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 wasPagan 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

These 8 Scriptures Are Spiritual Game-Changers For Single Women

5 Signs You're Experiencing A Spiritual Awakening

How To Ground Yourself Spiritually

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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