What is the difference between religion and spirituality?

Several years ago, during a period of personal crisis, I started to wonder, “What is the difference between religion and spirituality?” I was studying psychology at the time, so I looked into academic research on the topic—and was really disappointed! So much of the research used the terms “spirituality” and “religion” interchangeably, but from my point of view, that didn’t make sense. While it could be argued that most religious people are spiritual, I also knew it was possible to be spiritual but not religious, meaning the two terms are separable.

So, I continued to research and found that some studies do view religion and spirituality as separate, and they generally define religion as something like the formal beliefs, rituals, dogma, and community that collectively create a religious institution.

However, it seemed that nobody could agree on a definition of spirituality! This is probably because spirituality is a very personal topic…and because none of the proposed definitions are quite right. In some cases, the definitions are too vague; in others, too complicated. Furthermore, the definitions that captured my understanding of spirituality are not easy to use in research, while those that are valid for research did not really capture my understanding of spirituality.

I wanted a definition that made sense to me, made sense to other people, and could be used in social science research. I couldn’t find one, so, with the support of my honors thesis professor, I decided to create one.

Three years, two directed studies, and one publication later, I had my definition:


But what does it mean?

Here’s one way to look at it: When separated, religion can be viewed as the structure and spirituality as the feeling. Or, to use a food metaphor: religion is the pie shell, while spirituality is the filling. The structure/shell is purposeful, but the feeling/filling is the substance.

But what is that substance? Connectedness. Spirituality is a feeling of Connectedness.

And what are you connecting to? Something greater than yourself. Spirituality is the acknowledgement that there is something greater in this world than just you and your love of pizza.

And how do you experience this Connectedness? By cultivating relationships. By making an effort. By taking a moment to be aware that there is more to life than just you.

And who/what are these relationships with?

Connectedness-relationships smile

Yourself. This is about feeling connected to something personal. Maybe you feel a connection to a greater purpose or personal meaning in life. Perhaps you enjoy cultivating personal awareness, or maybe you feel a sense of having a spirit or soul. Ultimately, this is about feeling connected to something more than just the physicality of your body.

Connectedness-relationships heart.jpeg

Your community. This is not just about having close friends or family, but a community of people that makes you feel part of something greater than yourself. Maybe this is a religious community. Or maybe it is the community at your gym (or “box” for all you cross-fitters). Maybe you feel connected to the general human population. Or maybe you’re in a musical group where the combined community effort creates something bigger than the individual parts. Whatever the community, the common feeling is one of being part of something bigger than just you.

Connectedness-relationships leaf.jpeg

Your environmentThis is when being out in nature makes you feel connected to something greater than yourself, like the life cycle of Earth or the perfection of biology. Perhaps you enjoy gardening, not just because it involves regular exercise with pretty results, but because it makes you feel connected to the greater natural world. Or maybe breathing fresh air makes you feel connected to the trees that produce the oxygen. Whatever it is, it’s about more than just you.

Connectedness-relationships starYour perception of the transcendentThis is your understanding of the abstract, of the ineffable, of what we can’t see. Maybe it’s a faith in God. Or maybe it’s a belief in Karma or the all-powerful strength of Love. Ultimately, it’s the perception that there is something greater that you cannot see, only feel.

Moreover, just because there are four relationships does not mean each one is present in each person. Those who cultivate Connectedness may focus on only one or two of these relationships, though possibly three or even all four. The strength of your spirituality is more about the depth of Connectedness than the breadth of the relationships exhibiting that Connectedness.

Ultimately, being spiritual is about cultivating Connectedness, and in order to do that, it is helpful to have a repertoire of spiritual tools—methods for increasing and sustaining your personal peace, happiness, and well-being. Therefore, as I mentioned in my introductory post, this blog will showcase different tools for cultivating Connectedness that I have discovered and am continuing to discover through my research and personal seeking. Each tool will relate back to this definition of spirituality, perhaps focusing on one relationship or, in some cases, associating more generally with the concept of Connectedness.

Happy discovering!


P.S., If you would like to read my original research publication, it can often be accessed through online university databases using the citation:

Koss, S. E. & Holder, M. D. (2015). Toward a global understanding of spirituality and religiosity: Definitions, assessments, and benefits. In Spirituality: Global Practices, Societal Attitudes and Effects on Health. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.

If you have any trouble accessing it, feel free to contact me!



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