Spirituality vs Religion

Excerpted in part from Get Sober Stay Sober

The spirituality vs religion debate is a very common one in the world of recovery, although it is not very well understood. There are a variety of reasons that spirituality has an important role in alcoholism, but not because it is a spiritual illness.

As we've learned on the pages of this site, alcoholism is a brain disorder with roots in depleted neurotransmitters, not a spiritual disease; however, it impacts us on the spiritual level deeply. Yes, when we make biochemical repairs, it heals the physical aspect, but all aspects are interconnected and affect the other. The biochemical impacts the psychological and the spiritual and vice versa.

A rich spiritual life is beneficial not only for recovery from alcoholism, but for living life in general. It brings harmony and peace into our life. It comforts, nurtures and calms. However, before we proceed, we first need to establish what spirituality is and isn't.

There is nothing I hate more than someone trying to shove their religious or spiritual beliefs down my throat or even subtly trying to make me see their ways, so I don't want to do that to you, but I would like to offer you my thoughts on the subject of spirituality vs religion to mull over and explore. Toss it around and see if it resonates for you. It is not my intention to step on anyone's religious toes, so if you're a firm believer in God and are offended by disbelief, then this page is probably not for you. Enter at your own risk. This page is for those who are looking for an alternate path. However, I believe the spiritual message that I convey can be beneficial to any belief system.

If you've arrived at this page and you're still reading, then you must have a thirst for spiritual knowledge and some questions of your own regarding spirituality vs religion. Many people struggle with the whole God or religious/spirituality concept in Alcoholics Anonymous and traditional treatment, and for good reason. AA and the 12 steps are a religious program based on the principles that came directly from the evangelical Christian cult called the Oxford Group. They operate as a structured religion that is controlling, punitive, shaming, rigid and cult like.

I offer my view to show that you don't have to believe in religion, a supreme being or higher power to find spirituality and reap the many benefits it offers. I'm not a religious person at all. I don't believe in a higher power, however, I consider myself to be a deeply spiritual person. I believe perhaps in a higher self or higher consciousness, but not an omnipotent being that is all knowing and powerful. My perception of higher consciousness is not the same as religions or most other spiritual beliefs. In most concepts the "higher power" is superior to and better than and the human being is not worthy, you are a sinner, etc. I don't subscribe to these shaming views.

Spirituality comes in many different forms and can be found on a variety of different paths. It is not synonymous with religion. Yes, it's possible for religion to be spiritual, but most often it is not. It's entirely possible for a person to be considered highly religious and not be in touch with their spirituality at all and another person can be deeply spiritual without being religious. There is a clear need to differentiate the spirituality vs religion confusion.

I have known many religious people in my life who didn't have an ounce of spiritual awareness. I grew up with religion and church all around me. My grandfather was a preacher and our family bounced back and forth between being good churchgoers and terrible sinners. In spite of all this religious impact, no one in my family or anyone in our life was very moral or spiritual. Everyone I knew was drinking, lying, beating up their wives, abusing their children and having sex with the neighbors.

Religion can become a haven for dysfunctional people to hide in. When these people become leaders of religion, it gives them a place to abuse their power and fulfill their own interests all in the name of God. A lot of abuse takes place at the pulpit hidden in a deceptive veil of godliness.

It is a place for many sick people to hide behind and mask feelings and thoughts that are considered evil, such as sexual desires for children. Many people use religion to deny and repress large pieces of themselves. When you try and deny a piece of yourself, it comes out in many other different unhealthy ways. We see this very clearly in the chronic sexual abuse that goes on with priests.

There are many so called "spiritual gurus" out there, and usually there is a great deal of ego involved in their approach, rather than real truth. Most of them have not grasped the real difference between spirituality vs religion and spread a lot of misinformation. They are often quite charming, magnetic and influential and ,unfortunately, many spiritual seekers get sucked into their web of manipulation. Instead of following their own personal spiritual journey and growing spiritually they end up chasing illusions or delusions of the so-called spiritual leader.

Some people are able to see the dysfunction and abuse in religion and walk away, while others are not quite sure why they are uncomfortable with religion, but know they want nothing to do with it. I encourage you to explore, question and find what truly resonates for you. What do you know deep in your core? Find your own truth and follow it, not a truth that you've been conditioned to believe out of fear or because it is the standard that everyone follows. Don't allow yourself to become boxed in or limited by someone else's belief system or even your own. Develop a belief system that is uniquely yours and is always open for growth, change and expansion. Look for validation inside yourself rather than others. The spirituality vs religion debate is something that each person must come to terms with inside themselves.

What is Spirituality?

To adequately resolve the spirituality vs religion dilemma, we must answer the crucial question, what is spirituality? Spirituality is none of the things that religion, AA and the 12 step program preach. It is not shaming, punitive, controlling, blaming and guilt producing. Instead it incites wholeness, freedom and peace. Spirituality is our roots, it's our core identity. It's about finding the real and deepest you. That true self that is connected to the origin of creation, whatever that may be. It includes the relationship we have with our self, other people around us, all living things and the Universe itself. A higher power or God is not a fundamental aspect of spirituality. That is something that religion has promoted.

All of us are already spiritual, it's not something we have to acquire, it's something we have to become aware of and develop. Spirituality is the course of action for discovering and getting more intimate with this core self or developing an awareness of this self -- the deeper you. Participating in behaviors that nourish the core identity. Searching for truth and achieving a higher of level of consciousness.

When an experience "feels" spiritual to us, what this means is that we are in touch with our core identity. It feels spiritual because it nurtures a part of ourselves that we've been separated from. It's like reconnecting with a long lost friend. These are things you rarely hear in a debate about spirituality vs religion.

The ultimate destination is about deepening your relationship with your core identity and living a life of authenticity. To live life as consciously and aware as possible and striving to realize your fullest potential as a human being. Being a moral, decent and honest human being not because you're afraid of the consequences down the road, but because it's what you truly desire in your heart.

Spirituality is a very personal and individualized experience, found by going within yourself, not inside a church, class, seminar or retreat. The spiritual path is not a tangible destination where you strive to arrive and remain. It is a dynamic, forever expanding and changing experience over the course of your life. To truly answer the question, what is spirituality, you will have to find out what it means to you.

The spiritual life is not always clear-cut, easy and pleasurable. Some of the deepest, most meaningful spiritual lessons can be found during painful and difficult times. Learning to experience life fully as an aware individual and embracing the whole realm of feelings, both negative and positive, is spirituality.

Most of us, even those without alcoholism, have lost touch with the core self or never found it to begin with. For the person with alcoholism, the deeper, true or core self has been buried very deep. Over the years of drinking or drugging, the real and true self has been stomped to death, hidden under the rubble somewhere in there. For many of us who lived with child abuse, it was already buried in childhood.

Our culture doesn't really teach us anything about spirituality as a child. No one teaches us as children how to fulfill ourselves spiritually, how to feed our spiritual yearnings. The only thing most of us our taught is religion and this leads us away from ourselves. We're not taught how to be independent thinkers and question things; most people accept blindly what they have been told without ever questioning it. They never examined or explored it. Most people never even ask the question, what is spirituality or have engaged in a conversation about spirituality vs religion, so if you're asking the questions and reflecting you are well on your way to a deeper enlightenment.

We are manipulated into conformity and conditioned to believe in God and follow religion with fear, instead of encouraged to develop a relationship with ourselves. The core self gets lost, stuffed into a model, molded and forced to become what others say is true and what others want us to believe.

We are a society that is sadly full of people who are disconnected from themselves and have not been taught to feed their spiritual yearnings in a healthy manner. We see this evidenced in the high levels of alcoholism and other addictions in our communities as well as the extreme prevalence of crime, child abuse, violence, depression, absence of compassion, understanding and respect for each other and ultimately in the insane destruction of our environment and annihilation of the planet we live. Spirituality is about breaking free from this insanity and getting back on the path to yourself.

The primary point to take note of when trying to distinguish between spirituality vs religion, is that religion is always connected to a God or some kind of higher power. Spirituality is about life, connecting with the self or core identity and relationships. If the words God or higher power are used, then we're clearly talking about religion.

Spirituality and Alcoholism

Resolving the spirituality vs religion question is crucial for alcoholics, because addiction and spirituality are deeply intertwined. Although the roots of alcoholism are biochemical, there are many secondary issues that contribute to alcoholism that can sabotage recovery. A rich spiritual life protects us from some of these secondary factors, not a religious life.

Nurturing spirituality sustains us and prevents us from becoming stagnant and unfulfilled with life. Most alcoholics talk about a yearning inside them, an emptiness, void or a hole that they tried to fill up with alcohol. They often don't feel complete or connected. We try to fill up that hole up with all kinds of unhealthy things.

