In a world describing itself as secular, where faith’s role in society is questioned, the debate over religion has challenged the use of the word itself. Not only are there those who eschew anything outside of rational materialism, some people who refuse to refer to themselves as part of a religion still engage in what others would call religious actions or beliefs. Many American Aboriginal people describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’. There are a number of possible reasons for this, primarily involving historical and theoretical connotations. Specifically, associations of the word ‘religion’ with colonization, dogma, and the separation of the sacred and profane have led some North American Aboriginal people to describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ and not ‘religious.’
The Aboriginal people preferring ‘spirituality’ over ‘religion’ could be acting in a trend popular to many people across many demographics. ‘Spirituality’ is defined by David Yamane in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society as “a quality of an individual whose inner life is oriented toward God, the supernatural, or the sacred” (Yamane, 492). As William James contrasts personal experience with inherited tradition, many people are making distinctions between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is considered to be pure, while religion is corrupted by social, political, and economical influences; spirituality is considered to be between the sacred and the individual, while religion originates from human traditions and interferes with direct connection to the divine (492). Both practitioners of spirituality and researchers of it have assumed this distinction: Dean Hamer, a molecular geneticist who has studied the possible inherited predisposition to faith, says that “the self-transcendence scale tries to separate one’s spirituality from one’s particular religious beliefs by eschewing questions about belief in a particular God, frequency of prayer, or other orthodox religious doctrines or practices” (Hamer, 10). Hamer needs, in the course of his research, to identify a trait that is not determined by the content of religious traditions, and so his search for a distinction is expected; however, that he calls this trait ‘spirituality’ rather than ‘religiosity’ implies that he connotes the word ‘religion’ with the doctrines and dogmas of a particular tradition and not only with an individual’s relationship with the divine. Therefore in both popular and academic realms, ‘religion’ is coming to necessarily connote connection with a particular tradition’s details while ‘spirituality’ refers to an unmediated relationship between the individual and the sacred. Some Protestant evangelical groups in Canada are avoiding the word ‘religion’ and privileging the word ‘faith’ in order to disassociate from this idea. It is possible that Native peoples are engaging in this understanding of these words.
Many faiths originating and developing in Western Asia and Europe have centralized authorities—institutions such as the papacy, synods, or schools of law, texts such as the Torah, the Bible, or the Qur’an, and individuals like ayatullahs or bishops—which define them as religions in the religion-spirituality dichotomy. Alternately, the religions of some Native peoples do not have similar centralizing authorities over sacred practices and beliefs. For instance, according to Professor Marie-Francois Guédon, traditional Inuit have local spiritual leaders—healers or shamans—that give guidance to the community (‘Far North’). There is no authoritative text, office, or individual that can make decisions for all Inuit everywhere, and so ‘spirituality’, under the above definition, may apply more aptly to this relationship to the sacred than ‘religion’ does. Similarly, the Dené people all have access to gifts involving relationship between the individual and the sacred and tend to have individual rituals rather than group rituals, though communities do have healers (Rabinovitch, ‘Eastern Sub-Arctic’). This again indicates a connection to the sacred world on an individual level, with no external institution or office mediating or interfering with it. Thus it is possible that Indigenous individuals who call themselves ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’ could be observing this difference.
Even accepting the distinction between ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’, it is not so clear that Aboriginal people are not religious because of centralized authorities in some peoples and the presence of received tradition in all cultures. Certain groups have a centralized authority or figure, especially since European contact. Many people, especially among the Inuit, have converted to a form of Christianity (Guédon, ‘Western Sub-Arctic’), and thus follow a Western Asian tradition with a central authority—in this case, the Bible. Many of the Six Nations people, though not the Mohawk, follow Handsome Lake’s Code, based on the teachings of a Seneca prophet known in English as Handsome Lake (Rabinovitch, ‘Woodlands’); the teachings of a single individual could reasonably constitute a central authority. If ‘religion’ is distinguished from ‘spirituality’ by the presence of a central authority, then some Native traditions and many Native individuals are religious.
