Spirituality, Religion, and Culture

Episode 35 – Spirituality, Religion, and Culture The Waxing Soul

Episode Transcript:

I’m Bridget Owens and you're listening to the Waxing Soul podcast. Join me on an exploration of mindful modern magic, a journey towards deeper understanding of self and transformative individual spirituality.
It's July 1, 2021, and on today's episode we'll be talking about the difference between spirituality, religion, and culture and why it's important for our authenticity and personal evolution.
Are you ready to grow your soul?

We’re into the last half of summer, heading towards autumn, and it’s kind of hard to believe that we’re heading towards autumn in a matter of weeks. I can already smell the pumpkin spice in the distance.

But before autumn gets here, I’ve been working on finishing up the manuscript for my first book which will come out in September. And this is one of those topics that I had on my idea list from a long time ago but it’s been something I’ve been thinking and writing on quite a bit in the portion of the book I’ve been working on lately. Basically, I wanted to differentiate between spirituality and religion and culture because the distinctions are really important when it comes to finding our place and our authenticity in our spiritual lives. I think it’s pretty common for people to think about the difference between religion and spirituality, even if we don’t really come to the same conclusion about what those differences and commonalities are.

I feel like it’s a pretty common conclusion that spirituality is sort of religion without the structure. When people say that they’re spiritual but not religious, it usually means that they have beliefs and they’re interested in some aspects of a belief system, but they don’t participate in any kind of organized tradition.

But I think the difference goes deeper than that. And regular listeners will have heard this more than a couple of times, but spirituality is about spirit and spirit in alchemical terms is about energy exchange. It’s the ideas and knowledge and other forms of energy that we take in and transform. Spirituality isn’t just about the beliefs we have about god and morality and what happens after we die. Our worldview and our understanding of the universe doesn’t only include traditionally religious topics. It’s everything.

So spirituality is really something very individual and personal and internal. It has to do with what forms of spirit, what thoughts and energies and whatever that we choose to take in as individuals and what we do with it. Religion, on the other hand, is communal and societal, and it’s formal because it functions to regulate the way the community members behave towards each other.

And the reason this is important is because I think first of all we give religion… And by “we” I mean those of us in the less formal pagan community where there’s, you know, it’s pretty common to find a certain level of contempt for formal religion because so many of us have come out of traditions where we didn’t fit and weren’t accepted. So not only do a lot of people in general consider spirituality to be a sort of “light” version of religion, a lot of people also consider religion to be bad where spirituality is kind of the good parts which have been twisted to fit into a religion. And that’s not really an accurate assessment.

There’s lots that’s problematic about religion, most of which boils down to the same things that are problematic about all of our institutions of great power in modern society. But there’s a lot which can be problematic about our various individual spiritualities, most of which boil down to a hard core focus on self to the complete neglect of our social connections and responsibilities.

To some extent we all have a spiritual life. We all have something which forms the core, the basis around which all of our decisions and priorities and all of that gets built up. For some people that’s related to religion, for some it’s more of a nebulous belief that there’s something out there even if they don’t know what that is, and for some it’s more mundane and secular. I consider social justice work to be an important part of my spiritual life in ways that have nothing to do with any religious belief or dogma. So we all have some kind of spiritual life, but on that personal level we can absolutely do without religion.

But I think it’s really important to recognize that spirituality is something we’re personally responsible for where religion is an entity that, you know, it doesn’t matter what we personally believe or think about church dogma and rules and stuff because our individual perspective is explicitly irrelevant within the framework of religion. I know a lot of people approach spirituality as sort of a buffet of religious ideas that they can kind of take and leave at will, but even so the crucial thing is that we’re making those choices. We have the ability and the responsibility to choose based on what’s most authentic and beneficial for us as individuals.

And I think it’s obvious to some level that our spirituality isn’t something we’re meant to impose on other people. It’s not about which version of spirituality is the right one or the true one, religion works that way but spirituality doesn’t. But there’s this thing where modern humans have, you know, we’ve learned to think in religious terms and so we still kind of try to fit our spirituality into the mold of religion, sometimes without thinking about it or realizing it.