One could even say that, in part, alcoholism is the search for spirituality -- the search for self. All addictive substances and activities simulate that incredible whole, at one with the Universe, complete, euphoric feeling that spirituality makes us feel. I know this was true for me. I was looking for what was missing inside. I longed and ached to belong and connect. I was searching for spiritual food. Drinking and drugs made me feel connected, normal and spiritually euphoric for a short period of time. The problem is that it didn't last and eventually it made the emptiness larger and more consuming, because when achieved with drugs and alcohol, it is artificial and temporary. Addiction and spirituality feel very similar until one understands the difference, and ironically addiction ultimately leads us further away from ourselves, which is the exact opposite of what we seek.

If that emptiness inside is not filled with healthy things, it leaves us at risk of returning to alcohol or drugs. Alcoholism or any addiction for that matter gives us a feeling of touching the divine and we want more of it. The key in recovery is to find other ways of experiencing this euphoria. Other ways of reaching our true or core self and the bliss that accompanies this connection. Spiritually fulfilling activities give us that same high we experience in addiction, but it is natural and healthy. It doesn't perpetuate the emptiness; it encourages wholeness. The more you engage in spiritual activities the more it fills you up.

When we have a rich spiritual life that makes life meaningful, give us purpose and we feel connected to ourselves, our loved ones and the world around us, our need to find fulfillment outside ourselves in drugs or alcohol is diminished. Since our core or true self is ultimately connected to the origin of creation, whatever that may be, when we strengthen our relationship with our core self, we reach those depths again that we experienced in our addiction and get that same taste of the divine. However, if one gets stuck in the inability to resolve the spirituality vs religion debate, religion can hinder this process.

On the other hand, as we've seen many times throughout this site, addiction regardless of what substance or activity is involved is largely about neurotransmitters. The pleasure pathways in the brain are excessively stimulated and then neurotransmitters become depleted. When we get sober we need to engage in activities that stimulate these neurotransmitters in a healthy manner to help balance the neurotransmitters and eliminate the drive to get it through drugs and alcohol. Engaging in activities that are spiritually fulfilling is one of the best ways to do that.

I think it is entirely possible that the experience of spiritual fulfillment is a result of nothing more than neurotransmitter activity. When we pray, meditate, enjoy nature, listen to music, dance, make love, connect deeply with ourselves or any of the activities that bring us spiritual pleasure, they stimulate our "happy hormones. Our neurotransmitters are released and this makes us feel euphoric and connected and we experience this thing we call the "divine" or the origin of creation.

In my view, biology or science and spirituality are not on opposite sides of the fence. Science is spiritual, the spiritual is science. I think science, biology, physics, etc., are all very spiritual experiences. What is more spiritual than getting to the roots of who we are, where we came from, what we're made of and how it works? It connects us with our core and so does spirituality. As I see it, they are one in the same.

What is more magical, wondrous and awe inspiring than neurotransmitters, hormones, chemical messengers, neuron receptors, synapses and how it all works together perfectly to let the body and brain communicate with each other when it's given what it needs? What is more complex, miraculous or astounding than the workings of the mind and body, a birth of a child, watching your child grow into an adult and the intricate complexity of the human body and mind?

How amazing and magnificent is a butterfly, a tree, a bug, the sun, water, formation and movement of clouds, a bird looking you in the eyes as it takes food from your fingers, the formation and colors of a rainbow, the face of a chipmunk, a roadrunner, waves crashing against rocks, sea urchins sticking on a rock, the sunset and sunrise, flowers blooming in spring, a bunny wiggling its nose at you, the wing span and soar of a turkey vulture, colors in a rock, energy in a rock, majestic mountains against the sky or an ant carrying food away from the kitchen.

The way I see it, there is no separation of science/biology and spirituality. It appears the divine source of creation is science/ biology, but that doesn't make it any less divine, wondrous or glorious. When we look at it this way, the debate on spirituality vs religion becomes very clear.

Another important aspect for the alcoholic and the whole addiction and spirituality cycle is that nurturing a spiritual life helps keep you moral, honest and decent. It breeds integrity, character and high values. These are important to the alcoholic, because when we engage in behaviors that aren't honest and decent, it promotes feelings of shame, guilt and remorse and damages self-esteem, which can possibly lead back to the drink in an attempt to cover up the feelings. They are not the cause of alcoholism; however, they can perpetuate it once it is set in motion.

Living a moral life doesn't mean a religious life and it doesn't mean we're perfect, but it means we're always striving to be the best that we can be. Behaving in an ethical and responsible manner, not because someone tells you it's the right thing to do or you fear going to hell, but because it's what feels right inside and it's who you are. It promotes harmony and peace in yourself, the world and people around you.

