What's The Difference Between Being 'Religious' And Being 'Spiritual', Anyway?

"...re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul..."—Walt Whitman


Callings in life can be a funny thing. Take mine, for instance. I'm a firm believer that I am here to speak on three biblical covenant principles—sex, marriage and the Sabbath (not necessarily in that order) and yet, January 9 marks 13 years of not having sex (even though I talk and write about it all of the time), I've never been married before (even though I'm a marriage life coach) and the Seventh-Day Sabbath isn't the popular day of spiritual rest; Sunday is. Whenever folks try and interject some level of cynicism into any or all of these things, I typically share what my name means. Shellie is actually Hebrew (an Israeli told me that about eight years ago); it means "Mine; Belonging to Me". I then talk about what Ezekiel 16:8 (NLT) says—"I made a covenant with you, says the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine." After that, I pretty much follow that up with the phrase "watch the fruit". That basically means, things don't always have to look the way you think they should for them to be the way they're supposed to be (Matthew 12:33).

Since I live in the South (Nashville, to be exact), it's common for the follow-up question to then be, "So, what church do you go to?" 9 times out of 10, people are even further thrown off when I say, "I've been out of church as long as I've been abstinent." Then I pause and say, "That's quite the commercial for church, isn't it?" (For the record, I am not anti-church; it just doesn't serve a real purpose for me in this season of my life. I always try and do things that are purposeful. Habit and purpose are not synonyms.) While some go on to tell me how borderline blasphemous I'm being, more times that not, the next question is, "Oh, so you're spiritual instead of being religious?" What I then say might surprise a few of you—"Actually, I try to be more biblical than anything which means I'm a little bit of both."

To me, I think that religious and spiritual are thrown around so much that they could stand to be unpacked more before we casually profess to be either one. If you're curious to know what I mean by that, I've got a few thoughts below.

What It Means to Be “Religious”


Be honest. When you think of the word "religious", what immediately comes to mind? If it's church or even "being churchy", you are certainly not alone.

With studies like "Most Teenagers Drop Out of Church as Young Adults" and "U.S. Church Membership Down Sharply in Past Two Decades" coming out more and more, clearly a lot of people feel the same way. When it comes to what the actual definition of religion is, a pretty basic one would be "a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects". Based on this definition, while there appear to be 12 major religions— Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism—the most practiced one, especially within the United States, continues to be Christianity (with Islam and Atheism placing second and third).

Keeping all of this in mind, I would think that when most people say, "I'm not religious", what they mean is they've applied the Walt Whitman quote that I shared up top; that there is something—or a set of things—within a specific faith that insults their soul to the point where they can't full-on say that they are a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc. That's it's not just about not attending a certain place of worship every week; it's that there are certain principles that they can't honestly say that they agree with either. Hmph. Let me tell it, that's why there are over 200 different denominations within Christianity alone. Although all Christians profess that they believe that Christ is the Son of God, many can't get on the same page beyond that point. And so, there are religions within their own religion. For some, that is not only confusing but draining. So…they bail. Not Christ but the denominations (and yes, there is a difference).

Then there are what my mother refers to as "the walking wounded"; people who don't consider themselves to be religious, not so much because they disagree with a certain a set of principles so much as the people who teach them or sit in the pews and listen to them. Actor Meagan Good (who is married to movie executive and minster DeVon Franklin) comes to mind. Last year, we ran a piece where Meagan said this:

"If I'm being completely honest, my experience with some church folks has not been that positive. It's unfortunate because we're supposed to be the biggest lovers. And it's like even if you disagree with someone or you don't think what they're doing is right, you're supposed to mind your own business and pray for that person. Other times, you're supposed to correct in love if that's what God told you to do. And there was no correction in love. It was like a complete assault."

She's right. While there is a Scripture in the Bible that encourages us to "exhort daily" (Hebrews 3:13), we're also instructed to "speak truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). Not either or. Both. But that's kind of my point. When I took the time to "Walt Whitman" my own journey, one book that was a game-changer was Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (Frank Viola, George Barna). As I paid closer attention to what I had been taught while growing up vs. what the Bible actually says and what I actually felt at peace within my spirit about, I could no longer say that I was a part of the religion that I was born into. Why? Because I could no longer get down with all of the "beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects".

Peep how it says that people create religions…people do and people are flawed. For instance, Christ did once tell a group of people that if they are without sin, that they should cast the first stone. In that same story, he also told the woman the folks were ridiculing to go and sin no more. Not either or transpired. Both. (John 8:1-12) Unfortunately, a lot of times religion involves people picking and choosing what to preach, teach and model. That's what happens when flawed folks create principles.

Still, that doesn't mean that I'm personally not religious, though. Why do I say that? Because of what I said at the very beginning of all of this. What I do rock with is the Bible (which is an eastern not western culture book; don't let these Americanized religions fool you); it has a very clear definition of religion—"Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you." (James 1:27—NLT) Caring for those without parents or who have lost their beloved? Trying not to let this crazy world jack me up? If that is being religious, oh, I strive to be very religious.

This view of being religious doesn't only apply to Bible followers (who aren't only Christians, by the way). This applies to people who honor other holy books too. If the faith you are most comfortable with has its own definition of religion, don't allow "people's principles" to keep you from applying it to your life; especially since another definition of religious is "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs".

If you've got a set of core beliefs that are centered around a Higher Being and it helps you to be a (more) moral individual, by definition, you are religious. You just don't subscribe to man-made religion. See the difference there?

My overall point is this. "Religious" isn't a bad word. Succumbing to the pressure to practice what man expects of you over what your spirit says is best for you is the issue and challenge. Which one are you currently doing?

What It Means to Be “Spiritual”


Spiritual. OK, so whenever someone tells me that they aren't religious but they are spiritual, I tend to ask them to clarify where they are coming from. While I personally do believe that a Satan exists, I know that many don't. At the same time, I think the majority feels that there are forces of light and forces of darkness all around us. Scripture puts it this way—"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places." (Ephesians 6:12—NKJV) Spiritual hosts of wickedness. Spiritual and wicked. Did you notice that?

Just recently, I listened to a really great podcast featuring Andre 3000 and Rick Rubin. As I was listening to Andre 3000 candidly share his feelings on isolation and loneliness, you can't convince me that he hasn't been battling with some dark spirits. Actor Mack Wilds recently spoke of how grateful he was to have a child on the way after being in "a really dark place"; to me, that's another example of dealing with some "dark spirits". I know a lot of other words and terms were deemed the most popular in 2019, but I personally think that "social anxiety" tops just about all of them. Some "darkness" comes with feeling too paralyzed to create or perform.

So yeah, it should go—and stay—on record that "spiritual" isn't automatically synonymous with good, light or beneficial. Any DC or Marvel comic will show you that.

That's why I encourage folks to break down what they mean when they say, "I'm spiritual". Are you saying that you don't subscribe to a specific religion? Are you saying that you acknowledge that you are a spiritual being? Are you specifying that while you don't go to a place of worship or use a title (like Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc.) that you're intentional about nurturing your spirit or soul? Just being spiritual isn't good enough. Evil is spiritual.

When I acknowledge that a part of me is spiritual, I think more in line with a quote that is usually attributed to the late author C.S. Lewis—"You don't have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body." The Hebrew word for soul is "nephesh". It's a dope and multi-layered word. It means "a soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, passion, appetite, emotion". Oh, the irony. Peep how when you are nurturing your soul, you are tapping into some of the very things that many religions try and get you to ignore like your desires and your passions. Do these things need a moral compass and some self-control? 100 percent. But, at the same time, if you're not pouring into them as well, you are abandoning the very core of what you are—A SOUL. When John 4:24 tells us that "God is Spirit", and I think of a definition of spiritual being, "of or relating to the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the physical nature", it's a reminder that being spiritual is a good thing—so long as your spirit is ever surrendered to a Higher Being.

So yes, on some levels, I do think there is a difference between being religious and being spiritual. Yet more than that, I wholeheartedly also believe that the two things can co-exist, in harmony. How? It's when man is pulled out and the Source of Love is put in.

In other words, if being religious is about applying a moral code based on a supernatural source of Light and being spiritual is about tapping into that same source in order to fulfill one's desires and passions—it shouldn't be assumed that just because you don't conform to a certain set of practices that you're not religious or that being spiritual means that you're not disciplined or even that you don't apply a holy book to your life. It simply means that you've moved man out of the way so that you can learn more about the Spirit.

And that? That is something to be really at peace, confident and happy about. So, if that's where you are, sis, be that. It's a good and purposeful thing. The truly religious and spiritual individuals will totally agree.

Want more stories like this? Sign up for our newsletter here and check out the related reads below:

I Grew Closer To God After I Left The Church

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

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