Questing Marilyn: #A-Z Challenge

“I want to seek something that is spiritual, not religious, that connects my spirit to universal energy. I want to experience the essence of all religion and come up with a belief system that suits me.”

Questing Marilyn: In Search of My Holy Grail by Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem

I am embarrassed to admit that I have only recently come to understand the difference between religion and spirituality. I’d imagined spirituality to be ‘Religion Lite’. This belief arose, I suspect, from seeing the term adorn the covers of of so many books on the New Age shelves in my local bookstore.

The Difference Between Religion and Spirituality

The essential difference between religion and spirituality, I’ve learned, is one of structure. Religions have set creeds and teachings, clear leadership, and often a long history of scholarship. When you choose to participate in a religion, you are accepting those teachings, and joining with others in a community of faith.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is a self-driven journey in search of one’s authentic self and life’s deeper meaning.

The two don’t have to be at odds but often are.

The Cafeteria Condemnation

Have you heard the term ‘cafeteria Catholic’? It refers to someone who identifies as a Catholic, but picks and chooses among the moral teachings of the Catholic church. There’s some discussion on Wikipedia of expanding the term to cafeteria Christianity because it’s not just Catholics who are being selective about what they choose to believe of their religion’s doctrine.

The same criticism is often levied at those who pursue a spiritual path. Thomas Moore, whose work I talked about in the post on aging, adds his voice to those who condemn the cafeteria approach. He is completely in favour of people picking and choosing what works for them, but he wants it to be as a result of deep study, not superficial, thoughtless choice. (Thank you to Joanne Sisco for pointing out my miscommunication. See her comment and my response below.)

In his book A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, Moore writes,

“I’m not talking about a selfish, ego-centered, loosely patched together spiritual concoction. I’m recommending a courageous, deep-seated, fate-driven, informed, and intelligent life that has a sublime and transcendent dimension…. To be religious even in a personal way, you have to wake up and find your own portals to wonder and transcendence.”

How to Be a Seeker

Moore offers many suggestions in both A Religion of One’s Own and Ageless Soul. A few of them are:

Be a natural mystic.

“Pull over when you’re driving on a highway, get out, and watch the sun set.”

Discover the power of the arts.

“You need more windows onto eternity and can’t dispense with the special portals of music, drama, poetry, dance, and all the other modes of image making.”

Find the resources that will give you insights.

Moore’s own guides include: “the Tao Te Ching, the Gospels, stories of the Greek gods and goddesses, teachings of the Zen masters, Sufi poems, Native American epic songs and tales, and the writing of the New England transcendentalists.”

Which, if any, of Moore’s suggestions appeal to you?





Join the tribe:


  1. Definitely not religious.I knew that when I was in grade one when the teacher was showing us a picture of hell. My thoughts that I remember to this day were, “I am just a little kid. I didn’t do anything to deserve this!” This was during catechism class in a Catholic school. Since then I feel I lean towards spirituality. However, I feel this is still something I need to know more about. Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post.

    1. I’ve recently started to realize that the childhood memories that are crystal clear for us were indeed defining moments in our lives. I’m not the least surprised that an image of hell would affect you when you were in grade one. I think it would affect me now!

  2. Hmmm…I am not religious but am deeply, quietly, and privately spiritual – a seeker and a natural mystic. I have friends who need and take comfort in being part of a religious group. I don’t have a problem with that, unless they try to make it a problem for me or our relationship. Which, thankfully, hasn’t happened.
    I don’t push my beliefs on anyone and I expect the same courtesy in return.

    I haven’t found a religion yet, where I can buy into the dogma, and I don’t think I ever will. It is in my nature to relentlessly question this shit – I was “hell on wheels” when my parents made me go to religious instruction to learn the catechism as a child. I challenged pretty much every thing they were telling me, because none of it made sense to me. I think a lot of people were relieved when I stopped showing up to these “lessons”. I know I was.

    Another great post, Karen!