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Each week we will dive into a different part of the world of spirituality, magic, and self-evolution. 
Check out last week's episode where we wrapped up the series on the basics of magic. 
And come back next week when I will interview Bryn Maycot, author and astronumerotarologist, about the importance of creating space in your life for your authentic self.

I want to really be clear that I don’t think religion is bad by default. Like, religion isn’t something inherently evil. But it does have to do with power, so it carries all of that baggage.

I know I’ve mentioned before that I’ve got this ongoing research and writing project going that delves into the origins of human spirituality, and one of the things that has already become obvious is that our religious history very closely parallels and reflects the evolution of human power structures in society.

And that’s not an accident. Societies need some kind of structure to keep them running. Humans may be social creatures, but we don’t have a natural ability to function well in very large groups without leadership and formal social structures. All the social regulation mechanisms that work for smaller groups with access to all the resources and space they need, like when we were hunter gatherers or nomadic pastoralists, all of that stuff breaks down and stops working with larger numbers of people. It takes formal leadership and real consequences to back up codified rules and all of that stuff to keep a society functioning when it gets to the point where there are so many people that one member of the group can’t easily recognize all the rest of them.

So as human societies have grown and the social structure has gotten formal and structured, our spiritual lives have done the same and formed what we know as religion. And even in places where religion and government are really two separate things, there’s still significant overlap and agreement just by nature.

So there’s a couple of important things to unpack here. First of all, yeah, religion is kind of by its very nature a mechanism of social control so that’s why it’s so hard to find a religion where any of us can truly be fully authentic and still be on the good side of the religion’s rules. Religion tells us who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to think and behave because it’s those standards which have to be followed in order to create and maintain the societal structure that the religion’s holds as ideal.

Instead of us picking our own community based on what our values and priorities are so our authentic selves are supported, religion takes it from the opposite direction. It tells us how society is expected to run, it tells us who is acceptable to have in our community, and it tells us who we need to be for everything to function. It picks the ideal and tells us what to do to make it happen so that the society benefits.

Spirituality is more about us creating a smaller version of our personal ideal, the situation which best fits our deep self so that we benefit. So one of the things that I think we do, not exactly wrong but… I don’t want to frame this as like there’s a right way or wrong way for your spirituality to look. That’s definitely not conducive to authenticity. But one of the things that we tend to do which kind of undermines our spirituality is to try and find a religion or very formal spiritual tradition which still dictates our ideals and such but feels good because we’re already living up to or close to living up to that religion’s ideal.

Which seems totally reasonable, but the problem with it is that we change, right? We learn and grow and society changes and we evolve spiritually and religion just doesn’t. Religion is something that, yes, it changes, but it changes slower than we do. Just like government is slower to change than the people who live under that government. Religion is the same. So even if we do find a religion which feels right and a good fit for us in the moment, if our own authenticity is something we care about then it’s practically a certainty that at some point you’re going to drift away from that religion.

As you learn more about yourself, as you experience more things, as you grow and evolve it’s going to not be as great a fit as it was in the beginning. And then you run up against the reality that religions expect conformity which is exactly in opposition to authenticity. Religions serve a purpose, but it’s really important to recognize that the purpose religions serve is not to represent absolute truth. It’s a social, societal purpose. It’s not good for anyone to truly “follow” a religion rather than following our own deep values and convictions and evolution.

So when it comes to the difference between spirituality and religion, whatever our religion might be at any given time, it’s important for the core foundational values of the two to line up, and as our spiritual understanding evolves, it’s only natural to shift away from one religion and towards another.

If you love The Waxing Soul, connect with me online! 
BridgetOwens.com is the central hub for all my projects including books, card decks, and resources. Go there to get my latest book, Deep Self Magic, to connect as a potential podcast guest, and to find out all the latest news. 
Also find me on TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook as bridgetowensmagic.

