• Character Clearinghouse Logo

Differentiating Spirituality from Religion

Patrick G. Love
Contributing Editor

Religion and spirituality are often mistakenly understood as synonymous terms. At a recent conference I presented a paper on the interaction of spiritual identity and sexual orientation in lesbian and gay college students. One of the first comments from the discussant of the paper was that I seemed to imply that all lesbian and gay people were religious or interested in religion, when, in his experience, that was not true. I agreed with him on his latter assertion, but not on the implication he read into the paper. What’s more, in the paper I had specifically pointed out that spirituality and religion were not the same thing and my focus was on spirituality. And while I would argue that all people are spiritual to some degree, I recognize that not all are religious. I can also say that I have met more than a few religious people who were severely deficient in the area of spiritual development. In fact, I ended my first column (entitled “Spirituality Comes to College”) for this section of the CollegeValues.org web site with the statement that “we . . . assert that spirituality is not the same thing as religion, though the two can be related.” I have found that since then, merely making that assertion is not enough.

The comment made by the discussant after having already addressed the concern in the paper reiterated to me this significant challenge of doing work involving the spiritual development of college students. That is the strongly held societal assumption that somehow religion and spirituality are synonymous; that even when pains are taken to differentiate the two concepts, people cannot help but associate them. The discussant was not the first person to exhibit this assumption. He was merely the latest. In fact, our research with lesbian and gays students had to constantly overcome the challenge that these students as well saw religion and spirituality as the same thing. Given what a source of pain and anguish religion had been in their lives, many simply did not want to talk about notions of spirituality. So, my purpose in this essay is to discuss and differentiate the concepts of spirituality and religion and consider implications for those working with college students. I begin by comparing formal definitions of the two concepts. I then go beyond the formal definitions and address the differences as experienced in lived reality. Finally, I end by considering the research that has been done on college student experience and behavior and how that might be reconceptualized if religion and spirituality are differentiated.

Definitions of Religion and Spirituality

Let me begin with religion. According to the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1979), religion:

  • is a concern over what exists beyond the visible world (operating through faith and intuition, as opposed to reason);
  • generally includes the idea of the existence of a single being, a group of beings, an eternal principle, or transcendental spiritual entity that has created the world, that governs it, that controls its destinies, or that intervenes occasionally in the natural course of its history;
  • is a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects; and
  • is the idea that ritual, prayer, spiritual exercises, or certain principles and conduct arise naturally as a human response to the belief in such a being or eternal principle.

This straightforward definition accounts for the major religions in American society, except perhaps Unitarian Universalism which specifically eschews a common set of beliefs. But the rest of the major religions (i.e., Christianity, Judaism, Islam) all have a concern with such things as the afterlife, involve a belief in God/Allah, include a shared set of beliefs and practices (especially as recorded in the Bible of Koran), and are expressed through rituals, prayers, and practices.

Spirituality is a concept whose definition is a bit more diffuse and with less agreement regarding its meaning. Several years ago, a colleague and I (Love & Talbot, 1999) synthesized a number of definitions of spirituality taken from the literature of theology, social science, and other helping fields (e.g., nursing, counseling, social work). According to that synthesis, we asserted that spirituality:

  • is an internal process of seeking personal authenticity, genuineness, and wholeness as an aspect of identity development;
  • is the process of continually transcending one’s current locus of centricity (e.g., egocentricity);
  • is the development of a greater connectedness to self and others through relationships and union with community;
  • is the process of deriving meaning, purpose, and direction in one’s life; and
  • involves an increasing openness to exploring a relationship with an intangible and pervasive power or essence or center of value that exists beyond human existence and rational human knowing.

Comparing the Definitions

On the surface, one can see areas of overlap in the two definitions. The main area of overlap is that in both religion and spirituality there is a concern for that which exists beyond the corporeal, rational, and visible universe. Both attempt to provide a means for understanding or knowing that which lies beyond our physical, time-bound world. One aspect of the “beyond” is the notion of a supreme being. In religion, the being or being(s) is identified. In spirituality, there can be an openness to a supreme being, even perhaps a belief that something exists beyond what we can see, but also a tentativeness about just whom or what that is. A spiritually developed religious person may very well identify that entity as God. Whereas a spiritually developed nonreligious person may have no means (or no need for that matter) of defining that which lies beyond rational knowing. In fact, it is this notion of “beyond the natural world,” that is the supernatural, that differentiates the concept of spiritual development from personal development. When discussing spirituality, the term supernatural is used explicitly in the sense of that which exists beyond the natural world. Issues of deity and divine power are issues of religion.

Other areas of apparent overlap actually differ in character. One such area is the issue of action. Both definitions have a focus in activity. However, in religion the action is embodied in rituals, prayers, and exercises, whereas each of the descriptors of spirituality includes words that connote action and movement, including process, transcending, developing, deriving, and exploring. Closely related to action is the static-dynamic aspect of the two concepts. Sharon Parks is the author of “Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith” (2000) and she, like James Fowler before her, speaks of faith development as the central aspect of spiritual development. Of course, faith is another word with multiple meanings, especially in the context of religion. Parks recognizes that faith can be a negatively charged word and this differentiates the notion of faith from belief. While faith development is a dynamic and active process of meaning-making that undergoes transformation across an individual’s life span, a belief is more static and is accepted as true, resulting in a condition where the holder is free from doubt. In the context of this discussion, spirituality is the dynamic process of faith development, whereas religion provides adherents with beliefs. Parks argues that, at its core, faith (or spirituality) is a process of meaning-making, which is the process of making sense out of the activities of life, seeking patterns, order, coherence, and relation between and among the disparate elements of human living. It is the process of discovering and creating connections among experiences and events. That is, faith is trying to make sense of the “big picture,” trying to find an overall sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life.