    1. Hi Deb,
      I gave some thought to whether to put up this post or not, for the exact reasons you mention. Some of the Profound Journey tribe members are deeply religious, some follow a more spiritual path, and some want nothing to do with any of it.
      I decided to post because of what you said as well – we are a community that respects each other’s viewpoints. I also decided to post because midlife and beyond is a time when many of us are looking for Moore’s “portals to wonder and transcendence.” And because I honestly didn’t know the difference between religion and spirituality.

  3. I consider myself spiritual, not religious. I think I have mentioned it enough on posts here on PJ about my involvement with church activities and things I do for my church. The initial portal I went through that Moore mentions is the Gospels. I do not discount the other portals he mentions music, dance, poetry, art, etc. I think they are all ways of connecting with “something more.”
    I think another key difference between religion and spirituality is how we see God…as an unapproachable figurehead (religion) or a person, a friend (spiritual). I won’t go into a big, long, involved breakdown of the differences here in deference to PJ tribe members that want nothing to do with any of this. I am glad we are a community that respects each other’s viewpoints.
    I like that you posted even something like this, Karen, not because everyone necessarily shares an interest in a subject but because well, you didn’t know the difference and wanted to share what you found out with the rest of us. You are also sharing it in a way that is not cramming anything down people’s throats but with a sense of wonder and discovery that people can choose to pick up and run with or spend two minutes reading and forget about. If nothing else it gives everyone something they can think about and learn about or…not. 🙂 The choice is ours now. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts about this subject, Susan, and for your final paragraph. I do enjoy being able to post about ideas that stir up lots of emotion for people, knowing that our tribe will ignore or ponder as they wish.

  4. I’m rather confused by Thomas Moore’s condemnation of the cafeteria approach to religion. I’ve long believed in the concept of taking what works for me in any teachings, and leaving behind what doesn’t make sense.
    His words then seem to be contradicted with his next message of expanding our view and experiences by engaging in further exploration and learning. Maybe I’m missing the point here. It seems to me that you can’t embrace the dogma of organized religion while throwing open the doors to different points of view. Sooner or later the educated mind will start to pick and choose the pieces that hold together the most and abandon the rest.

    This is such a complex topic that’s ripe with individual perceptions and misconceptions, different experiences and teachings. Scholars have been studying and debating this one forever and likely will continue to do so in perpetuity.

    1. Hi Joanne,
      I’m glad you asked about this so I can try to clarify. Please put the miscommunication at my feet rather than Moore’s. I can see that I didn’t write the transitions as I should have.

      Moore is completely in favour of taking what works and leaving the rest behind. What he objects to is a superficial approach. In cafeteria terms, he wants you to choose a balanced meal based on a deep understanding of nutrition, not an assortment of desserts because they look pretty and give you a quick but unsustainable hit of sugar.

      So he wants us to study, to experience, to understand deeply and then to accept or reject based on that. The contrast would be Madonna touting the Kabbalah so, because we like Madonna, we dither around with the Kabbalah for a while and call ourselves spiritual.

      The title of Moore’s book – A Religion of One’s Own – doesn’t help with the confusion. Moore rejects the dogma of organized religion, despite having studied for 13 years at a Catholic seminary and leaving just before being ordained as a priest. But he believes that when we explore a spiritual path with thought and intention, it becomes our religion. He deals with the fact that one of the characteristics of religion is that it’s explored in community by saying that we can commune with nature, art, music etc. That point left me shaking my head a bit.

      I’ve updated the post to clarify Moore’s position. Thanks so much for pointing out the inconsistency, Joanne.

  5. Hi, Karen – I love your definition of spirituality as being ” a self-driven journey in search of one’s authentic self and life’s deeper meaning”. I am Roman Catholic, but your definition above fits me best of all.