If you love The Waxing Soul, connect with me online! 
BridgetOwens.com is the central hub for all my projects including books, card decks, and resources. Go there to get my latest book, Deep Self Magic, to connect as a potential podcast guest, and to find out all the latest news. 
Also find me on TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook as bridgetowensmagic.


Now, I have a feeling that there are a few listeners out there going, “Hey, my religion has a really long history and it’s not about power or control or whatever!” Which may be true, because a lot of the things that we consider to be a religion really aren’t.

This is where culture comes in. There’s a fundamental difference between a tradition and a religion. And part of that difference is whether it’s about celebrating a group identity or enforcing group conformity.

Most ancient or cultural traditions don’t really qualify as religions in the sense that they aren’t about making sure everyone thinks and behaves alike, they’re not about imposing a dogma. Traditions aren’t about belief, they’re about belonging. And this is really important.

It’s entirely possible for your spirituality, your religion, and your culture to all overlap so much that they’re almost the same thing. But if we get hung up on making sure that’s the case, if we try to find a 3-in-one solution, we’re going to really struggle to find that and we’re going to probably be constantly in conflict over one piece or another. I honestly feel like this is a major reason why people struggle to find a spiritual place where they fit because we try to support all three things with one religion, and religion just isn’t meant to do all three.

One of the really striking realizations I’ve had while doing this research stuff is that the things we look at in history as early religion isn’t really religion, it’s culture. It’s cultural tradition. The stories a group tells, whether they’re really a mythology or just a storytelling tradition, and there is a difference – those aren’t scripture. Most of them are not really meant to be religious truth, they are just a way to understand the culture’s worldview. They are a way to encode lessons about how to be a good member of the society and what is and is not acceptable. Very very little if any of what we call mythologies, even, have to do with truth.

Not the kind of truth we find in religion.

Religion is authoritative. Religion says, “if you want to be part of this honored group, this is how you have to behave and this is what you have to believe.” Culture says, “Because you are part of this honored group, this is how the dynamics of the group work and this is what we know about our history.”

And when I say culture, I want to be really clear that I don’t just mean it in terms of nationality or ethnicity. Every group has a culture, even new groups, ones that are small or haven’t existed forever, and so just like we all have a spirituality even if it’s not things we usually associate with religious type ideas, same with culture. We all identify as something, identify as part of something, even if that’s just a family or a friend group.

Of course, a culture can be just as judgmental about your authentic self as a religion can be, but there is a different dynamic. Religion says, “This is how things are and if you don’t fit this set of expectations you’re essentially an unacceptable person.” There’s, like, supernatural or eternal or esoteric consequences for not conforming. Culture says, “This is what our group believes, and if you don’t fit this set of expectations you can’t be a full member of our group.” The consequences for not conforming in a culture are human and social and immediate. Still hurtful, but there’s a difference.

So, what’s the point of all this? I think one of the hardest part of authenticity in general and spiritual authenticity specifically is navigating the different ways in which our life isn’t entirely about us. Like, we can work on embracing who we are and do our shadow work and all of that, and most of us have probably spent a lot of our lives trying to find some spiritual path that helps us become the people we want to be, helps us live the life we want to live. But it takes a lot of mindfulness and awareness to balance our own needs with the expectations that come with being part of the groups and cultures and societies we’re part of.

The people around us are real people and there are, rightly, expectations for how we interact with others and how our choices and actions impact other people. It makes it easier if we’re really tuned into how these dynamics work. Because if we expect our religious and cultural groups to tell us how to self-evolve, it’s not going to happen. If we expect the religions we adhere to to change when we change or if we expect our culture to always fully embrace us no matter what, it’s not going to happen. We’re responsible for our spirituality, and we choose the groups we align ourselves with.

Thank you so much for listening.
New episodes of the Waxing Soul drop every Thursday.
All materials and resources except the music are copyright Bridget Owens.
Many thanks to my readers, listeners, friends, mentors, inspirations, and my framily for riding with me into season two.
Until next week, blessed be and be good to yourself.

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