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Spiritual or religious: What's the difference?

(This post originally appeared HERE in SDGLN media partner Gay San Diego.)

As a psychotherapist, I know psychology can only take you so far. It can’t answer questions like “Why am I here?,” “Is there a God or Goddess?” or “What is my purpose in this life?” Counseling is good with stuff like “Should I stay in this relationship?” and “Why is my self-esteem so low?” But in all honesty, there are big-picture questions that are much more in the realm of spirituality and its best “frenemy,” religion.

At cocktail parties, I sometimes hear people talking about their “spiritual path” as a source of peace, comfort and insight. But what is a spiritual path anyway? And is it the same as a path based on religion?

Spiritual or religious: what’s the difference?

This is a controversial question, with devotees of each side arguing passionately against the other. Let’s look at each to see how they overlap and how they differ.

Many wise people say there is no definitive definition of spirituality. Given that, let’s come up with a working definition: Spirituality is about a process of transformation; it’s an internal experience that is usually not easily put into words. It’s more experiential whereas you feel it but it’s hard to talk about or explain.

For some, spirituality and religion are a nice combo. They find the structure of religion creates a container in which they can explore their spirituality. They find that the brother and sisterhood of communal worship helps create a space where a spiritual experience is more likely to happen.

Other people have the opposite experience: seeing spirituality as separate from religious institutions. It’s an internal experience, not about getting together with other people. For some, spirituality excludes religion. In this paradigm, religion represents the organized institutions that press people into a mold and demand money for the favor.

Spirituality blends humanistic psychology with mystical traditions and eastern religions, and is also associated with mental health. It can be a path to finding purpose and meaning in life.

Now let’s look at religion. For many in our community, churches and organized religion have been powerful resources in their personal growth. Author T.M. Luhrmann said, “one of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years is that going to church weekly is good for you. Religious attendance boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life. … Frequent churchgoers had larger social networks, more contact with, more affection for, and more kinds of social support from those people than their unchurched counterparts.”

Luhrmann also said, “Any faith demands that you experience the world as more than just what is material and observable. … Those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier — at least, as judged by a standardized psychiatric scale. Increasingly, other studies bear out this observation that the capacity to imagine a loving God vividly leads to better health.”

Wow, that’s an awful lot of good stuff associated with going to church. Food for thought, no?

Just to make it even more interesting, I find the relationship between physical and mental illness and spirituality and religion is an intriguing one, and not easily quantified. I remember an issue of TIME magazine that cited studies showing that people who were unknowingly prayed for recovered more quickly from disease than those who were not prayed for. What can we make of that?

Psychology is more of an art than a science; the same is true for spirituality and religion. However, the lack of empirical proof doesn’t mean that they are not powerful. I invite you to be curious about both spirituality and religion. Experiment with them: see what works for you and feel free to move on if it doesn’t.

I would like to include a personal note here. Since moving to San Diego in 1998, I have over the years found fellowship and support of my own spiritual practice at Metropolitan Community Church, Unity Fellowship Church, Unitarian Universalist Church and Universal Spirit Center. I thank them for being there and for being supportive of my own spiritual path.

Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Michael is currently accepting new clients. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.