Are you Spiritual, Religious or Both?

Published January 24, 2019 by Galen Watts

Galen Watts examines the popular distinction between "spirituality" and "religion" and why it conceals far more than it reveals.

It has become increasingly common for individuals, especially in the West but not solely, to identify as "spiritual" as opposed to "religious". This discursive shift marks a sea change in the religious landscape of today. Not surprisingly, then, it has generally been met by commentators and onlookers with puzzlement, and in some cases hostility.

Some argue to be "spiritual" without religion is to embrace a religious quest characterised by narcissism and selfishness. Without a tradition or community keeping them accountable, the argument goes, "spiritual" individuals will not be able to distinguish their own desires from those of God. Many who champion this criticism also see the increasing number of "spiritual but not religious" as a sign of secularisation, whereby religion is relegated to an evermore circumscribed private sphere.

At the same time, there are those who defend the shift from "religion" to "spirituality", viewing it as a harbinger of social and political progress. For these commentators, "spirituality" signals an approach to religion that sits in harmony with the egalitarian and liberal public cultures of twenty-first century democracies. On this perspective, "spirituality" prizes individual autonomy and self-expression, and simultaneously challenges patriarchal, sexist and hierarchical systems rooted in the past. What critics perceive as narcissism is instead framed by defenders as a much-needed reversal of the repressive and self-denying character of an earlier religiosity (what was asymmetrically internalised by women).

Without taking a stand in this debate, I think it useful to step back and consider the following:

(1) How does the boundary-construction distinguishing "spirituality" from "religion" advance particular agendas?

(2) How do cultural and national contexts, in tandem with historical contingencies, shape the meanings of these terms?

As I see it, individuals call themselves "spiritual" or "religious" in order to make a particular kind of claim. For some, this claim may be political in nature (i.e. "don't worry, I'm not conservative. I'm spiritual"). For others it may be theological (i.e. "don't worry, I'm traditional in my beliefs. I'm religious"). What is crucial to note is that these claims emerge from particular contexts, informed by conceptual associations that have their own unique histories.

What is clear is that the concepts "spirituality" and "religion" mean different things in different places. For instance, "religion" in Canada is largely associated with the American Christian Right, hence why so many Canadians, even those rooted in a religious community, identify as "spiritual but not religious". Unfortunately, the debates over "spirituality" as against "religion" are largely devoid of an awareness of these important cultural and national differences.

While we might disagree over the degree to which individual autonomy and tradition or community ought to take pride of place in the religious life, I think it important to make clear precisely what we mean when we are talking about "spirituality" as something different from "religion". My research has taught me these terms take on very different valences depending on where you go.

So next time someone says "I'm spiritual" or "I'm religious", don't be afraid to ask (politely, of course): what exactly do you mean by that?

This article is written by Galen Watts a PhD Candidate based at Queen's University in Canada studying the contemporary religious landscape. He is also a visiting student in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge and an affiliated scholar at the Woolf Institute for the duration of the 2019 Lent term. He will be running a research seminar at the Woolf Institute in March, so please stay tuned for details here. For more on his research and other writings see

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