Religions and spiritual beliefs can be a hugely broad topic to explore, or sometimes a topic to avoid. The concept of religion and spirituality have shaped the way people perceive the world, the way they choose their actions and the way they make sense out of life. For many, it is the door to explore their spiritual dimension. And while we will not attempt to cover this topic extensively, we want to give you a brief overview of this topic and how it relates to your spiritual life.
At its simplest form, religion is a set of organized spiritual beliefs, practices and systems that most often relate to worship of a divine force such as a personal god or another supernatural being. And while this is the simplest definition, it still encompasses the common denominator: a belief in god, gods or supernatural forces.
Religion, by definition, is a spiritual practice. A religion provides a set of tenets by which you should exercise your spirituality. Spirituality does not mean religion, however. A spiritual person may not be religious, but rather they may have a set of tenets from various doctrines (or personal ones), that define their moral and behavioral compass. Regardless of beliefs, religion and spirituality lead individuals to self-actuality, personal growth and fulfillment. This helps not only the individual, but society as a whole.
Along the spectrum of the different religions and spiritual beliefs is the concept of organization. Highly organized doctrines and sets of beliefs, like Christianity, Judaism or Islam is what we commonly know as religions. Less organized, more modern and malleable forms of religion include, paganism, atheism, nondenominational forms of Christianity, some forms of folk religions, among others. On the other side of the spectrum we have highly individualized sets of beliefs that are not called religions though they provide spiritual direction to individuals in a similarly powerful way.
There are common characteristics across religions, which include:
Going into a deeper layer of commonalities, there are core principles that run uniformly through the world’s major religions. They are teachings put forth by Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Muhammad, Shankara, Confucius and more. These include:
In addition to these principles, it is part of the teaching of every religion to respect other religions and beliefs.
With about 2.3 billion members, Christians believe that Jesus Chris was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is the Son of God, sent to Earth by God to save humanity from its sins by giving his life on the cross. Christians believe in one God, with three elements – God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit. Their holy book is the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments.
Islam means “submission to the will of God.” With about 1 billion members, followers are called Muslims and believe in one God, who sent a number of prophets to teach humanity how to live according to His will. Muslims recognize Jesus, Moses and Abraham as prophets of God and believe that Muhammad is the final prophet. Their holy book is the Koran.
With about 1.2 billion members, Hinduism is an assemblage of beliefs and traditions. It is often called the oldest living religion. Its texts are sometimes divided into Sruti or “revealed” and Smriti or “remembered” texts, including scriptures such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. They consider Rama to be God incarnate.
With about 500 million members, Buddhists believe that human life is one of suffering, and that meditation, spiritual and physical labor, and good behavior are the ways to achieve enlightenment, or nirvana. Siddhartha Gautama was an Indian prince, who, upon seeing people poor and dying, started his path to enlightenment.
With roughly 13 million members around the world, Judaism believes in one transcendent God who revealed himself to Abraham, Moses and the Hebrew prophets and by a religious life in accordance with Scriptures and rabbinic traditions. The totality of beliefs and practices of the Jewish people are in the Torah (Hebrew Bible).
The new age moment, which spread through the occult and metaphysical religious communities in the 1970s and ‘80s, looked forward to a “New Age” of love, light, personal transformation and healing. The movement’s strongest supporters were followers of modern esotericism, a religious perspective that is based on the acquisition of mystical knowledge.
The term “pagan” is a loaded term. The Church used it to distinguish people in the countryside who still practiced non-Christian forms of religions. A pagan today means someone who follows a spiritual path rooted in nature, the cycles of the season, and astronomical markers. Some people call this “earth-based religion”.
Esotericism is the body of knowledge of movements whose proponents generally distinguish their own beliefs from institutionalized religious traditions. Esotericism at large can be seen outside the context of religion, as many people use it for discrete teachings and lessons. However, others use of the principles of alternative movements like alchemy, Kabbalah or magic as a spiritual path
Members of modern religions accept the use of magic (or magick) as part of spiritual growth. Whether the magic comes via prayer, spellwork, or ritual, in general there’s an acceptance that magic is a useful skill-set to have. Guidelines as far as what is acceptable in magic practice will vary from one tradition to another. Practitioners see magic as a way to “spell out” manifestations of different kinds to the universe.
“Magic” is often defined in the West as separate from “civilized” religions like Christianity. However, magic was integral to the development of religions. Scriptures across religions describe miracles and supernatural deeds that many interpret as early descriptions of magic, but in a different context.
The terms SBNR (spiritual but not religious) and SBNA (spiritual but not affiliated) are popular initialisms and phrases used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that does not regard organized religion as the sole means of furthering spiritual growth. After modern religions, this is the least structured, less community-oriented, most individualistic approach to spirituality.
Spiritual people collect teachings from different religion and other spiritual beliefs and individualize them in a way that makes sense for their own lives. Spiritual people may include atheist (deny the existence of God) and agnostic individuals (who doubt the existence of God). Likewise, spiritual people may accept and adopt different figures of God in different stages of their lives.
