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Religion and spirituality: What do the terms mean?

Baltimore's Inner Harbor
Baltimore's Inner Harbor
Photo by Jacqueline Munoz

Religion. Spirituality. Religion and spirituality? Religion versus spirituality? Synonyms? Antonyms? Cycles? Phases? What do these terms mean -- and what do they mean to you?

Webster’s dictionary (Unabridged, 1989) defines religion as: “Concern over what exists beyond the physical world, differentiated from philosophy in that it operates through faith or intuition rather than reason, and generally including the idea of a single being, a group of beings, an eternal principle, or a transcendent spiritual entity that has created the world, that controls it, that governs its destinies, or that intervenes occasionally in the natural course of its history, as well as the idea that ritual, prayer, spiritual exercises, certain principles of everyday conduct, etc., are expedient, due, or spiritually rewarding, or arise naturally out of an inner need as a human response to the belief in such a being, principle, etc.” In addition to perhaps being one of the world’s longest sentences, this definition exemplifies the specificity that most people associate with the term “religion.”

The same source defines spirituality as: “the quality or fact of being spiritual; incorporeal or immaterial nature.” It defines spiritual as: “of or pertaining to the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the physical nature…of or pertaining to the spirit as the seat of the moral or religious nature…of or relating to the conscious thoughts and emotions.” Despite their stark brevity, these definitions reflect the breadth and "fluidity" most people associate with spirituality.  Perhaps this brevity and the long-winded specificity of the definition of “religion” are  more reflective of the relationship between these terms than the actual definitions themselves.

Broadly speaking, many people’s "knee-jerk" perceptions of these terms is to associate “religion” with specific names, practices, beliefs and dogma and “spirituality” with the absence of such specifics or dogma. What is becoming more and more common in recent times, however, is the relaxation and flexibilty of religious dogma and the increased systemitization of spiritual practices and beliefs.  There are vibrant new interpretations of religions such as Christianity and Islam and a proliferation of spiritual systems such as New Thought and Religious Science that may change the meaning of the words "religion" and "spirituality" -- for those who take the time to learn of them.

Another broad perception of these terms illustrated by these definitions is that religion tends to emphasize a force or forces external to the human being, while spirituality tends to emphasize internal human forces or the internal manifestation of external forces. In terms of personal application, one way to characterize this difference is the degree to which one is willing and able to accept and act from a position of individual responsibility for his or her own moral development -- whether one is focused upon developing a relationship with an external source of that moral authority (religion), or developing internal emotional and mental sources (spirituality), or working on a personal balance between the two. In this context, it is possible to be spiritual in one's religion and religious about one's spirituality.

These are nuances, interpretations, perceptions and choices that must be brought to the forefront of consciousness, examined, discussed and clarified. The dawn of 2010 finds this country at a pivotal crossroads in terms of its religious and spiritual beliefs -- there have been headlines decrying the “de-Christianization” of America and other headlines touting the growing influence of the religious Christian right in politics. There has been an explosion of religious and spiritual institutions since 2001, along with surveys reporting that nearly half of Americans between the ages of 28 and 40 no longer believe in God. As the U.S. undergoes a tumultuous political and economic transformation, the empowerment and participation of its citizens has never been more important. Under these conditions, achieving crystalline clarity about the moral standards that will shape and guide this transformation is perhaps now as much of a civic responsibility as it is a matter of personal choice.

As in many other countries with the doctrine of religious freedom, the predominance of  fundamentalist religion or “New Age” spiritual movements or anything in between often mirrors the socio-economic and educational diversity of any given location. Baltimore, Maryland is an eclectic mix of age-old traditions and metropolitan philosophical trends, PhDs and steel-toe boots, New Yorkers and South Carolinians, abject poverty and abundant prosperity. Baltimore's historical and contemporary religious and spiritual profiles are, in many ways, microcosms of the vast array of American religious and spiritual experiences, and it is an excellent place for any American to gain a greater understanding of that spectrum -- and where he or she may fit within it.

This page will explore the symmetries, oppositions, bedrocks, cycles and phases of religion and spirituality in Baltimore, as well as the people, institutions and resources that shape those dynamics. The destination of this journey? A place of crystalline clarity about the degree to which you are willing and able to accept and act from a position of individual responsibility for your own moral development. It is time for all Americans to determine where they stand on the religion/spirituality continuum and to shape the national future based on the commonalities of our moral identities instead of the differences in our beliefs. This national transformation must take place one person, one community, one city at a time.

This page will offer the insights and perspectives and connect you to the Baltimore-area resources that can support your journey, as well profile its wealth of outlets for the expression of your religious and/or spiritual identity. The insights, questions and resources of anyone who lives in or loves Baltimore are welcome as suggested signposts and tour stops along the way. Let's take the journey...these times require that we do so.


  • Jeri Pope 5 years ago

    What a breath of fresh air! From this initial article it appears that we are finally going to enjoy a probing, erudite, thought-provking discourse of the fundamental principles that for most of us govern our values, attitudes, and behaviors. I so long forward to this column.

    Thank you Examiner for creating the space for this to occur.

  • Rhonda 5 years ago

    Excellent! Thank you for a brilliant introduction to what promises to be an engaging growth experience for mind and spirit. I look forward to reading more.


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