of how religions function.

The juxtaposition rests on traditions that separate body and soul and then characteristically devalue the body in relation to the soul. Post-Enlightenment, we experienced a backlash to this concept with the exaltation of science and rationality over any kind of extra-rational or transcendental experience.

The Oxford English Dictionary views spirituality as “affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things”.  The second half of that statement, “as opposed to material or physical things”, is based on culturally formed assumptions that only serve to cloud our understanding of spirituality.

Spirituality affects “the human spirit or soul”. In this first half of the dictionary phrase, the spirit or soul is set out as something separate from the rest of the human being. Yet human beings are embodied. Without our body, we cannot experience spirituality, so it is disingenuous to simply discount our bodies, or the material world, as we try to understand our spirituality.

Perhaps there is a more holistic view, one more familiar to many religious traditions that conceive body and soul as inextricably linked and equally valued. In considering that more holistic view of body and soul, we can also begin to understand better the relationship between spirituality and religion, where religions are often self-described as “bodies”. This is an apt metaphor.

Spirituality is a human phenomenon and in that respect is a dynamic part of a whole human being with a physical body. Spirituality requires a physical, material home. If that physical home is a person, then spirituality is in a dynamic relationship with the personal and cultural characteristics of that unique individual.

If that physical home expands beyond the individual person into a community, then spirituality is in a dynamic relationship with the characteristics of that community and the individual’s worldview and personal characteristics.

A community might be a faith or religious community or any other kind of community we can imagine. In the religious frame, spirituality is in a dynamic relationship with the individual and the faith community, its sacred texts, rituals, liturgies, myths, ethics, law codes and history. This communal aspect brings additional texture and dimension to individual spirituality.

Either way, spirituality is a real life, embodied experience of authenticity, transcendence (what is beyond ourselves) and interconnectedness. Without our human bodies, we have no awareness of that spiritual experience — and without that spiritual experience, we cannot fully know our own humanity.

Spirituality is a function, in other words, of our body in the world. All the great religious and spiritual practices know this. Each, in its own unique way, serves to connect us to our full humanity, our spirituality in a material world.


So we have a prevailing cultural view that separates body and soul, sometimes devaluing the body in relation to the soul and other times exalting the rational, material world over extra-rational, transcendental experience.

At the same time, a conception of the material world as a static entity burdens our thought processes.

At least one medical researcher suggests that our bodies are not as static as we imagined them. Candace Pert, in her books, Molecules of Emotion and Your Body is Your Subconscious Mind, “establishes the biomolecular basis for our emotions and, explaining these new scientific developments in a clear and accessible way…empowers us to understand ourselves, our feelings, and the connection between our minds and our bodies…in ways we could never possibly have imagined before”.

Deepak Chopra goes beyond the universe of our bodies to suggest another way to understand all of material reality: “The quantum world forever broke away from the narrow, mechanistic world of Laplace: Solid physical objects became clouds of invisible energy, the certainty of cause-and-effect turned into “probability waves,” and time and space became flexible, to the point that a cubic centimeter of empty space contains enormous virtual energy while the arrow of time can turn on itself and go backward. The reliable world of the five senses was undercut by the quantum world…”

Religions, like human bodies, are much more dynamic than our static conception of material reality suggests, and their relationship to the rest of the material world is similarly more dynamic than the spirituality-religion dichotomy allows.

Viewing these relationships as more dynamic and fluid doesn’t undermine the possibility of universal truths embedded in spiritual experience. Nor does this different model suggest that there are no real differences between religions or that the differences between religions are superfluous to the spiritual experience.

Religions, like human beings, have discernible boundaries. Just as a human body replaces old cells with new cells by the millions every second, the moving parts of religions change over time. While this is happening, though, we still recognize the outlines of a particular person or a particular religion.

As the context changes, the individual context, the community context, or the religious context, spirituality changes even while it remains the same. Like the same dish prepared by 50 different cooks, spirituality has a unique flavor in each unique circumstance. At the same time, there are universal ingredients, a discovery of our authentic selves and transcendence, a profound awareness of connection.

Historically the language of religions, the sacred texts, rituals, liturgies, myths, ethics, law codes and histories of religious communities bring an expanded and paradoxically more specific dimension to spirituality. The paradox is the nature of living in a material world that provides us the opportunity to connect to spiritual reality.

This paradox of our lives as human beings, that our spirituality is embodied and therefore both universal and specific, is an important key to connecting with our full humanity. Understanding the connection between spirituality and religion in this way shows how, consciously or unconsciously, our various religious cultures can be part of our journey toward spiritual connection.

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