People tend to carelessly toss around the words “spirituality” and “religion,” which makes the attempt to discern the most accurate and useful definitions of these two words much more difficult than it needs to be. Let’s cut through the fog of the “I know it when I see it” pseudo-definitions of “spirituality” and “religion” to clearly see what these two words actually mean.

One prominent usage of the word “spirituality” is that it’s what you do to connect with whatever you think is most important in life – something that’s supposedly timelessly meaningful, centering, and restorative. That’s on the right track, but it’s too vague and imprecise. It includes all kinds of different things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other – religiosity, personal development, relationships, morality, great accomplishments, etc. And as that implies, adopting this definition would mean that the ultimate content of “spirituality” would be different for different people. No one would necessarily know quite what you mean when you use the word “spirituality.” Surely we can find a definition that’s more precise and universally applicable than this.

Others speak of “spirituality” as if it were synonymous with “religion.” But isn’t it possible to be “religious” without being “spiritual?” Think about the large number of people who practice their religion in a casual way, to the point that it’s clearly little more to them than a social identity. Or think about the large number of people who practice their religion in a legalistic way, where it’s all about following rules regarding proper behavior and thought. Isn’t there a core component of what it means to be fully religious that both of those types of people seem to lack – something that we could call “spirituality?” If so, then spirituality and religion can’t be the same thing. But that, in turn, begs the question: what exactly is that component at the heart of full-fledged religiosity?

To get a clearer sense of what “spirituality” means, consider its root word: spirit. Linguistically, we would expect spirituality to be something that pertains to spirit. And that does indeed seem to be what we find in practice. Those behaviors and attitudes that we can isolate as being “spiritual” rather than only moral, social, etc. pertain to a mysterious something that exists beyond the bounds of our everyday lives. It’s something so rarefied that it seems to belong to a different plane of existence altogether. We tend to experience it the most strongly through those activities that are specifically designed to access it, such as meditation or prayer. These activities don’t necessarily have anything to do with more earthly sources of meaning in life: relationships, morality, politics, etc. There’s an autonomous, separable source of meaning that lies at their heart, one that we call “spirit” or “divinity.” If we didn’t have a separate word by which to call these activities, we’d be hopelessly confused about their purpose and their relationship to other kinds of activities. Happily, we do have such a word: spirituality.

Thus, the simplest and most straightforward definition of “spirituality” is that it’s the attempt to experience the divine.

How, then, should we define the word “religion?”

We’ve already established that it’s possible to be religious without being particularly spiritual. We can add that it’s entirely possible to have spiritual experiences outside of a particular religion. Many people have. So while there’s certainly a great deal of overlap between these two words and the phenomena to which they refer, “spirituality” and “religion” aren’t synonyms. You can have either one without the other in certain circumstances.

Some people go to the opposite extreme and use the two words as if they were mutually exclusive. To such people, you can be spiritual or you can be religious, but you can’t be both. This is obviously empirically false. When you think of the most spiritual people in history, who comes to mind? Siddhartha Gotama, Rumi, or Meister Eckhart, perhaps? Siddhartha Gotama was the founder of Buddhism, Rumi was a Muslim, and Meister Eckhart was a Christian. And they didn’t just happen to be religious in addition to being spiritual; their religions gave them a set of words and concepts through which they could express their spiritual insights, and a set of practices for deepening them. Not only did their religiosity not hinder their spirituality – it actively helped it.

Some say that in order for a religion to truly be a religion, it has to have a large number of members and has to have existed for a long time. A smaller would-be religion with fewer members is instead a “cult.” But in that case, were today’s biggest and longest-lived religions cults when they were first founded? How many members does a “cult” have to have, and how long does it have to be around, before it qualifies as a “religion?” Is it a “cult” if it has 999 followers, but a “religion” if it has 1000? Or 999,999 versus 1,000,000? Is it a “cult” if it’s been around for 9 years, but a “religion” if it’s been around for 10? Or 99 versus 100? Or 999 versus 1000? Instead, what makes a cult a cult is the presence of a particular set of social dynamics – one intended to maximize deference to, and dependence on, the group and its leaders. That qualitative difference is what distinguishes cults from non-cults, not any quantitative difference in size or longevity. Thus, there’s no necessary minimum number of followers for a religion to be a religion, and there’s no necessary minimum amount of time it has to have existed. Even a religion practiced by a single person for a single week is still a religion.

Along similar lines, some say that religion can be distinguished from spirituality by religion being an “institutional” phenomenon, whereas spirituality is a non-institutional, individual phenomenon. But again, what precisely is meant by “institutional?” What and where are the cutoff points? Does a religion need a building to truly be a religion? Five buildings? A congregation? Ten congregations? A clergy? A creed? Scriptures? Punishments for heretics and apostates? Since different religions take such different forms with regard to which “institutional” elements they have and don’t have, no definition along these lines would fit well with the whole range of phenomena that we identify as being “religions.” This usage is imprecise at best. However, it is getting at something: it recognizes that religion tends to be a more formal thing than spirituality, which certainly seems to be the case empirically.

Since the “institutional” definition points in the right direction but is still shy of the mark, let’s refine it: a religion is a framework of beliefs and practices that facilitates spirituality (regardless of whatever else it might do along the way). That definition recognizes that religion is more formal than spirituality and can’t be reduced to spirituality, but is unmistakably intended to further spirituality and to channel it along certain lines. That’s clear, straightforward, and applies equally well to all of the phenomena that we identify as religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism*, paganism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Taoism, etc. It also clearly indicates what differentiates them from other kinds of belief systems or modes of behavior, such as secular ethics and political movements.

(*Buddhism may superficially seem to be an exception, since some forms of it don’t include any particular belief in a God or gods. But “the divine” is a broader category than “gods,” and Buddhism just describes the divine in different terms – not as a being or beings, but as a state of being. For that matter, more overtly theistic religions themselves often describe the divine as a state of being in addition to their descriptions of it as a being or beings.)

A framework of beliefs and practices that doesn’t facilitate spirituality may be pseudo-religious, in that it may have a vaguely religious form and fill something of the same role in people’s lives as a full, proper religion, but it’s ultimately not a full, proper religion if it lacks that spiritual component. Many political movements, for example, have a more or less religious structure, and their most ardent followers adhere to them with what we call a “religious” devotion, but they’re not religions in the full sense of the word. The term “secular religions” nicely captures this ambivalence – and, in the end, contradiction. “Pseudo-religions” would perhaps be more precise.

So, to recap, spirituality is the attempt to experience the divine, and religion is the framework of beliefs and practices that facilitates spirituality. The combination of the two is usually stronger than either one by itself, and wherever you find one of them, there are almost always at least traces of the other present, too.

If you’d like to know more about my philosophy of religion, my book The Language of Meaning: Why Science Cannot Replace Religion is the definitive, systematic presentation of it.