Additionally, both definitions make reference to external and internal dimensions. However, religion begins as, and is for the most part, an external phenomenon. Its primary concern is external to the visible world, it is centered on the existence of a supreme being or eternal principle, and includes an agreed upon set of beliefs and practices that are external to the individual. Religion can exist separate and apart from the individual, not so for spirituality. Spirituality begins and is perpetually an internal process, though there is the moving outward from oneself through self-transcendence, connectedness to self and others, and relationship with that which lies beyond the known and knowable world. In a way, the inner world expands to include the outer world. Parks views spirituality to be more of a personal rather than a public search for meaning, transcendence, wholeness, purpose, and “apprehension of spirit (or Spirit) as the animating essence at the core of life.” She describes spirituality as both immanent (within the individual) and transcendent (beyond the individual). That is, in the experience and activity of faith, it both lies beyond the range of ordinary perception and experience and, thus, is ultimately unknowable, and it remains within us and the particulars of our experience.

Beyond the Comparisons

In these two sets of definitions, one can also see the potential for great resonance, interaction, and overlap between these two concepts. Religion, with its beliefs, practices, rituals, prayers, and spiritual exercises, can be, and is for many people, a wonderful means through which one can explore one’s spirituality and develop spiritually. It provides a language, a context, and often a community through which an individual can pursue their spiritual journey. The problem, of course, is that these definitions only tell a part of the story of religion and spirituality as lived reality. In so many instances, religions and people acting in the name of some religion have behaved in ways that are antithetical to the notions of genuineness, wholeness, transcendence, and connectedness that are expressed in the definition of spirituality. Human history is stained with the blood of people oppressed, abused, and murdered in the name of some religion, its supreme being, or its doctrines. Although not an expert in all religions, I cannot think of a single religion that does not fall into this category. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism have all condoned or otherwise supported barbaric, anti-spiritual actions. It seems to me that this occurs in part when beliefs and practices, which may, in fact, have begun as spiritually grounded exercises, mutate into dogma and doctrines. The dynamic spiritual aspect of the religion of early adherents was lost or repressed. Religion and spirituality became disconnected.

Differentiated Notions of Religion and Spirituality Applied to College Students

Differentiating between the notions of religion and spirituality have real consequences when we look at the development of traditional aged undergraduate students. For example, Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) found that most of the research done in the area of religious attitude change fell into two categories: general religiosity and religious activities. Most studies in the past 30 years have shown significant declines in religious attitudes, values, and behaviors. When religion and spirituality are considered one and the same one would think that spirituality as well was in decline. However, the specific practices often addressed in the research are church attendance, prayer, grace before meals, identification with a particular religious denomination, and beliefs in a supreme being. While some of these, it may be argued, relate to rejection of spirituality, most do not address issues of spirituality at all as defined above; they are merely simple external measures or practices associated with religion. So based on this type of research we cannot really say what changes have occurred within the realm of spirituality and spiritual development of college students.

There are, however, changes in students identified in the literature of the past 30 years not often associated with religion, but congruent with the propositions related to spirituality and spiritual development. These include a movement toward greater altruism, humanitarianism, and social conscience, more social, racial, ethnic, and political tolerance, greater support for the rights of individuals, and for gender equality, and being able to consider situations from beyond one’s own perspective (that is, transcending one’s locus of centricity). Each of these changes can be argued as being at least somewhat spiritual in nature. Additionally, viewed from the lens of spirituality, Chickering and Reisser’s (1993) notion of humanizing values within their vector of “Developing Integrity” takes on a distinctly spiritual tone.

In the earlier developmental stages, moral rules and religious teachings are interpreted literally. But if the stories are seen to contradict each other or if the teachings contradict life experience, literalism breaks down. New teachers may be found, but sooner or later, interpreters are bound to differ. As students deal with tensions between ancient traditions and new ideas, conformity and questioning, guilt and freedom, self-interest and unselfishness, they slowly recognize the need to take responsibility for defining their own positions, to commit to beliefs that ring true to their deepest selves, while remaining open and tolerant. (pp. 240-241)

This description reflects the definition of spirituality cited above in that, while developed within a community or tradition, spirituality is, ultimately, personal and idiosyncratic, and it is a process.


I think the implications are clear for those working with college students. First, we must reflect on our use of and meaning for the notions of religion and spirituality. Do we use them as if they were synonymous? Do we differentiate them in conversation and in practice? Do we challenge others in their use of the terms as synonymous?

Then we need to consider the impact of our assumptions on our work with and perceptions of our students. Do we assume that our church-going students are somehow more spiritually developed than our “troublemakers?” Do we recognize that a rejection of family religious beliefs and practices may, in fact, be a forward step in a student’s spiritual development? Do we recognize and respect non-religious avenues of spiritual development as authentic?

I believe for those interested in promoting spiritual development on campus, there is much value in preserving and promoting religious pluralism in higher education. That is, not separating and holding religion apart of student affairs, but welcoming in and supporting both multiple religious practices, but also nonreligious avenues of spiritual development.

Finally, I think another implication is the need for those working with college students to challenge them to differentiate between these two concepts. Conversations about the differences between the two can perhaps be a stimulus for a personal spiritual journey.

I invite you to contact me at patrick.love@nyu.edu with any feedback, comments, or critiques about this essay.


Chickering, A., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Love, P. G., & Talbot, D. (1999). Defining spiritual development: A missing consideration for student affairs. NASPA Journal, 37(1), 361-375.

Parks, S. (2000). Big questions, worthy dreams: Mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, purpose, and faith. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pascarella, E., & Terenzini, P. (1991). How college affects students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stein, J. (Ed.) (1979). The Random House dictionary of the English language. New York: Random House.