by Richard B. Patterson

These days when many people enter twelve step programs and are told that the recovery program is a spiritual one, one often hears the question: "Does this mean I'm going to have to go to church?" The answer in twelve-step programs is "No," an answer which points toward a very important distinction: spirituality and religion are not the same!

Many people hesitate at the doorstep of spirituality, often because of negative or hurtful experiences with religion. These negative experiences often included guilt and shame. So it becomes important to understand that a spiritual path does not necessarily include an involvement with formal religion. Various religions appear to consist of attempts to answer significant questions such as: Is there a God and, if so, what is he/she like (loving? judging? etc.)? Why is there pain and suffering? What, if anything, happens when we die? What is the nature of evil? What constitutes an ethical life? Answers proposed by various religions may include teachings of a leader such as Jesus Christ or Buddha.

Spirituality tends merely to pose the questions and encourage the quest for answers, even if those answers do not come out of a religious framework. Looked at another way, religions can be viewed as maps while you might consider spirituality to be the territory. This is not meant to minimize or criticize the value of formal religions. Such religions, after all, do consist of the experiences of other travellers. Thus, my own spiritual journey might be greatly helped by the teachings of Jesus Christ as well as by the prophecies of Black Elk. My journey might be less treacherous thanks to signposts left by a Zen Master such as S.Z. Suzuki or a wise rabbi such as Abraham Joshua Heschel. If I close my mind to such valuable guidance simply because I have a resentment against organized religion, then I am guilty of close-mindedness and arrogance, both dangerous attitudes along the way.

Religion like anything else in life has a dark side to it. Indeed, religion can be used to try to make someone feel small or to manipulate someone through their fears. Most of those who have turned off to religion have done so because of an encounter with religion's dark side. But rather than turning aside from the spiritual path, perhaps we can draw on such experiences to develop a better understanding of healthy spirituality. Such a path would ideally be life-affirming and full of gratitude and joy rather than fear and guilt. Such a path ideally would be sensual, celebrating the body rather than separating it from the spirit. Such a path would help one identify and celebrate one's gifts.

So take a few moments and reflect on these questions:

How do you label yourself at this point in time as far as religion is concerned? (e.g., fallen-away Catholic? Agnostic? Devout Jew? New Ager?) What would your label have been five years ago? Ten years ago? Why did it change?
What activities do you engage in on a regular basis which are spiritual but not necessarily connected to religion? (e.g., wilderness hikes, gardening, journalling.)
Do you have hurts connected to organized religion? If so, have you been open to healing them or have they festered into resentments?
Of what are you afraid? How do you deal with those fears? Future articles in this section of Self-help and Psychology Magazine will explore the interface between our health and our spiritual wellness. As a brief example, there is an important connection between our health and the degree to which we harbor resentments.

Thus, forgiveness becomes an important stretch not only of one's spiritual journey but of one's quest for health. The spiritual journey is fraught with danger, full of unexpected twists, at times deeply discouraging, at times exhilarating. Filled with paradox, it is the type of journey we undertake with no clear picture of exactly where we're headed.


Richard B. Patterson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in El Paso, TX. He is the author of three books on psychology and spirituality.