  6. Hi Karen, You have done a beautiful job with what can be a difficult topic. I did not grow up religious at all. My dad is an atheist and my mom, agnostic. Then after the birth of my oldest daughter when I was about 24, I embraced Christianity, I began attending a huge Assemblies of God church. I loved it. Then, as difficult things happened in my life, I began to reevaluate my spirituality. It needed to be something very deep and unshakable. After a trip to the Middle East where we met with persecuted Christians in 3 different countries, I came home with questions. Within 2 weeks, I was attending Mass at the local Catholic parish. Keep in mind, my husband was the head pastor of our church and I was the worship leader. Soon he was diagnosed with cancer. It became clear to me after much study and contemplation that I wanted to convert. This was, of course, difficult for him, and we had our 3 daughters to consider, as well. After much prayer, I decided I would be Catholic in practice, but would not (formally) convert until I had my husband’s blessing, or until he died. He still jokes that this is why he is so determined to keep living. Over the past 6 years, I have gone from not understanding Catholicism at all to feeling completely Catholic in my heart. This is a sore subject with our Protestant family and friends, so I am somewhat “closeted” (for lack of a better term). 2 of our 3 daughters have decided that they, too want to become Catholic. I have never tried to persuade them to this point of view. They have just seen the joy that this spirituality gives me. I have the interesting perspective though, of seeing the beauty in both places. I have become more holistic in my relationship with God. It feels more effortless. Anyway, all of this is to say that your post really resonates with me and I appreciate it greatly. Facing Cancer with Grace

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Heather. Your quest exemplifies the deep spiritual searching that Moore urges.
      One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I didn’t take my dad up on his offer to accompany me on a spiritual quest when I was in my early twenties. I didn’t have much religious training when I was a child. My family identified as Presbyterian, my dad was an elder in the church and my mom taught Sunday school. But we left the church when the focus switched more to fundraising than to worship (a huge campaign was underway to fund a new building and the elders were expected to shoulder most of that burden.)

      In university I was captivated by the student-directed signboards (pithy quotes) of churches I saw around me in downtown Toronto. My father offered to go with me to any and every faith community gathering that we could find in any religion. I didn’t think it mattered to me, stayed focused on the essays I was writing, and never took him up on his offer.

      My dad is gone now and I’m searching now. I so wish I had his support and counsel.
      All that is to say that I can’t even imagine how joyful you are feeling or how you got to this place, but I would like to. Your life really is an inspiration, Heather. I’m so glad to have met you.

  7. Wonderful post. Karen. I grew up in a very religious environment, with strict rules about everything. Atonement for sins was pushed at a young age, confessions. Questions like ‘why’ weren’t permitted. The pushers of such rules broke them left and right while demanding adherence. The usual story. So, spirituality stayed with me, religion not so much. I would add my voice to those who do what works for them (cafeteria or full on), so long as they stay true to themselves and don’t hurt anyone.

    1. Eesh. I’ve read of that sort of early religious training and winced. Even worse when I hear it from someone I feel that I know, even a little. It’s impressive that you are still pursuing a spiritual path and not rejecting the whole kit and kaboodle.
      Thanks for sharing your experience, Silvia.

  8. Thank you for communicating the difference between religion and spirituality. Being raised Catholic, I appreciate the rituals of the mass (they bring a huge sense of comfort), but struggle with many of the church’s teachings. While I have not been a regular church-goer for over a year now, I still would classify myself as Catholic.

    My dad was a strong believer and church supporter especially in his later years. My mom converted to Catholicism and is also a strong believer. Yet I think if I pushed her, she would still be not aligned to all the church’s teachings (she leans liberal!). I find the term Cafeteria Catholic appropriate if I had to describe myself.

    I also have explored spirituality in the last few years. I agree with Donna – I love your definition of spirituality as being ” a self-driven journey in search of one’s authentic self and life’s deeper meaning”.

    Lately I’ve been considering finding a new church community. For the sense of community, and the ritual that I find comfort in. I guess I believe that spirituality and religion can co-exist in one person!

    Glad you’re picking topics to make us think!

    1. You’ve written a really thoughtful and thought-provoking comment as usual, Pat. I suspect you’re right and think Thomas Moore would agree also – that religion and spirituality can co-exist, especially in a person who selects from the teachings of her/his religion.

