Alexander Lynn

Nov 27, 2016

6 min read

Spirituality and Religion*

Alexander Lynn

One of the first questions that arise when discussing spiritual practice of any kind is: “What is the difference between spirituality and religion?” The community teacher’s answer will include some of the following historical information:

Spirituality All humans, from the earliest human organization, have had spiritual practices. A spiritual practice is a set of beliefs, customs, rituals, and values that a group guides their community by, or an individual guides her life by. From earliest times up until what Western sociology calls “civilization” (generally associated with the emergence of social classes, the state, private property and the nuclear family, Engels, pp. 87–162), human social organization has been accompanied by a specific set of beliefs and customs, which characterize that people. These beliefs govern the way these humans treat each other, and relate to the world around them. These spiritual practices were experienced as a need by these social groups in the face of a universe over which they most often had very little control. The presence of a power greater than their little commune was ubiquitous.

Religion Initially it seems easier to define spirituality by contrasting it with religion. This is not an accident, since human history developed religion at the same time as it overcame communal social organization associated with humans first 100,000 years: As “civilization” overcame communal social organization, so the simple and utilitarian values and beliefs of the group (spiritual practices) were overcome by a complex structure, religion, which was directly connected to the rise of the state, money and social power-over, in other words, class divisions (see in this regard Kautsky, pp. 47–187).

In this context, the context of religion being associated at its birth with class divisions, religions are distinct from spiritual practices in the following ways: Religions are hierarchical; they are partially defined by their property; they are ideological (that is, they are exclusive and divisive); and they have a relationship of harmony with a ruling state or ruling states. All religions are patriarchal, refer to the higher power as “He,” understand men to be closer to Allah than women, and hold men in the top leadership position for social life under heaven and in the family. Examples:

Hierarchy: Catholicism — 1. God, 2. Pope, 3. Clergy, 4. churchgoers; 5. non-believing rabble; Judaism — 1. God, 2. Rabbis, 3. followers; Islam — 1. Allah, 2. Imam, 3. parishoiners…

Property: Churches, Synagogues, Mosques

Ideology: For each religion, its conception of God is the only conception acceptable to God. As such, religions are closed-ended belief systems.

The State: Judaism is the religion of the Zionist State of Israel. Christianity is the dominant religion of the United States of America. There are numerous theocracies in the Middle East — that is, they are Islamic states.

Male Supremacy: Women stand behind men in Muslim rituals. The Pope stands over his flock and the Pope is male.

In the course of the last two thousand-plus years of class divided society, the religions that have dominated are those that are associated with (i.e., have good relationships with) the ruling state, and the dominant economic class. Note that Christianity is the religion of the West and most Western governments have very favorable relationships with the largest denominations of this religion. Islam is practiced in the Middle East and Asia where many of the governments are theocracies, i.e., they are Islamic, and the ruling class is Islamic. The state of Israel is a Zionist state — that is, the state is founded on the premise that Jews are God’s chosen people.

Spiritualism is non-hierarchical, is disassociated in principle and practice from private property and material wealth, and non-ideological, therefore, inclusive. All spiritual practices understand women and men to be equal. While some understand motherhood as the center of spiritual health, this understanding does not place women in a position of power over men (as male supremacist/patriarchal religious forms place men above women in practice). This holds true for indigenous spiritual traditions throughout Africa and Native America, for self-help associations in the West such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and for spiritual traditions practiced by tens of millions of people in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, such as Buddhism, Yoga, Taoism, Shamanism, and Sufism.

The Return of Spiritual Practice An example out of the health care field of this accentuated reliance on spirituality is that of the nursing field. The nurse is a care-giver — that is the job. A plethora of attention has recently been devoted to the issue of a spiritual aspect of the nursing profession, and to the necessity of including a spiritual practice as central to the dispensation of nursing services (Gordon, 2005; Taylor, 2001; Gelfand, 2008). This plethora can be seen in the course work and curricula in nursing schools; there is now a significant literature devoted to just this issue (Grant, 2004; Koenig, 2007; Lemmer, 2005; Stoll, 1989); and hospitals are increasingly becoming aware that this spiritual part of the nurse’s work may be appropriate and mandatory.

