Hold a discussion on people's beliefs, and within minutes, someone will pipe up, "I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious." For some, spirituality is an open field, and religion represents fences and restrictions.
"Religion is the institution, and, theoretically, it is based on spirituality, which is about some kind of connection with higher powers, supernatural power or whatever," said Craig Nagoshi, an associate professor in psychology at Arizona State University, where he researches religion and its correlations to spirituality. He believes people can easily claim to be religious, spiritual or both.
"The thing is that religion is a human institution, and it has all the good and bad things about human institutions," Nagoshi said. As such, religious systems have tried to control the beliefs of people, leading to alienation and hostility. Yet religion provides the mechanism that facilitates people making spiritual connections, he said.
Without churches, for example, many would have never heard compelling, habit-changing sermons, uplifting choral music or calls to volunteer for specific causes - even though houses of worship are not unique in affording those experiences. Religion has nurtured human networks, specifically faith communities that empower like-minded people to carry out ministries of compassion to others, which is not so common among those choosing to independently practice their spirituality, he and others suggested. Spirituality has been called a "personalizing of religion."
"Basically, humans have always operated as social groups," Nagoshi said. "As such, there has always been institutions to manage a society. Religions have been well integrated into that social management function."
On his Web site, in an article titled "Religion vs. Spirituality," writer Marcellino D'Ambrosio, a Catholic renewal theologian, notes, "It is fashionable today to disdain 'religion' but praise 'spirituality.' Religion is oppressive, they say, but spirituality is liberating. Spirituality is about being in touch with your inner self and the life force that animates the universe." D'Ambrosio calls religion something that "should cause people to pause." It's a word whose Latin means to "bind oneself" or "commit oneself."
"Religion involves taking on the yoke of duty to God and others," said D'Ambrosio, who holds a doctorate in historical theology from Catholic University of America.
Organizational rules most define religion, says a pagan movement clergyman from Scottsdale, Dan "Dr. Dan" Bartlett, a certified holistic life path adviser. "Spirituality, on the other hand, comes from an individual belief and approach to a connection with what that person might see as God, or see as a connection with the super-consciousness of the universe," he said.
Religion becomes problematic for some when disagreements arise over their rules and requirements, he said. Yet strict rules - praying the rosary, going to confession, confining sex to marriage or praying five times a day to Allah - give structure to their way of life that some find attractive and wholesome.
Bartlett said he approaches metaphysics and humans' connection with universal laws as "adhering to the spiritual guidance that comes to one from within."
He teaches that wherever people may currently be on their spiritual paths, "it is the correct one for them at that point in their life."
Whenever people emphasize they're spiritual, "it comes from a place of real resonance and truth," said Frank Rogers, a Catholic and professor of spiritual formation at Claremont School of Theology in California. It is them saying "I do have deep longings for the centeredness and some connection with mystery ... that I can experience myself," he said.
Rogers identified three specific longings they feel: to have a deep connection to mystery, a longing for personal vitality and a hope in a vision of peace in the world.
"Those three longings get close to the heart of what people are saying when they say, 'I am spiritual,' " he said. When they declare, "But I am not religious," he said, it often means they have come from religious communities that failed to nurture their longings. Or such longings were "deadened" or they felt violated. "They ache for life and vitality, and yet they go to a church or synagogue, but it is nothing but dead and guilt-producing," Rogers said. In some instances, those people are told not to trust their own experiences "but to just obey the laws and commandments and listen to what the priest or rabbi or institutional church say and not to think for themselves," he continued.
In the end, those people become wounded by faith communities where they see backbiting, bitterness and conflict, Rogers said.
Still their yearnings remain with them and they look for answers and help elsewhere, continuing to call themselves spiritual but not religious, Rogers said. He identifies religion as a "form in which spirituality is or is not nurtured."
"Religion is the constellation of stories, teachings, rituals, practices, commandments, symbols, holy days, institutional structures" that make up that form that addresses the spiritual yearnings of people, Rogers said. Too often such forms, he said, become rigid because of legalism and dogma that squelch the spirit, which is no longer nurtured.
Nagoshi said it is fair to criticize spirituality as amorphous and a kind of anything-goes belief system, commonly practiced in God's great outdoors on a mountain trail or fishing hole or golf course. "Looking at religions around the world, the key to connecting to that 'higher power' is selflessness. It is very easy to get locked in your own ego when you are thinking, 'Oh, I can find God by myself.' "
He said psychological researchers have found a wide range as to how hard people attempt to find religious truth and oneness with a higher power. Some work diligently to read, research and meditate to formulate their spiritual beliefs while some "people just kind of go to church and go through the motions. It's a mixed bag," the ASU professor said.
At the heart of any debate over whether personalized spirituality or organized religion best serves humankind lies "a question of to what extent you believe in the goodness of human beings," Nagoshi said.
"Some really believe that, unless you have some kind of institutional force to keep people in line, we are just going to go crazy and be selfish and hedonistic," he said. "Others believe, of course, there is an essential goodness about human nature that will find its way to the truth."
History has clearly shown that people, organized through faith communities, demonstrate healthy social disciplines and order that benefit the greater good, he said. Yet critics quickly point to the religious-motivated wars, repression and hatred, as well as the loss of freedom under theocracies.
He calls the United States a place of "clashing traditions," one dominated by institutionalized religions versus "a rugged individualistic spirit that causes some Americans to be more free in their religious thinking."