Not only do some peoples adhere to a centralized authority, but most maintain inherited traditions, which are distinguished from personal experiences in William James’ theory and from spirituality in modern understanding. These traditions, though not located in a central office, still normalize individuals’ understandings and practices through generations. Stories and practices are passed down through generations, and though they sometimes change (Gill, 131), they still exert influence into the lives of practitioners. The elders are charged with this knowledge and ensure its continuation; within the Cree people’s Six Core Values, which are inherited tradition in their own right, is the necessity of listening to elders (Rabinovitch, ‘Eastern Sub-Arctic’). Another of the Six Core Values is the gift of language, and included in this idea is that language is meant to teach the Cree ways of life (Rabinovitch). That listening to elders is important and that there are ‘Cree ways of life’ indicate the presence of inherited tradition. Thus ‘religion’ may apply just as well as ‘spirituality’ in many or all cases if the distinction between the two words is one of inherited tradition with centralized authority versus personal unmediated experience. There must be other reasons, therefore, for choosing ‘spirituality’ over ‘religion’.
The history of the word ‘religion’ could have contributed to Indigenous people’s avoidance of it. In most Native American languages, there is no word that translates as ‘religion’ (Gill, 8). This word, or any translation of it, was first introduced by European colonizers. In this case it was considered equivalent to Christianity, and so neither colonizer nor colonized used ‘religion’ to refer to anything the Aboriginal people did or thought. The colonizers then committed “flagrant violations of their [the Native people’s] privacy and way of life” (8) by outlawing important rituals (Rabinovitch, ‘Eastern Sub-Arctic’), kidnapping children and putting them in residential schools (Rabinovitch, ‘Plateau’), and interfering with their use of sacred land (Rabinovitch, ‘Plains’). Much of the time, the colonizers committed these transgressions in the name of ‘religion’. These events have unfortunately given ‘religion’ a negative connotation. As a result of the misunderstandings and initially narrow definitions of religion, Native people have generally avoided using the word ‘religion’ in reference to themselves (Gill, 8). The word ‘spirituality,’ offers a possible alternative, which they have accepted.
Beyond its history, certain assumptions in the word ‘religion’ do not accurately describe Aboriginal practices and beliefs. In its chapter on ‘Sacred’, the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society defines religion as “that which has to do with the sacred” (Bailey, 443), which is elaborated in the chapter on Émile Durkheim, who pioneered the theory that religion is the “system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred, ones that united their followers into a moral community” (Nielsen, 147). These ideas of religion operate on the idea of ‘the sacred’. The sacred is difficult to define. The Encyclopedia defines it as possessing four characteristics: it is special to the point of being unique when experienced; it is important to the point of being all-demanding; it is fundamental to the point of being primordial in human consciousness; it is dynamically communicated while being ineffable (Bailey, 444). In its chapter on Durkheim, however, the Encyclopedia defines it as that which is part of universal truth, as opposed to the ‘profane’, which are activities or objects that are routine or not a part of universal truth (Nielsen, 147). Thus religion, according to this line of thought, is that which concerns those things that are not routine, fundamental, ineffable, all-demanding, and part of universal truth. Religion operates on the understanding that there is a difference between the sacred and the profane. If this is religion, then Aboriginal peoples, who usually have no such distinctions between sacred and profane, have no religion.
Indigenous peoples can be seen to have no distinction between sacred and profane. Words that, in English, denote either the sacred or the profane no longer do so in Aboriginal languages: ‘spirit’ refers to distinctly sacred entities, but its Dené equivalent also means insects, eels, worms, dragons under the mountains, and a number of other beings (Guédon, ‘Far North’). The Dené see all animals as people, and there is no ‘sacred land,’ as in a church, because all land is sacred; along the same lines, the land of the dead is located in ‘real’ geography (Guédon, ‘Western Sub-Arctic’). Almost universally, according to Gill, the items contained in a medicine bundle are commonplace: feathers, bones, plants, rocks and pebbles, and other items frequently found outside of large cities. These fairly simple items, however, are very important. The owners understand that the items in the bundles may heal, provide certain power, or aid in hunting, war, or love. Further, they believe that the bundles are alive (Gill, 49-50). Similarly, the peoples of California did not distinguish between animate and inanimate, or natural and supernatural, because all things had residual creative power (Rabinovitch, ‘California’). There is no distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ objects, actions, or places because everything is sacred and nothing is profane.
