When is it Spirituality and When is it Religion?

Kumare movie poster

By Jeremy Connor

Jeremy Connor is a music performance graduate from the University of Alabama. He is currently working full time in marketing and finance at West Alabama Wholesale in Newport, Alabama. The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities.

The idea behind the movie, Kumare, is a simple, but interesting one. An American man with Indian heritage, named Vikhram, decides to conduct an experiment. He wonders if he can convince people that he is a ‘real guru’ by speaking in an Indian accent, dressing in Eastern clothes, and saying many profound-sounding nonsense phrases. In short, it worked. People followed him and bonded with him over made-up nonsense. After watching the film, two questions that have perplexed me for a while once again popped into my head: What defines a practice as a religion versus just being spiritual, and why is spirituality important to people?

Many non-church going people my age have a phrase that I’ve heard so many times over my life, and I am always confused as to what exactly it means. “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual”, is the credo of these people and there seems to be a trend in their demographic. In my experience, it tends to be those that had a religious upbringing and have since began questioning their faith. What do these people need from so called “spirituality” that they don’t feel they need from religion anymore?

The people in Vikhram’s experiment that were so swayed and influenced by Kumare all had problems that they needed to solve. Kumare acted as a therapist who could listen and give back kind words, though they may have been broken and nonsensical. It wasn’t what he was saying that mattered, but more that they were able to talk to someone about what was bothering them. This was all solidified and made more important through the use of ritual. Similarly to how his words were not important, the content of the ritual was not important, only that there was a ritual that they could follow and get into the right mindset to do some introspective thinking.

So, is this considered religion? In the movie, they didn’t ever state to the followers that any of the teachings that Kumare gave were from any holy tradition. There was no worship, no creation story, nothing that people usually identify as important parts of religion. But it had many of the other important aspects of religion: the community, the therapeutic settings, and the ritual that made these people feel very strongly connected to it.

In my opinion, the main difference between religion and spirituality is the amount of organization and the level of reliance on supernatural explanations. Religions tend to rely more on explanations that are supernatural in nature, putting their faith in a god or gods and praying, while spirituality may contain something like that, it isn’t necessary to fit under the broad category of being “spiritual”. Religion also is usually much more organized with different institutions that have leaders and hierarchies, rather than just existing as a perspective in someone’s mind.

After seeing the people in Kumare get fooled so easily, I have come to the conclusion that the true importance of religion and spirituality in this day and age is to provide people with a way to bond with others in a close way, a way to feel like they can talk to someone (preferably with authority), in detail about their life problems, and rituals that they believe help to do something in their lives, whether they make any effect or not.