This does not mean you can't or won't make mistakes, absolutely not. When someone has been drinking for years and/or enmeshed in toxic family dynamics, the brain, emotions and values are saturated in alcohol and dysfunction. It can take a long time to break out of these patterns and develop a healthy value structure. This may mean falling on our ethical faces several times before we get there.

We are all capable of engaging in behaviors that are shameful, hurtful to others and distasteful. However, we need to keep an eye on our motivations. If we do engage in dishonest or hurtful behavior, then we need to try to understand why and learn from it. We need to make amends to those affected and use it to grow and become a better person because of it. It doesn't happen overnight, but the goal is to always be striving to be as honest and decent as possible.

Someone who takes the side of religion in the spirituality vs religion dispute is not anymore moral than the one who sides with spirituality. In many cases, (but not always) someone who lives a spiritual life is much more honest and moral than those who follow religion. Religion is often used as a smoke screen to lie, cheat, abuse, deceive and manipulate. Many followers are good religious people only in words while at the church, but don't actually live by the ethical principles on a daily basis. However, by no means is this true for all followers. I would agree that there are some religious people who are genuinely moral and honest and seek to do good things in our society.

Care and Feeding of Spirituality

Once the age old dilemma of spirituality vs religion is resolved within yourself, how do you nurture spirituality without religion or God? As I deepened my relationship with my core self and learned how to listen to her needs, I discovered that spiritual fulfillment comes in many different ways. I learned how to fulfill my spiritual yearnings in a healthy and satisfying manner instead of turning to drugs, alcohol, sugar or men. They are the activities that make you feel complete, alive and connected to yourself and the Universe. The ones that give your life purpose and meaning and enable you to know yourself more deeply. They supply you with energy, inner strength, peace, comfort and hope.

One of the best ways to find your spiritual food is to be still and listen to your inner voice. In stillness you connect with your core, its wisdom and euphoria. Follow the path that brings harmony to your life and makes you feel peaceful, whole, connected, and content with life even in the midst of storms. You'll no longer have a need to deliberate the spirituality vs religion question.

What is spiritual food for one may not be the case for another. For one person it may be community service or environmental activism while for another it may be daily meditation or Tai Chi and yet for another it may be planting a garden, drawing a picture and enjoying the sunrise. It can also be found in dance, making love, exercising, relationships, writing, communing with nature, music, food, sports, reading or walking the dog.

Here are some sources where I find my spiritual food:

Spending time by the lake or ocean, deep stimulating conversation, taking daily walks, country rides, admiring the cloud formations, feeding and watching the birds, feeding a stray cat, listening to music, singing, writing, reading, dancing either with a partner or around my living room by myself, making love, gazing at the stars and moon, the feel of the wind on my body, watching a good movie and spending time with my son.

I find all the sources I mentioned above to be very nourishing, but my most important spiritual food is nature, walking and time with my son. I can feel as high today from an intimate moment with nature or a deep conversation with my son as I could years ago on a bottle of wine, a big fat joint, a line of cocaine, a bottle of prescription pills or half a dozen beers. Even more so. It's a much richer, deeper and more meaningful experience and one that I remember in the morning. I'm not hung-over and it stays with me and feeds me for hours or days.

Nature is my lifeline. It rejuvenates me and helps me to go on. It makes me feel alive, full of life and connected to the Universe. There is nothing more nourishing to me than spending a day on a blanket by my favorite lake or ocean shore and being intimate with nature. Spending it with someone I love and engaging in deep conversation is even better. I can feel so euphoric from the stunning colors of nature when the leaves are turning in the fall or a beautiful snowfall, it's almost orgasmic. I also find deep breathing exercises, meditation and prayer to be essential methods of spiritual food that I engage in daily.

Yes, even those who don't believe in a higher power still believe in prayer. However, I don't really believe anyone is listening to me. I think it's basically just a conversation with the deeper self -- a form of verbal meditation that connects me with my core and stimulates neurotransmitters that make me feel good.

Your journey with spirituality is uniquely yours and what you find to be spiritual food may change in response to where you are in life. As you grow and evolve, your spirituality evolves with you. So keep in mind that I am still on my spiritual journey as well. I am sharing the truth as I know it at this time. It took me a long time and many different paths to resolve the spirituality vs religion confusion and it may be the same for you.

Regardless of where you find your spiritual connections, nurturing your spirituality on a regular basis is as essential as feeding your empty stomach. When you neglect this important aspect of your life, you lose touch with your core self and this puts you in danger of looking for spiritual fulfillment in the wrong places like alcohol and drugs.

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