Religion, Spirituality, or Both?
01 Jun 2010


I am the oldest of five children. My siblings, their families, and I all remain active in the “practice” of our Catholic faith. Of my eleven cousins on my mother’s side all but two also remain active in the “practice” of the Catholic faith. We are also all active members of our parish communities. How unusual is this in our world today? VERY.

When my adult friends who grew up in Philadelphia tell stories of their childhood and provide a landmark of the area from which they come, they do not give the name of a suburb or a street, but rather the name of their childhood parish. Even today, when I encounter other adults from Philadelphia, they often locate each other by their parish. How unusual is this? VERY.

In February 2009, the Pew Forum published a report of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted in the Summer of 2007 with a representative sample of more than 35,000 adults in the United States. Some of the key findings are these:

  • More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion, or no religion at all.
  • The number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children.

Couple these statistics with a poll described in USA Today by LifeWay Research that was conducted in August 2009 and released in April 2009. The key findings of this survey of 1,200 people are:

  • 72% of millennials, those between the ages of 18 and 29, report being more spiritual than religious
  • 65% rarely or never pray with others; 38% almost never pray by themselves
  • 65% rarely or never attend worship services

If we define religious people as those who belong to a particular faith tradition and are members of a specific community of worship, we might define those who are spiritual as those who have faith but are independent of any one faith tradition. It seems that this distinction is becoming more prominent and pronounced.

I propose that spirituality and religion are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they have an important correlation. Religion is understood to be an organization, indeed an institution. Some religions such as Catholicism have a hierarchical structure, while others have more “local” management. Religions have a particular theology and doctrine (an understanding of God) as well as an ecclesiology (an understanding of church or who we are together). Religions also differ in their various forms of worship. Some have highly stylized rituals while others have rather free planning or no particular ritual at all.

In our Western culture, we have canonized independence (see Habits of the Heart, Individualism and Commitment in American Life by Robert N. Bellah et al.). Many people are resistant to any membership in an organized religion or faith tradition. In addition, other cultural values, often lifted up as ideal in the media and advertising, get in the way of religious practice – Sunday as the one day to sleep in and catch up on other tasks, workaholism, and denial of spiritual desires in exchange for meeting other material needs.

People have also turned away from religion because of the crises and scandals in various traditions, as well as particular teachings that are seen as problematic. For those who believe in God, they may turn to a more privatized spirituality.

I like to define spirituality as the particular way the Spirit (breath) of God breathes in us. This particular spirit provides a framework for our lives. This metaphor has four sides: Who is God, who are we? How, for whom, and for what do we pray? How, whom, and what do we love? How do we discern the choices of our lives? (You might want to reflect on your answers to these questions.)

I propose that religion and spirituality need to be seen as complementary. Religion is actually rooted in the shared spirituality of its members.

In his book, The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser suggests “four non-negotiable essentials” of spirituality. Though he names these as essentials of Christian spirituality, I believe they are applicable to any religion:

1. Personal prayer and personal morality
2. Knowing and doing of social justice
3. Mellowness of heart
4. A community that is constitutive of worship

Where religion is lacking in spirituality, there is simply rule-keeping out of a perceived obligation. Where spirituality is lacking in religion, a kind of narcissism may be born. Both spirituality and religion provide the individual with a way to God even if in a different dynamic. Thus, it is never really a question of either/or but always a question of both/and.
It may be that my family and the folks who are from Philadelphia have known that all along.

Sr. Sallie Latkovich, C.S.J., is the director of the Bible Study and Travel Program at Catholic Theological Union.

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