Ten Differences Between Religion and Spirituality

This is now the fourth post on the article of Dr. Gianni Zappalà, “Spirituality is the new black …and it has social impact!” Its source URL is

If you want to read the whole article, please click that URL.

Here is the portion of that article and my comments follow the article portion. The author’s words are in italics, mine are in ordinary roman.

The first part of this portion is a Table. Because the Table is not reproduced here it is arranged in phrases. The first phrase refers to religion, the second to spirituality. My reflection below tries to expand the meaning of these phrases for a better understanding, hopefully, of Dr. Zappala’s ideas.

Table 1 : Differences between Religion and Spirituality
Religion is described first before the comma (,), Spirituality is described after the comma.

1. Usually passed on from parent to child,
Usually discovered through life experience

2. An external system of beliefs and practices,
An internal system. of beliefs

3. Based on patterns of worship and ritual,
Worship and rituals may exist but vary by person

4. Tends to separate and exclude,
Generally connects and includes

5. Practiced in the public realm, e.g. institutions,
Practiced in the private and personal realm

6. Associated with church attendance,

May be part of informal groups & networks

7. Commitment to orthodox beliefs,

Higher levels of unorthodox beliefs

8. Behavioural,


9. Doctrinal, regulated and authoritarian,

Spontaneous, freely available and democratic

10. One-sided and imbalanced,

Holistic and balanced
(Source: Adapted from a range of texts and articles cited in this paper)

In part, these differences are seen to account for the widespread trend observed across the Western world of falling Church attendance and adherence to institutional forms of religion and the rise in popularity of spirituality as reflected in interest in Eastern-based religions, yoga, meditation, and other eclectic so-called ‘new age’ practices and beliefs. The reasons driving the rising interest in spirituality are examined in detail in a separate paper, but as one scholar has noted: 25

[R]eligion as a powerful influence in individual or societal life seems to be in trouble. On the other hand, spirituality has rarely enjoyed such a high profile, positive evaluation, and even economic success as it does… today.26

The polarization of views has led some to attempt to reconcile the constructs of religion and spirituality. This work, examined in the following section, is helpful in reaching a working definition of spirituality that can be applied to the business and organizational field.

Here are the footnotes to this section:
25 G. Zappalà, Spirituality is the new black…and it has a social impact! (Part II – Explaining the increased interest in spirituality), forthcoming CSI Background Paper
26 Sandra M Schneiders, „Religion and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals, or Partners?., The Santa Clara Lectures, Santa Clara University, 2000, p.1.

Here is my reflection:

Dr. Zappala gives 10 contrasts between religion and spirituality. I explain briefly each one. I give first the wordings of Dr. Zappala, then I give my comment or expansion of meaning, illustrating from my own experience.

1. Usually passed on from parent to child

Usually discovered through life experience

Religion is usually passed on from parent to child, like an inheritance. Whereas spirituality is something that one discovers through personal experience in life. My religion is Christianity because my parents sported also this religion. I discovered my spirituality when I read the works of John of the Cross and the Hindu philosophers on yoga. This was all by myself, without the knowledge or encouragement of my parents.

2. An external system of beliefs and practices

An internal ‘system’ of beliefs

Religion is composed of a system of beliefs and practices which can be seen by other people. That is why these comprise an external system. Whereas in spirituality the system is internal, it is not seen by other people because the belief system is only in our head. In Christianity there is a creed which I memorized, the Apostles’ Creed. There were external rituals I went through: baptism, confirmation, communion, etc. In spirituality the beliefs I hold are not on paper. They are in my mind only. The beliefs are not set, as in religion. They are not to be memorized. I believe I am surrounded by spirit beings but I do not make a public announcement of this.

