What is Spirituality?

by Alex

in Spirituality 101 | For Beginners

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While it’s hard to give “spirituality” a clear definition (even Webster’s can’t), I’m going to try to provide an overview of the main elements involved (as best as I can tell).


The root of the word spirituality is “spirit” which is defined in Webster’s as follows:

Main Entry: spir·it
Pronunciation: \ˈspir-ət\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French or Latin; Anglo-French, espirit, spirit, from Latin spiritus, literally, breath, from spirare to blow, breathe
Date: 13th century


1: an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms
2a: a supernatural being or essence: holy spirit
2b: soul

I left off the some of the other definitions that have to do with alcohol and ghosts, since they aren’t particularly relevant here (and as a rule we never mix booze and the undead).


In a nutshell, spirituality deals with issues of inner beliefs and feelings, and is closely associated with religion and philosophy. Its various forms hope to shed light on the human experience of reality, purpose, and the meaning of life (in the same neighborhood, uh… maybe really zip-code, as metaphysics). It hopes to answer big questions like: “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “What does it mean?” “Where are we going?” (and a shout-out to Alan Watts, “Is it serious?”).

People practice spirituality (in whatever form) because they’re looking for something – “inner peace,” “enlightenment,” “success,” etc. – and for many it is a lifestyle and an aspect of identity.

The end “goal” of spirituality is a type of altered or idealized higher state of consciousness that usually conforms with whatever spiritual tradition a person might subscribe to. NOTE: Many people, particularly in the West, mix and match elements of differing spiritual traditions.


The words spiritual and religious are often viewed as two sides of the same coin, and some unfortunately use the words interchangeably, so it’s important to highlight a few distinctions.

Spirituality (Non-religious)

By non-religious spirituality, people generally mean a spirituality in which a person is not guided by the framework of a particular religion/belief-system, and is conducting a more personal “inner search.” It is thought of as more individualistic, and more open to a variety of ideas and influences.

It’s a mix and match of borrowed ideas and personal insights or revelations. So for these non-religious spiritual seekers, this “journey” is very fluid, as they feel there is no single right path to follow. These people would general describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (see Newsweek/Beliefnet chart below).

Spirituality (Religious)

Religious spirituality usually delves into deepening and strengthening the faith one has in a particular religion/belief-system. The big questions about life are sought to be answered within the confines of said belief system.

You might ask yourself, what then is the difference between religious spirituality and being simply religious?

The easiest way to answer would be to say that someone who is simply religious is more concerned with observing their particular traditions and rituals. They do this either to make themselves feel better (or more connected) through token gestures of piety, or to fit in with their peers and family. For the typical adherent, it’s less about actively searching for answers to fundamental questions and more about going through the motions of group worship (though I’m sure many adherents would reject that categorization).

So when discussing religious spirituality, I’m talking about two types. The first encompasses the mystical traditions (Islam’s Sufism, Judaism’s Kabbalah, Hinduism’s Vedanta, Christian Mysticism, etc.), in which the person is in search of an ultimate reality, a spiritual truth or God (again, within the framework of their particular belief system).

The second relates to those looking for answers from their religion in a more introverted and informal way. Not unlike the non-religious spiritual seeker, they are looking for something they don’t feel they’ve found yet in their main religion.

They’re not satisfied with the superficial answers they’ve heard or read all their lives, but they’re not ready to altogether abandon their original belief system either. So they end up becoming more of an amalgam. They dismiss any negatives or inconsistencies in their belief system, and focus and expand upon whatever seems most positive to them.

From a Newsweek/Beliefnet poll on spirituality:



That’s the quick and dirty overview. Obviously, thousands of books have been written on this subject, and you can spend your whole life delving into the intricacies.

In future posts, we’ll be digging more deeply into these and related topics.

Clearly, there are many viewpoints on this subject, and people may disagree with some (or all) of what I’ve written. What’s your take on this? Let me know.

Photo: alicepopkorn

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Posted on Sunday, July 5th, 2009

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February 19, 2010 at 12:44 pm

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Cheryl Delaney July 6, 2009 at 8:18 am

Great post Alex. Well written.

Nicole July 6, 2009 at 9:18 am

Very well worded and easy to understand, I will be sure to pass it on to those you need to be schooled ;)

cheri Lootens July 6, 2009 at 10:00 am

Great article. As an “agnostic but deeply spiritual” person, it’s often hard to explain or “translate” this to someone who’s head’s steeped in the religious dogma or their upbringing or choice.

Alex July 6, 2009 at 10:05 am

@Nicole – Thank you for the kinds words. I really appreciate it. I tried to keep it as simple as possible (but as Einstein said: “not too simple”).

Alex July 6, 2009 at 10:11 am

@Cheri – Hi Cheri. You’re absolutely right. It’s a challenge to try and explain spirituality in a clear and coherent manner. Most of the explanations are either way too New Age-y and confusing. Or they’re written from the POV of someone who wants to equate it unequivocally to religion (either pro or con). It’s not easy to strike a balance.

As far as “translating” it, it all depends on how ideas are presented, and how defensive someone is to begin with. People like to keep their world beliefs intact, and are generally resistant to change or to embracing new ideas.

John Reilly July 6, 2009 at 10:25 am

Great work Alex. Nicely thought out.

Jill Giordani July 6, 2009 at 11:58 am

Hi alex. I liked how you separated out the different types of religiously spiritual people. Its often not really addressed.

Alex July 6, 2009 at 12:02 pm

@ John – thanks!

@ Jill – it’s true, the distinction are not usually properly made. And to be frank, I only really touched upon them. I’ll address them in more detail in subsequent posts.

Pete July 6, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Good work Alex. To be honest, I never really understood what was meant by being spiritual, and didn’t really care. You’ve given some food for thought here, but I am comfortable in being non-religious, and still don’t care about being spiritual. I think it’s a lot of baloney because noone will ever have the answers.

daratheresa July 6, 2009 at 2:09 pm

great article; well written and explains things very clearly. i often get puzzled looks when i say to someone “spiritual but not religious”…

Alex July 6, 2009 at 2:46 pm

@Pete – Hi Pete, thanks for the feedback. This kind of stuff is all a matter of personal preference, and its primary influence comes from how one grows up. If your family is super-religious, chances are you might be too. If they weren’t, they you might not be either. (but obviously I’m generalizing, and there are all kinds of exceptions).

Alex July 6, 2009 at 2:48 pm

@daratheresa – Its common since many people associated the two so closely. Thank you for the comment, I appreciate it.

mike July 6, 2009 at 4:24 pm

I think a key word I saw Alex was “defensive” in one of you answers, many people are uncomfortable discussing this subject because they are unsure or unwilling to delve in to their understanding of the subject matter. To me equating Spirituality is a close kinship with nature as with the native Americans, religion, at least where I am from, seems more judgmental individually where hell and damnation is what the “flock” is feed, bringing forth an emotionally charged spirit. I.E. Guilt confessionals,saved as in I have sinned and piously treated. I think you tread that mine field very well..

cdkleitch July 6, 2009 at 5:44 pm

nice, but brief, overview. spirituality is as wonderfully diverse as humanity itself. A terrific post.

Alex July 6, 2009 at 7:04 pm

@mike – Hi Mike, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’re right, the word itself means different things to different people. Most commonly its associated with the airy-fairyness of new-age hippies. So that’s why I tried parsing the term a little into its different variations, and touching upon them a little. With respect to the “judgmental” facets (guilt, sin, damnation, etc.), they have been used throughout history as tool for wielding power over the masses. Whats encouraging is that its effectiveness is beginning to wane with each subsequent generation (at least in the West). “Fire and brimstone” ain’t what it used to be :)

Alex July 6, 2009 at 7:04 pm

@cdkleitch – thank you so much for the kind words!!

Mark Pogue July 6, 2009 at 7:54 pm

A well written article, Alex, but as an atheist I honestly think spirituality is nothing more than deep thought. The word, “spirituality” itself attempts to draw a conclusion that soul or spirit exists. I cannot concur.that such things exist.

Alex July 6, 2009 at 9:18 pm

@Mark Pogue – Hi Mark, thanks for your comment. I personally think spirituality and deep thought can go hand in hand depending on the issue. This is a really interesting discussion.

And I see your point with respect to the word “spirituality”, that it implies a “spirit”. (And many times in philosophical discourse, the terms can get in the way, since each philosopher may use the same word differently.)

But I’m curious for the purposes of discussion, from your POV how do we then define the “spark” (or whatever one calls it) that gives us life? (and I mean not from a religious standpoint, I mean literally as opposed to being dead?)

Thanks again Mark :)

Mark Pogue July 7, 2009 at 5:26 am

@ Alex
If there is a “spark” that gives us life, then all creatures have it.
If you’re eluding to the age old idea that humans have something special that other animals do not, then I would only accredit that to being our time in evolution. Humans weren’t always the king of the hill.
If you really want to be amazed, learn and observe other animals that evolve and adapt to situations. The gray squirrel has a very small brain but yet is a great puzzle solver . Does he have a spirit?

Don’t assume we have a spirit or soul based on myths. If we relied totally on mythology then we would still believe think that our planet was flat.

In my opinion, there are no spirits, souls, ghosts, gods, etc.

Alex July 7, 2009 at 7:08 am

@ Mark Pogue – Hi Mark, you are correct, I’m referring to the “spark” that is in all creatures (not just humans). So for the purposes of discussion, I’m leaving out anything to do with mythology (floating souls, angels, ghosts, etc.)

Again, “spirit” is a loaded word because for some people it implies a more mythological view.

I’d love to hear your opinion of the “spirit” with respect to differentiating between something that’s alive versus dead. One has to think there is “something” animating a living thing, that is not there when it dies.

In your opinion, how do we define that?

Reggie July 7, 2009 at 10:16 am

Great article! I thought it was pretty clear, and explained the nuances.

Kat July 7, 2009 at 1:39 pm

As I grow older (I’m 62), I rely less and less on my religious affiliation ’s(Roman Catholic) dogma and doctrine to nourish my spirit. I began the practice of centering prayer a number of years ago, and that has done more to foster my relationship with God than any of the sacraments which my church holds dear and to which its hierarchy says I must adhere.

ReddyK - The Atma Jyoti Blog July 7, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Alex, this is a well thought through introduction to the concept of spirituality.

I would add that my concept of true spirituality is where one really does something about ones beliefs, where there is an attempt to KNOW, rather than settle for a set of mentally satisfying beliefs. This requires discipline, and an aligning of the life to the principles in which one believes. And as one grows spiritually, perspectives will of course change, as more is discovered, realized, until one is Realized.

Keep up the good work.

Alex July 7, 2009 at 6:21 pm

@Kat. thanks for sharing. I’d read a little bit about centering prayer. It’s almost like a type of meditation that was adopted from buddhism into some catholic circles in the 70’s. It’s interesting stuff. How do you practice it? (roughly).

Alex July 7, 2009 at 6:33 pm

@ReddyK – very interesting. So to be clear, for you, an important distinction about whether someone is spiritual or not, is whether they’re an active learner.

I would agree with that. I think active learning is a prerequisite of spiritual growth. (I know, I know, that sounds obvious. – LOL)

Chances are, if you’re passive and not actively pursuing learning, you wouldn’t be tempted to call yourself “spiritual” anyway.

And let me be clear, when I say “learning” I mean a broad foundation of different philosophical and spiritual teachings on the human condition (not just one particular niche philosophy).

Thanks for your comment :)

James July 7, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Great blog friend… there is truly a large amount of inspirational content here, speaking of the blog as a whole…

Alex July 7, 2009 at 8:07 pm

@ James – thanks. Your kind words mean a lot :)

I also stopped by your blog too. Those photos of Joanne Kustra’s Bohemia are very cool.

Gil Malonzo July 8, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Great post Alex. I commend you for your honesty and courage. Spirituality is a subject that is difficult to tackle. Unless, of course, if you’re a satirist like me. People have different experiences. We can’t deny or favor one’s personal view of reality over another. We can only laugh at them. Kidding aside, I believe that whatever you (and you readers) believe, you are right. Nothing really matters. In the end, we all die. : )

Alex July 8, 2009 at 10:06 pm

@Gil Malonzo. LOL – how nihilistic of you :)

I think you really might like Arthur Schopenhauer. 19th cent German philosopher – wrote The World as Will and Representation. Look him up.

Not only is he thought of as one of the greatest German philosophers, he’s thought as one of its greatest writers period. His writing is funny, clear (as opposed to a lot of philosophers), and I think you’ll like him very much.

I don’t want to write 2000 words on him right this sec, but here’s something I wrote a while ago:

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), if you’re unfamiliar with him, is a very interesting German philosopher. If anything, his messed up personal life is just as interesting as his philosophy – in fact, Schopenhauer’s mother issues inspired some of Freud’s work. In the early 1800s, he was one of he first philosophers to introduce Eastern Philosophy (Buddhism & Hinduism) to Western Europe, and probably the first to meld it into a system of thinking (though its still debatable).

His most famous work is “The World as Will and Representation” which is incredibly well written and clear (for a philosopher). It’s also pretty funny, since he’s got a crotchety, acerbic personality, and loves to crap on other philosophers of the time, especially Hegel. But don’t let the book title fool you. There’s a funny (yet irritating) habit many German philosophers have where they take a normal word that we’re all familiar with, and give it a completely different meaning that’s not at all intuitive. In this instance the word “Will” and “Representation” have very little to do with any definition in the dictionary. To be fair, it probably also has to do with the translation. Anyway, his books and essays are very enjoyable.

Reggie Uecker July 10, 2009 at 2:02 pm

I read a little bit about Schopenhauer. Seems very interesting.

Alex July 10, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Oh good. His writing style is very, very good, and funny.

gweneet August 2, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Nice overview. I think these terms are confusing for people, and though some people are familiar with them, there are a lot of people who are not. And if we are to have a discussion, we need to define the terms. (Also: Yey, Alan Watts shout-out!)

Terry C June 16, 2011 at 2:31 pm

I was trying to get a better understanding of the difference between religion and spirituality.I’m in a spiritual not religious 12 step program and I thought I had an understanding of what that meant but it was hard for me to explain.You really clarified it for me.Thank you so much

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