Our research has uncovered that the base of this focus has come from the nurses themselves and from their patients. First, people who enter the nursing profession are women 1, and most of them are women who identify with care giving as a life mission, rather than a mere job. Many of these people have a spiritual practice of their own which guides them in their connection with their patients, independently of the rules of the hospital.


1 Men comprise only about 6% of working U.S. nurses. (Center for Nurse Advocacy, 2007) _____________________________________________________________

The text, Spiritual Care: Nursing Theory, Research and Practice (Taylor, 2001), similarly to the Liberation Pedagogical premise in the exercise Value System (Lynn, 2016), defines the period of young adulthood as being a period when a belief system begins to be formed in a person (p23). In the case of addictions, people of any age, trying to recover, are trying to recover a spiritual practice. Concomitantly, Nursing Theory… goes on to emphasize that today the nursing profession is being increasingly required to have a spiritual approach. In other words, the nurse must approach her/his clients from a perspective that “‘integrates all aspects of care for the patient.’ That is, because spirituality is an integrative factor that connects all aspects of a person’s life, nursing care is most effective when it acknowledges this integration.” (p24)

According to the above-quoted text, “Many clients desire spiritual care from their health care professionals (e.g., open discussion of beliefs, prayer),” (p52). The text authors go on to suggest that “When client beliefs differ from those of the nurse, and the client has not expressed a desire for information about other beliefs, the nurse can share spiritual beliefs that are sufficiently universal to be comforting.” (Ibid)

Because spiritual beliefs are by definition non-dogmatic, health care professionals who are skilled at integrating spiritual principles in their practice are generally received very favorably by patients. There are numerous reasons for this:

One is that, despite the wonders of modern science, most people regard their life on the planet, in general, and their specific presenting ailment, as being governed by a power greater than humans. That their health care provider is also relying on a power greater than medicine, the doctor, money, and the limits of insurance benefits, is usually very comforting. Even in considering the wonders of modern medicine, many people understand such wonders as having an origin in a power greater than modern medicine.

Issues such as one’s perspective regarding hope, purpose, soul, universal connection, are all spiritual issues. When a health care professional, such as a nurse, addresses such basic issues as the health of a patient, these issues can and will come up. For a nurse to be well versed in sharing an approach which includes these values is a great advance in the health care profession in general, and for the nursing profession specifically. The liberation approach to learning salutes those educators, professors and nursing school administrators who promote spirituality as a curriculum requirement in nurse training.


Allen, Paula Gunn. (1986). The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press.

Alcoholics Anonymous. (1976). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Bill W. (2005). The Language of the Heart. New York: The AA Grapevine, Inc.

Engels, Frederick. (1978). Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York: International Publishers.

Gelfand, M. (2008). Daring to care: American nursing and second-Wave Feminism. University of Illinois Press.

Glendening, Chellis. (1994). Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. Shambala.

Gordon, Suzanne. (2005). Nursing against the odds. Ithaca, New York: Cornell

Gorski, Terrence, T.. (2010) “Disease model of addiction.” University Press. The Addiction Web-site of Terrence T. Gorski.

Grant, D. (2004). “Spiritual interventions: How, when and why nurses use them.” Holistic Nursing Practice, 18(1), 36–41.

Kautsky, Karl. (1925). Foundations of Christianity. New York: International Publishers.

Koenig, H.G. (2007). Spirituality in patient care. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation.

Lemmer, C.M. (2005). “Recognizing and caring for spiritual needs of clients.” Journal of Holistic Nursing, 23, 310–322.

Lynn, Alexander. (2016). “Value system.” Roxbury, MA: Social Justice Education.

Taylor, Elizabeth Johnson. (2001). Spiritual care: nursing theory, research and practice. New York: Prentice Hall.

* This essay is excerpted from Alexander Lynn, The Community Teacher’s Guide to Liberation Pedagogy, Chapter Four, People’s Spirit, pp.150–152. Boston Women’s Fund, Pub., 2013.


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