The origins of religions still have an air of mystery. According to J. W. Barlament, all our earliest religions resembled shamanism. The shamanism of the ancient world was centered around the idea of a direct religious experience. Shamans across the globe acted as a bridge between the physical and the spiritual worlds.
This is where the idea of direct religious experience comes into play. Our world is, in fact, being constantly acted upon by a separate, spiritual, world. There was a spirit in every physical being, and this spirit could be contacted directly by the shaman through the entering of a trance or an otherwise altered state of consciousness.
Over time, the role of the shamans shrank and priests largely took over. Priests rejected the traditions of venturing into the spiritual world for guidance, while fulfilling many of the peripheral duties of traditional shamans. What priests did instead was to codify spirits and write stories about deities untouchable by mortals. Religion became more of a means for the ruling class to exert control over their subjects. In fact, priest-kings may have been the rulers of some cities.
As time passed by, the priestly classes lost authority and prophets came along. The prophets gave advice and guidance from, allegedly, the gods themselves. In this phase, prophets facilitated the transition from polytheism to monotheism (as they claimed to speak to one god in particular). If the message from a specific prophet became popular, it led to the rise of monotheistic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
These emerging religions were eventually codified and contained to religions of the book. As Christianity and Islam took over large swaths of the world, new prophets eventually fizzled out entirely. This phenomenon was particularly true in the Western and Near Eastern worlds. In the Far East, Africa and the Caribbean, shamanism and folk religions coexisted and even blended with popular philosophies like Taoism and Confucianism. In India, Hinduism never fell into conflict with monotheistic competitors. Elsewhere, the Christian colonization wiped out shamanic traditions almost entirely.
In the last couple of centuries, especially in the West, a process of Abrahamic religious balkanization started to accelerate. Non-Abrahamic religions, like Occultism, Neo-Paganism, and New Age spirituality have all gained massive traction. People want to reconnect with their innermost selves, and many are willing to abandon tradition to do so. Throughout history, the evolution of religion reflects a constant quest to discover our own divinity and ultimately reach fulfillment.
Religion and other spiritual beliefs are rooted in trying to understand the meaning of life and how a relationship with a higher power may influence that meaning. Both religion and spirituality can have a positive impact on mental health. In some ways, they provide the same impact, but the benefits vary given their nature.
Religion gives people something to believe in, provides a sense of structure and offers a group of people to connect with over similar beliefs. According to NAMI, religion can help through:
Spirituality is a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves. It also incorporates healthy practices for the mind and body, which positively influences mental health and emotional wellbeing. The main benefits of spirituality are:
Unity with surroundings
These benefits are not limited to their respective categories. Individuality isn’t exclusive to religion, just like spirituality can include a sense of community in some instances.
Given the breadth of the topic, religion and other spiritual beliefs don’t have specific “practitioners”. Instead, you will find structured bodies or institutions, some highly organized and public and others with scattered groups of followers.
Newcomers to religion and other spiritual beliefs usually benefit from meeting the religious leaders, preachers and teachers in their community or online. Through it, newcomers can ask them about their views on life, God(s), relationships, ethical conduct and daily practice. They can also use online forums to talk with people all over the world. Likewise, for less structured religions or for fragmented spiritual beliefs, people can find spiritual counselors in their community who can usually point them in the right direction.
Also, the internet is full of literature, opinions, essays and other types of content that can help you investigate some of the different schools of thought by yourself. If there is a specific doctrine that resonates with you, you can purchase plenty of literature online for further education. You can also ask in your community for groups you can join and assess whether their beliefs align with you.
Spirituality is a very personal journey. You should understand that your journey may be on a structured, religious path or may be on a different route. The journey is yours, and as long as the path feels right to you, then it is the right path.
Applying a new set of doctrines, rules and set of beliefs can feel new and refreshing or it can feel foreign and uncomfortable at first. The adoption of doctrines, whether structured or individualized takes some time until there is a change in behavior that can be sustainable over time.
Religion and other spiritual beliefs lead to a lifelong process. One that takes commitment, courage, sacrifice and sometimes pain but also one that gives growth, empowerment, fulfillment and positive change. Through consistent application of principles that align with you, you can become a better person and perhaps even the best version of yourself.
Through this process, a sense of community is important and useful. Even with individualized sets of beliefs, you can connect with people who are investing in their journey and share a sense of purpose. In today’s world, connecting with like-minded people has become easier than ever and it can be a pretty fantastic way of enhancing your spiritual experience.
Here is a list of facts that shed an interesting light on religion and spiritual beliefs, which bring spiritual wisdom to the world.
The topic of religion and spiritual beliefs is one that is capable of raising great passion in human beings. It is a major human phenomena with an intense experience that accompanies it. It helps bring meaning to life and set a path forward towards a goal that makes sense, not only intellectually, but in your core.
In seeking the divine – whether from a church pew on a Sunday or on top of a ridge looking at the sunrise – we increase our feelings of happiness, peace and appreciation for the life we have. Religion and spirituality are neither the same thing nor separate from one another. Where the two overlap is each person’s individual experiences that impact how they think, feel, and act.
Sign up for emails to get the scoop on our latest articles, new developments and more.