Category Archives: Spiritual Practice

How Religion Can Help or Harm Spiritual Growth


Ever since I wrote a piece that asked the question “Is it possible to be religious but not spiritual?” I have been contemplating the difference between religion and spirituality and the impact that each of them has had on our society.

I know some people personally for whom religion was the springboard to their spiritual growth, who may not practice the religion now, but who credit a specific religion with getting them started on the path toward enlightenment.

Yet I know others for whom religion was a springboard, yes, but in a negative way, catapulting them toward agnosticism and an aversion toward everything that is even remotely spiritual.

So how is it that religion can have such contrasting effects on different individuals?

Is religion helpful to mankind as we struggle to grow and evolve or is it a relic of more primitive times that is actually holding us back?

Here are some of the ways I can see that religion, at its best, can be helpful to those who practice it. Religion can:

  • provide a stable moral foundation, teaching the basics of “right and wrong” behavior.
  • offer structure to those who live in chaos.
  • hold believers accountable for their behavior.
  • create a supportive community of like-minded individuals.
  • preserve ancient wisdom teachings.
  • provide mentors for seekers who are new to the spiritual path.

All of these are positive benefits when carried out in an ideal manner. But religion is brought to life by flawed human beings who have a way of ruining everything by getting their egos and Shadow-selves in the middle of situations. When religion is managed badly by the humans in charge it can be deadly and destructive; think: the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the terror attacks of 9/11, just for starters.

So the potential for religion to be harmful is enormous, just like the capacity any one human being has to do harm.

But here are some specific aspects of religion and religious behavior that can stifle and discourage spiritual growth. Religion, at its worst, can:

  • presume there is only one “true” perspective on issues of life and spirituality.
  • exclude, denounce and even destroy those who see a different perspective.
  • discourage questioning and freedom of thought.
  • disallow spiritual practices that differ from the established “code” of conduct.
  • abuse the power of its societal position to further a political agenda.
  • misinterpret ancient teachings for corrupt gain.

No surprise then that today about one third of all Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” They have undoubtedly experienced the dark side of religion and decided they want no part of it. But unfortunately they lose out on the positive aspects of religion by rejecting it totally, like being part of a like-minded community and finding a spiritual mentor.

In my opinion religion should function as a catalyst for spiritual inquiry and churches should function as incubators of sorts for those newly inspired to the spiritual path. Religion should strive to “graduate” its students when they are ready to pursue “secondary studies.”

Religion should foster growth, exploration and even doubt, for doubt is a crucial stage on the path to higher spiritual development.

Religion should not stifle and suffocate its own children, but should launch them on their journeys to enlightenment. If that were only a reality, religion could possibly help save the world, but for now, most of us will have to remain “spiritual but not religious.”


Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the author of the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.” Connect with her at, on Facebook at and on Twitter @spiritualmd.


Is It Possible To Be Religious But Not Spiritual?


You’ve probably heard people lately claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” About one third of Americans now label themselves this way, having rejected membership in a traditional religious institution in favor of pursuing their own personal spiritual relationship with God or the Divine or the Creator (or whatever term they prefer.)

Some religious leaders are critical of the proponents of this philosophy, like James Martin, a Jesuit priest who states “Spirituality without religion can become a self-centered complacency divorced from the wisdom of a community.” But many spiritual people view themselves as part of a much larger community – the community of all life – and derive their wisdom from the interconnectedness they feel with all of creation rather than from a smaller community of those who have similar beliefs.

According to various theories of development, including Integral Theory, your degree of comfort with or without religion is determined by your level of spiritual growth.

Those who have achieved higher levels of spiritual awareness have less need for organized religion to help provide stability and a structural framework from which to view the world. But, ideally religion provides many seekers with the tools and foundation from which to grow and develop in spiritual awareness, much like primary education provides a foundation for intellectual growth.

So if religion is intended to be one of the paths to spiritual growth, is it possible to be religious – that is to adhere to all the beliefs and dogma of a religion – but not be spiritual? Indeed some of the problems facing the world at this time such as terrorism, bigotry and hate crimes may be arising from exactly this situation: religiosity that is devoid of spirituality.

For the purpose of this discussion, spiritual refers to one who has direct and personal awareness of the Divine and whose life is influenced by that awareness, while religious refers to one who identifies with a particular organized religion and whose life is directed by the rules and dogma of that religion, rather than by an inner knowing of God. Of course it is quite possible to be both religious and spiritual, but here are some ways to tell if someone might be religious but not spiritual:

1. If he believes that the holy scripture of his religion is the only true word of God and that all other religious texts are false, then he is probably religious but not spiritual. Spiritual people recognize that all of the sacred writings of the great wisdom traditions have value and teach similar universal truths.

2. If she believes that the scripture of her religion must be interpreted literally, word-for-word, then she might be religious but not spiritual. Spiritual people are more likely to believe that the holy texts of all religions should be interpreted with an awareness of the cultural and historical context within which they were written.

3. If he believes that the members of his faith have been chosen for salvation above all others and that everyone else is condemned to hell then he is most likely religious but not spiritual. Spiritual people believe that there is one Divine force that gave rise to all of creation with no favorites or chosen ones, and that all of life is connected by this common bond of creation.

4. If she believes in a judgmental and vengeful God who punishes His followers for wrongdoing then she is probably religious but not spiritual. Spiritual people view the Divine as Love that infuses everything and also allows everything to unfold in its own way without judgment.

5. If he rejects new information that arises, such as scientific studies or observations, because it conflicts with his beliefs then he is most likely religious but not spiritual. Spiritual people have awareness of a God that is far beyond the limits of our understanding and a concept of the Divine that is so vast that it could never be threatened or diminished by scientific exploration or human knowledge.

As mentioned before, religion can and should be the foundation of spiritual development and provide the support and inspiration for believers to grow in their individual faith.

But the problem arises when people with no personal experience or awareness of the Divine adhere tightly to the external constructs and rigid rules of religion, because they are unable to interpret those rules through the lens of higher consciousness.

Religious dogma itself is devoid of love, compassion and deeper meaning, which must be derived from spiritual experience. Therefore it should be the desire of religious institutions to inspire members toward higher consciousness and greater spiritual awareness. But is it possible that religion could actually stifle spiritual growth for some followers? That question will be explored in a future post.

Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the author of the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.” Connect with her at, on Facebook at and on Twitter @spiritualmd.