3. Based on patterns of worship and ritual

Worship and rituals may exist but vary by person

Religion is bound to a pattern of worship and ritual and this pattern is the same for all. Whereas in spirituality persons may worship and have rituals but each person worships in his own way and does the rituals in his own way also. In the branch of Christianity where I belong the manner of worship is the Mass, and the pattern of the Mass is the same no matter where I am in the world. There is the introduction, the readings, the sermon, the offertory, the consecration, the communion and the ending. This pattern does not change in the east or in the west, in the north or south of the earth. In spirituality I worship God but in the silence of my heart and the pattern is up to me. I may worship him while standing, while walking, even while sleeping. There is no fixed posture.

4. Tends to separate and exclude

Generally connects and includes

This is something that up to now religions are burdened with, separatism and exclusivity. There is always the idea in religion that this or that religion is the right one and is the only sure way to God. Christians separate themselves from Muslims. Even churches within Christianity separate themselves from one another. Whereas in spirituality we extend the hand of fellowship to whoever has the same spirit as we have. As a Christian I am separate from a non-Christian. But as a spiritual person I relate with all those who have the same spiritual inclinations as I have.

5. Practiced in the public realm, e.g. institutions

Practiced in the private and personal realm

Religion is practiced in institutions, in big organizations. Spirituality is practiced in private, in my personal life, even when I share it with others. Christianity has many institutions, big church organizations, with hierarchies. Spirituality has no such institutions. There is no superior person in spirituality giving instructions to others what to do. There is no hierarchy or grades of authority. Each one is an authority to himself. As a Christian I have priests and bishops above me. As a spiritual person, there is only God and myself and others on the same level with me.

6. Associated with Church attendance

May be part of informal groups & networks

In religion there is church attendance. And this is expected to be regular, once a week, for me on a Sunday. In spirituality we have gatherings but these are informal. We have gatherings around the Internet, away from the traditional church.

7. Commitment to orthodox beliefs

Higher levels of unorthodox beliefs

In religion there are beliefs to be adhered to, otherwise if we do not adhere to these beliefs we become heretics and if we separate we become schismatics. We are committed to hold on to these beliefs, even if we cannot understand these beliefs, like the belief in the Trinity. In spirituality we are free to hold any belief, even if from the viewpoint of churches these are unorthodox. An example will make this clear. My church holds officially the belief that the human person is made up of body and soul only. This is orthodox belief. But as a spiritual person I hold the unorthodox belief that the human person is made up of body, soul and spirit.

8. Behavioural


This is something that I may interpret differently from Dr. Zappala. But I will try to elucidate on this. In religion there is pattern of behavior that we just have to go through. And we cannot do away with this pattern or change it. For example in my church the pattern of behavior is baptism by pouring of water on the forehead. This cannot be changed. You cannot experiment with other forms of liquid, like juice, or pour the water on the feet. It has to be on the forehead. Whereas in spirituality we are free to experiment. Maybe immersion in perfumed warm water is better as a form of spiritual relaxation.

9. Doctrinal, regulated and authoritarian

Spontaneous, freely available and democratic

This has been touched already in the above enumeration but maybe this has been added for purposes of clarification. In religion we have a group composed of theologians who regulate the doctrines in that religion. And they always base their speculations on the authority of the Bible or of their tradition. In spirituality we do not have such a group. Anybody can teach anybody else and we do not base our teaching on the authority of a book or tradition. We base our teaching on our experience and what works well for us.

10. One-sided and imbalanced

Holistic and balanced

In religion Dr. Zappala says that it is one-sided and imbalanced. Maybe what he means is that the emphasis is on the soul and its salvation. Never mind if the body of the member in our religion has no food or is sick, as long as his soul is sure to get to heaven. And so we have many members of Christianity who are deep in the lowest poverty with leaders high in the abundance of goods. Who cares? This is how God ordained it. In spirituality we cannot do this. We are a compassionate class of human beings. We care for the body as well as the soul. We even care for the environment.

I hope I have done justice to Dr. Zappala’s enumeration in his Table of Contrasts. Going through it and adding my comments and reflection enlightened me more about what spirituality really is. In religion I cannot do this, there is a set of ideas I have to go through and adhere to. In spirituality I am free to add here and there, comment here and there.

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