Religion today: Themes and issues
Religion today: Themes and issues

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Religion today: Themes and issues

1.8 Religion and spirituality

A good example of polysemy can be found in the different ways in which people regard the terms ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, and this is the subject of the first exercise below.


Give some thought for a moment to the words ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. What do you understand by these terms? Is there any difference between them? If so, in what way are they different and why? How much depends on your perception of religion (positive or negative) and your perception of spirituality (positive or negative)?


In the latter part of the twentieth century some people came to prefer the term ‘spirituality’ to religion, and started to use spirituality to denote a particular understanding of religious and spiritual matters. For many people in the West, ‘religion’ became a term with negative connotations – institutionalized, hierarchical, patriarchal, oppressive, ‘out of touch’, worldly – that is to say, whatever they disliked or disapproved of in their experience or perception of ‘conventional’ religion. Spirituality, by comparison, became a positive term, perceived as a personal, intuitive, experiential involvement with the divine or supernatural. So, spirituality is thought of by some people as ‘purer’ than religion. Increasingly, people voice such sentiments as ‘you can be religious without being spiritual, and spiritual without being religious’, or ‘religion is about boundaries; spirituality is about lack of boundaries’. Spirituality has thus become a word with a number of meanings, appropriated both by those who are within or on the peripheries of an identifiable religion (such as Christianity) and those who, although non-aligned (i.e. not formally attached to any particular religious group), perceive themselves to be ‘spiritual’ or involved in spiritual activity by virtue of their world-views and lifestyles.

There are, of course, a great many people for whom religion continues to have very positive connotations, and who would regard the idea of spirituality divorced from religion as puzzling, if not absurd. You simply need to be aware of the different uses and understandings of these terms, and how they are employed in particular contexts.


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