I recently studied a free Open University course on religion today. One of the bits of teaching in the course strongly asserted that the words ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ are, in fact, interchangeable…they basically say the same thing. To be fair, this is in the context of teaching on polysemy (one word having several different meanings according to context). We must appreciate that in the popular mind, and in our rapidly changing culture, these words have become important ways of expressing a difference in our ‘faith’ or ‘beliefs’. And especially so to those for whom the words matter as part of life rather than as a subject to teach.
‘Religion’ is seen as cold, dead, ritual, performance, part of the establishment, external, to be done in ancient ,cold buildings, with a bevy of ‘experts’ telling you what to think and do. By contrast, ‘spirituality’ is free, internal, life-giving, individual and anti-establishment. One is attractive and to be desired, the other is certainly not.
The 2011 Census has also highlighted a difference in the way we use the word ‘religion’. Humanists and atheists are once again running a high profile campaign (in the cities at least) to encourage us to not say we’re religious if we’re not.
The BBC ran a story because in a recent British Humanist Society (BHA) poll, 61% of people said they did belong to a religion, 65% said they weren’t religious. So people say they belong to a religion but some who do say they’re not religious. Once again, it depends on whose definition of ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ you use.
Many of the Christians I know would not consider Christianity to be a religion. They would define religion as people using laws, rules, rituals and performances to try to win God’s favour. Christians, they would argue, are people who know this doesn’t work, and that God sent Jesus to make a way back to God that didn’t involve religious observances, but rather an act of faith in a God who’s done something for us, rather than the other way round. They would draw a distinction between ‘faith’ (trusting in something God’s done for us) and ‘religion’ (trying to do things to win God over). Of course, once again this is a different use of the word ‘faith’ by people within the Christian community to the popular use of the word ‘faith’ as a synonym for ‘religion’ (as in ‘World Faiths’ or ‘World Religions’). Of course, people of ‘faith’ (if you get what I mean) often do things (rituals, sacred scriptures, good works) as part of their lives, but they would argue that these are the actions and results of being a Christian and not the things they’re doing to become a Christian…
In the letter written by Paul to the Christians at Rome, in the New Testament of the Bible this whole area gets a pretty thorough going over, with the difference between faith and religion/works pretty neatly spelled out.
I guess in discussion, articles and arguments one needs to always ask, “It depends what you mean by ‘faith’/’religion’/’spirituality’/’religious’/’belief’?” before you can even begin to believe that you’re having an intelligent conversation and talking about the same thing. It just isn’t as simple as ‘I am/I’m not’ as the BHA and the Census compilers seem to believein their own different ways.
- The BBC puts out two spurious reports about religion dying out, just before the Census. How strange (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- Survey calls into question faith (bbc.co.uk)