      Thanks for the support in choosing topics like this one. It’s always a bit of a risk, but I trust our online community to be thoughtful and considerate, and my trust is clearly well placed.

  9. I am religious. I believe that God has blessed my life and I get great solace and support from my beliefs. The ritual and rhythm of the Church has always given me a great sense of peace and I’m grateful I live in a country where I can worship as I please.

  10. So much to think about in today’s post and the comments! And I learned some things, too. What I value most is the ability to analyze the deep questions for ourselves so we can reach a place of fulfillment. No two paths are exactly the same! Thanks, Karen!

  11. oh well done brave and spirited person – not an easy topic and you handled it with grace. as a child I loved sunday school and jesus sometimes god when I felt he had answered my prayers. and then I threw it all away as a teenager when I identified the religious/social/political hypocrisy. further on I came into the natural mystic phase which opened a portal into spiritual dimensions. I borrow from here there and everywhere as you will see in my tomorrows post – I dont believe I do this in a superficial manner but more as a genuine seeker committed to the adage ‘know thyself’ and how may I be of service ? although I am not christian I love the christ although I am not religious I love ceremony and serving the greater and I do not have a problem with god or goddess or great spirit. very inspiring is thomas moore. thank you karen.

  12. Hi Karen, I would say that I am more spiritual now rather than following any specific religion. Probably because many of them have what I believe to be man-made rules and as you say pick and choose what they want to believe or follow because it suits their lifestyle or needs.

  13. Picking a religion seems like picking a presidential candidate. There are some points you agree on, while many others don’t fit your thinking, lifestyle, desires. And both can cause wars.

    I recently browsed through a Dutch book about religions of the world, which I’d been carrying around for ages. While it’s interesting to read about all religions, it is also overwhelming. It’s incredible how many things all religions have in common. The main highlight to me was that, if believers follow their “gospels”, there should be no violence and only kindness in this world. Obviously, something has gone wrong somewhere…

  14. I’m a committed Christian – which means I don’t pick and choose from the cafeteria – if God says it then it’s true for me. I will admit to times of dryness and times when I question things, but God is big enough to cover my doubts and if I want to be authentic then it means I walk my talk and don’t mix up my dogmas. I also don’t like the rules and regulations that organized denominations have added to bible truths – pare it back and you find the real God and real spirituality – it’s the add ons that turn people off.

    My FIL died a few weeks ago – he was a man of deep and abiding faith and it was so comforting to stand at his graveside and believe that there is more than him just rotting away in the ground after a life well lived and wisdom earned. I love the idea that he is with God and happy and vigourous again.

    Leanne |
    R for Remember Silence

    1. Thank you, Leanne. I very much appreciate your willingness to share your perspective. It has been humbling for me to see how many people in our online community are open to sharing their own viewpoints and so respectful of each others.
      Your father-in-law’s recent passing is a good example of why so many of us begin a spiritual quest at midlife, if we haven’t already resolved those questions for ourselves. I’m so glad you found solace in your beliefs.

  15. With respect to religion, people are either believers or they are not, and I am not. I like the idea of an inclusive community of people who gather on a regular basis, and I know that many churches do a lot of good in their community and the wider world. But I want nothing to do with the religious doctrines that are the core reasons for the existence of churches and other organized religions. I feel angry about the violence that has been perpetrated in the world in the name of religion.

    With respect to spirituality, I keep an open mind, curious about those aspects of human experience that seem to not be adequately explained by biology or cognition. Unfortunately, organized religions have mostly “cornered the market” on representations of spirituality. At the other extreme are the beliefs and practices that you have described as “woo-woo,” and about which I am suspicious.


    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Jude. One of the things that I admire about Thomas Moore is that he walks the middle path on the spiritual quest – neither the dogma of organized religion nor the unsubstantiated claims of extreme woo-woo. I think you’d be impressed by his scholarship.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *