Eikev: Religion VS. Spirituality


Can you be religious and not spiritual? Can you be spiritual and not religious?

Clearly many people feel that the two are not synonymous. As beared out by recent public polls in the United States, which insist that there is a discrepancy between being spiritual and religious. Many more people categorize themselves as spiritual than those that see themselves as religious.

The obvious difference is due to the popular view that religion is about ritual, which does not necessitate one to be spiritual; “ritual” without the “spi” preceding it. A person can be fiercely committed to performing religious rituals to the tee, without feeling any inner spirituality.

Conversely, many people feel that they can aspire to spirituality – defined by an ethereal, transcendent experience – without having to perform any rituals at all.

By no means does this suggest that the two, spirituality and religion, are mutually exclusive. Many people clearly see themselves as both spiritual and religious. However there still remains a strong enough dichotomy between religiosity and spirituality to get our attention.

Is this split a true one? Undoubtedly, based on the contemporary understanding of the meaning of religion and spirituality. If indeed religion is driven by ceremony and ritual, then it need not be spiritual to thrive. All you need are committed individuals dedicated to following – and educating their children to live by – the strictures of their particular religious discipline.

As a matter of fact, there are quite a number of people who practice religion – in dress and in behavior – and they will be the first to insist that they are anything but spiritual. They can even be highly materialistic. Some would add that the discipline of religious behavior (even with no spiritual feeling) is necessary to counter the narcissism of material life.

On the other end of the spectrum, if spirituality is indeed the gravitation toward transcendence, why would one need to have rituals associated with this yearning? Indeed, many free spirits actually shun the shackles of any strict form of ritual.

This may also explain a bizarre phenomenon, which we shall call “religious atheism” and its diametric opposite, “atheistic faith.” There are people who are religious by rote. They were brought up in a religious discipline, but they either don’t think about it too much, or (when push comes to shove) they don’t believe what they practice. I even know a number of so-called religious people who actually despise their own tradition. They mindlessly follow it, out of guilt, programming, fear or plain conformity, but if they had it their way they would have chosen not to be born into it. They therefore are utterly baffled by individuals who choose the religious path. As one fellow incredulously asked a secular friend of mine who turned observant later in life: “Why?!” “You were living the life of a free person, free of religious commitments and obligations, why in heavens name would you choose to constrain your life by taking on religious commitments?”

Then there are those individuals, at the other end of the scale, that are deeply spiritual. Sensitive and introspective; refined people who are committed to work on improving their personalities and relationships. Yet they do not consider themselves to be religious or believers. Some call themselves agnostics or atheists.

What are we to make of this inverted reality? No wonder so many of us remain skeptical about religion and some even treat it with disdain. No surprise that extremism spouts from both ends of the aisle: Religious radicals decrying the profanity of the faithless; and fanatical secularism mocking the faithful. Take the words of Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Hauptman, who unabashedly declared that belief in G-d is not only incompatible with good science, but “ is damaging to the well-being of the human race”!… Richard Dawkins called religion a “disease.”

The conclusion we can draw from the religious/spiritual incongruity is that perhaps we need to revisit our entire definition of the words “religious” and “spiritual.” Furthermore, as we shall see, these words may be ill conceived in the first place.

No where in the Torah, for instance, do you have references to the word “religion” or for that matter “spirituality.” The Torah speaks in matter of fact terms that G-d created heaven and earth, shaped the human being in the Divine Image and charged man and woman with the mission to “serve and protect,” to refine and elevate the universe through a comprehensive system of guidelines (mitzvot). There is no commandment “be religious” or “be spiritual.” Expressions like “sanctify yourself” and “be holy” abound. “Stand in awe,” “be aware,” “know,” “act,” “love,”  “emulate the Divine” these are the principles that the Torah is comprised of.

Why? Because the core issue really comes down to one critical question: What is the true, inherent nature of the human being? What is the meaning of a soul?

If each of us is, as the Bible contends, created in the Divine Image, then any word, “religious” or even “spiritual,” is a distorted adjective. Divine Image is not an adjective but a noun; not what you do but what you are. Your state of being. Being spiritual and religious is part and parcel – and actually the essence – of being human.

Which is why I was always repulsed by the word “religious.” It always smacked of some unnatural prop that is added to being human. There are normal people and there are “religious” people. If I can be human without religion, why do I need religion?