If there is no distinction between the sacred and the profane in a society, then there is no religion under Durkheim’s definition. It is clear that a culture with no recognition of the sacred has no religion, but in this understanding, a culture with no recognition of the profane also has no religion. Religion, as a word that describes something, requires that there could be something outside of it. If there is nothing outside of religion, then such a word is meaningless. Since religion is often defined as “that which has to do with the sacred”, if there is nothing that has to do with the opposite of sacred, or profane, then there is no religion. Aboriginal peoples believe that everything is sacred, and therefore there is, to them, no religion. It makes sense in this light for them to regard themselves as spiritual—engaged with the spirits in the world—but not religious—heavily engaged in the parts of life dealing with the sacred and not the profane.
There are problems with this understanding of religion, as well. Many other traditions that consider themselves religions make no distinction between the sacred and the profane. Pious Christians who stress God’s immanence often see all objects in the world as part of God’s creation and therefore sacred; Muslims affirm that all things, including animals, rocks, and mountains, have souls and worship God for all time, though only human and jinn souls have the ability to deny this (Jahanbakhsh); Buddhists believe everything is part of the same illusion. The Christians and Muslims in these examples consider all things to be sacred, and the Buddhists in the example give this distinction no meaning. However, all of them developed within societies that did make this distinction, so that they deny it is relevant within their context. Aboriginal traditions developed within a context that did not make these distinctions and thus ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ had no relevance until European contact.
None of these explanations will account for every Aboriginal person who prefers ‘spiritual’ to ‘religious’, but the whole set of connotations arriving with the word ‘religion’—colonization, centralized authority, dogma, distinction between sacred and profane areas of life—has acted to make it unpopular with many people, both Native American and immigrated. It would be unfair to assume that those who choose to refer to themselves as ‘religious’ include this connotations in their self-image, or to assume that all of these connotations—particularly those involving central authority or dogma—are necessarily inferior to their opposites. However, these connotations cannot be ignored and, in light of them, it is easy to understand why people seek alternative vocabulary.
Bailey, Edward. “Sacred.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Ed. William H. Swatos, Jr. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1998.
Gill, Sam D. Native American Religions: An Introduction. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2005.
Guédon, Marie-Francois. “The Far North – Where Land and Water Do Not Mix.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 21 Sept. 2007.
Guédon, Marie-Francois. “The Western Sub-Arctic – Athapaskans Rebuilding Identity.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 28. Sept. 2007.
Hamer, Dean. The God Gene. New York: Doubleday, 2004.
Jahanbakhsh, Forough. “The Qur’an.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 4. Oct. 2007.
Nielsen, Donald A. “Durkheim, Émile.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Ed. William H. Swatos, Jr. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1998.
Rabinovitch, Shelley. “California and the Western Coast – The Forgotten Peoples.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 16 Nov. 2007.
Rabinovitch, Shelley. “The Eastern Sub-Arctic – Algonquians of the Swamplands.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 5 Oct. 2007.
Rabinovitch, Shelley. “The Eastern Woodlands – Where Democracy Was Born.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 30 Nov. 2007.
Rabinovitch, Shelley. “The NW Plateau – Fur-Trading Peoples.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 2 Nov. 2007.
Rabinovitch, Shelley. “The Plains – More Than ‘Dances With Wolves.’” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 26 Oct. 2007.
Yamane, David. “Spirituality.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Ed. William H. Swatos, Jr. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1998.
 Primarily Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though also Zoroastrianism and other less prominent traditions.