Spiritual or Religious? A Guide for the Perplexed

“Are you religious?”

         “No, I’m spiritual.”

         Over recent decades, fewer and fewer Americans describe themselves as “religious.” Many say they are “spiritual.” What does this mean?

         I’ve been reflecting on those two words for 35 years.  I’m going to offer one way to understand the difference between them.

         “Religion” is a word that combines “re“ with “ligio.”  “Ligio” is the root for the word “ligament,” which means a binding.  So re-ligio means “bound again.” A religion binds someone to a set of beliefs, traditions, and practices. When I was a kid, every Friday the cafeteria served fish sticks. Why? Because Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Friday. If I’m an Orthodox Jew, I’ll only eat kosher food. If I’m a practicing Muslim, you can expect me to be praying five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan.  

         “Spiritual” is very different. Let’s go back in time to appreciate its origins.

         In the Hebrew Scriptures, the common word for “spirit” is “ruah.” Here’s a famous passage:

         In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters.[i] Did you notice the footnote, (b)? The footnote says: “Orwhile the spirit of God orwhile a mighty wind.” Spirit is synonymous with wind and breath.

         The New Testament was written in Greek.  Just like Hebrew, the original word pneuma (as in pneumatic tire, pneumonia, etc.) can mean spirit, wind, breath. Here’s an example:

              The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.[ii]  The footnote for “wind” reads: “The same Greek word means both wind and spirit.”

         So “religion” implies a binding, a strong and secure connection.  “Spiritual” implies something more elusive and mysterious, but real. You can’t attach a ligament to the wind; a breeze can be felt but doesn’t bind you. 

         For centuries many people were bound to religious traditions.  But in the 60s, people started questioning authority.  Many began leaving such traditions altogether or picking and choosing which beliefs and practices they’d embrace and which they’d ignore.  A steady decline in membership and influence of religious communities began and continues – the ligaments became weak or were never developed.

         Being cut loose from such restrictive bonds can be exhilarating.  We can begin finding for ourselves what is true and authentic.

         As we’re searching, we may have moments when we sense there is something important beyond everyday reality. Maybe we come upon something in nature that fills us with wonder.  Maybe we are awe-struck as we look into the eyes of a newborn child. Maybe we sense something transcendent in a piece of music.  Maybe we go through a personal crisis and feel we’re being led by something beyond ourselves. Maybe we’re in recovery and find the value of a higher power.  Or, maybe we experiment with ancient Eastern techniques of inner exploration, such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga, or Tai-chi and find an inner peace, strength, and serenity that we never experienced in one of those liga-mented institutions.

         We certainly don’t believe there is an old bearded white guy in the sky in charge of everything. But what about “… an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together,” as Obi-Wan Kenobi explains to Luke Skywalker.[iii] This “Force” gives us courage, helps us do what is right, connects us to others and calls us to fight against forces of repression.

         If any of these experiences resonate, we might say we are “spiritual.” We sense something, believe something, feel something that is of great personal importance. And no external authority will control how we experience it or what it means.

         So much of this speaks to me personally.  I don’t believe in something just because someone tells me to. I am curious about every kind of journey people are on and learn new things whenever I can.  I’m fascinated by all things “spiritual.”

         And yet there’s something lost when we have no ligaments.

         Last spring, I was feeling discomfort in my right upper arm while doing yoga. One day, I was playing golf and noticed it was swelling dramatically and my arm was turning purple. I went to Urgent Care. They diagnosed it as a torn ligament, which leads to a swelling known as a “Popeye arm” along with contusions.  Apparently, we have two ligaments connecting shoulders to elbows, and one of mine had become disconnected.  They told me they couldn’t repair it and referred me to physical therapy to begin strengthening the surrounding muscles to compensate.

         A year later, I’m still doing the exercises and feeling fine. But I’ve learned what it’s like to be “de-ligamented.”

         I’ve been around congregations for many years.  Communities that worship and serve together week after week are like bodies that are consistently forming strong ligaments of connection. In a tragedy – a death, a disaster, an urgent social need — those bodies are ready to act decisively.  And they do.

         We can see this principle at work in the war in Ukraine.  After World War 2, NATO was formed, creating voluntary bonds of commitment between participating nations to defend each other against aggression. Some recent politicians wanted our country to be free from our NATO commitment. But we now see those ligaments in action as thirty nations quickly united to oppose Russian aggression.

         I rejoice in the freedom spirituality provides to find what is authentic. I can also sing the old hymn “Blest Be The Tie That Binds” when I see social bonds being used to inspire, strengthen and protect the human family.

[i] Genesis 1: 1-2, New Revised Standard Version

[ii] John 3:8, New Revised Standard Version

[iii] Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope

Image: Fall Colors at Kebler Pass, Colorado USA.JPG; aspen groves are now understood to not be individual trees, but one unified biological entity.


  1. livelier13 says:


    This is a refreshing piece, and I am glad you wrote it.

    I continuously have this conversation when I talk about you as a minister and what you bring into the world of meaning and connection, through your blogs, sermons, stories and service. I watch friends when I talk about anything close to religion. And I try to distinguish this same difference – religion and spirituality. I do love the point in your story, looking at the bonds that serve, protect and support the human family. I wonder if you’d write the next piece, if it would be about what forces are fighting hard to separate us from one another. Or if there is a grasping to belong to something and we are therefore more susceptible to belong to conspiracies or radical this-or-that. I doubt your blog is the place to write about this, but I’d love to talk to you about it sometime.

    Did Ann’s spring break already happen? I miss you guys and want to come visit sometime. I will be in Europe June 1 for a month! Working in Paris for two weeks, then Jim is joining me to do something, we haven’t decided yet.

    Okay so I love you Steve. Say hi to your dogs. And Ann!


    Kristen Jacobsen Mobile 831-818-6573 Leadership & Change Inc.

    “It takes courage to be curious”

    Sent from my magic IPad



  2. Don Lubach says:

    Loved this! I am still in a stage where I reject both terms. But I feel like my ligament is science and my spirit is fueled by curiosity. Nevertheless, I can’t entirely reject the supernatural, especially when I know humans like you who are so wise and kind.


  3. elsakaye says:

    As for me, my life experience has chosen to take me on the more elusive and mysterious, way of spirit. ⛲️


    1. Elsa

      Your journey has been deep and genuine.

      Good to be in touch.



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