The religious person – religious as an adjective – is an unacceptable oxymoron. If it is a superimposed adjective, describing a certain type of individual, like saying a “happy person” or “yellow apple,” then who needs and why should we be in the least interested in an unnatural, appendage that just places demands on us, as in “G-d commanding us” to do this and not do that. At best, the choice remains optional.

However, if our natural, inherent state is Divine – the Divine Image – then being religious or spiritual is not really a choice, just like being human is not a choice. Yes, we have the choice to act human or not, but that choice is basically whether we choose to be ourselves or defy our own nature.

What then are we to do with words like “religion” and “spirituality?” These words – like all descriptive words (including “secular,” “non-religious,” “scientific”) – are superimposed adjectives that describe a type of person, a choice, an option.

And therein lies its undoing. When selecting a school, a career or a place to vacation – non-inherent human experiences, or choosing from man-made menus, then we have many different adjectives and options to choose from. Being surrounded and inundated by so many such options, we unfortunately apply the same attitude to the spiritual/religious realm.

However the religious/spiritual journey is not an artificial add-on. It is the search for truth – for reality. And reality is not a superimposed state. Being real is not an action but a state of being; not an adjective but a noun.

So though there are numbers of people whose religion is superimposed series of rituals (hence, their puzzlement of someone embracing rituals they did not grow up with), their behavior in no way accurately depicts the spiritual/religious experience.

Equally, the rejection of religion by many progressive thinkers was due to their perception that religion and G-d are superimposed states. As our good friend Marx wrote:

“The more man puts into G-d, the less he retains within himself.”

He sees religion and G-d as outside forces, alien to mans’ individual sense of self. Or in the cynical exchange of another Jewish luminary (Woody Allen): A freethinking skeptic dismissingly asks her devout grandfather, “Grandpa, if you had to choose between G-d and the truth, which would you pick?” Without missing a beat the grandfather answers: “G-d”…

Time to return not to religion, not to spirituality, but to reality – one that has not been hijacked by so called religious people or discarded by so called non-religious people. Spirituality is not a ride on the cloud and religion is not a religious act – both are an expression of our inherent state of being.

The Torah is not talking about some superimposed search, as in, “oh, let’s do a little bible reading today.” It’s about the quintessential search for you own true self. The mitzvot are not rituals, as in mechanical disciplines, but profound instruments meant to help you discover and “connect” to your inner self – to your soul.

What the Torah is all about is that we each have a soul in the “Divine Image”, and that soul is the essence of your being. Every aspect of life is driven by its inner energy. “Not on bread alone that man lives, but by all that comes out of G-d’s mouth.”

So what’s the story: Are religion and spirituality one and the same or not? Depends on how you define these terms. If they are both the human discovery of self than they are synonymous.

Spirituality in other words is not just for the mystically oriented, just as living a Divine life is not just for theologians. It is not only for the so-called “spiritual types.” It is the journey of every soul on earth, and it is experienced through the mitzvot – soulful rituals. The difference between people is how the journey manifests itself. For some it may take on the shape of an overtly mystical/spiritual orientation, for others the soul experience is through the arts. For everyone the soul speaks through love. [The various manifestation of the soul’s journey deserves a column of its own – for a future date].

This is what I meant in last week’s article by a “new religion;” new as in different than the distorted, superimposed, unnatural version, that we have wrongly embraced or rejected.

Perhaps that is the religion of yesterday and that of tomorrow – one that is not an adjective but a noun.

This is the challenge of our times; the challenge facing the so-called battle between science and religion, church and state; the moment of truth facing Zionism and all the other isms as we enter the 21st century and have a more sophisticated understanding in the nature of reality.

Above all the path to truth and reality has always been through the vehicle called bittul – humility, modesty and selflessness. That is a prerequisite for all people searching for truth, scientist or layman, religious or secular.

I submit that we rename the quest for transcendence. Instead of calling it the religious journey, the spiritual odyssey, the ethereal voyage, let us call it: The search for REALITY. Yes just plain reality.

The polls should add a new question to audiences:

Choose from the following options:

I aspire to be:





Don’t know.

That would sure put things in stark context.

Because reality is one or the other: It’s either real or it’s not.


Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
The Meaningful Life Center