Traditionally, the word “religion” suggests that it is an organized set of beliefs, worldviews, and behaviors that are directed toward a spiritually meaningful life. In fact, religion is usually considered a social-cultural system, one that occurs within a larger context of established traditions. It is a way of life that includes texts, ethics, and designated practices. It also includes sanctified places and organizations. In addition to its central role in health and wellbeing, religion is an important source of moral support and social connections.
Many people are ambivalent about religion. Some see it as a source of social support, while others claim that it is harmful. Yet, the negative aspects of religion are not limited to religious communities. In some cases, religions have become potent ideologies of oppression. In a few instances, religions are self-serving institutions.
Moreover, it is difficult to separate religion from spirituality. Both are part of the same spectrum of belief systems, but they are not always compatible.
For instance, a “spiritual” person might have a vague understanding of Christianity’s core tenets, and yet, choose not to acknowledge Jesus’ death. A “religious” person may not tell others about a spouse’s abusive behavior, and may be afraid to admit that he or she has been divorced. Similarly, a “spiritual” group might be involved in informal practices, such as meditation, while a “religious” group might be involved in formal rituals. This type of confusion is especially common in the United States.
In addition to its social functions, religion can also serve as a source of motivation and inspiration. For example, a person can have a healthy diet based on religious principles. He or she can have a positive sense of identity by identifying with a particular religion. A person can participate in a religious group in order to gain good publicity or to serve others. But religion’s primary function is to help people to understand that they are not alone and to enhance their spirituality.
In a sense, religion is the moral bookkeeping of life. It contains rules pertaining to ethics, justice, and healthcare. It also contains texts and rituals that are meant to bring about a sense of wellbeing. While these rules may have evolved over time, the most significant goals associated with them are the same. However, there are many other belief systems that can “adulterate” the spiritual content of religion.
A few examples of these are Alcoholics Anonymous, which identifies itself as a “spiritual” organization. There is also the A Course in Miracles, a written revelation of God.
The spirituality category has grown in popularity in the last several decades. This is partly due to the rise of individualistic culture and “New Age” beliefs, which often rely on the consumerist nature of the modern world. The spirituality category is a product of the American culture. Those who are religious are mostly Boomers and Gen Xers. They tend to be more ambivalent about religion than secular groups.