Formating has been edited from that in the original email to facilitate ease of reading.
Besides, I said "a" path towards enlightenment.. not "the" path.
I no more believe that there is a single path to enlightenment than I believe that there is any singular manner of "correctly" practicing BDSM as kink, or any single way of perceiving a dominant/submissive dynamic between any given individuals. (Do I believe that there is "one right way" for ME? certainly - unfortunately, that right way for me seems to be directly at odds with the "right way" for practically everyone else who is part of the human species, especially those who are most caught up in the conventionality of definitions and roles!)
I am not, specifically, an atheist - a better term would perhaps be agnostic (the jury still isn't in, for lack of sufficient evidence in either direction) or more likely eclectic Gnostic. I do acknowledge that there is potentially a "higher" entity. Not "god" in the sense that religion would have us to believe - some anthropomorphized, better than human human. But something so outside the realm of current human comprehension that it could very well be "god like" in it's capacity for creation, foresight, and knowledge.
Ascribing human emotions, human motivations, or human concerns - even a concern for humanity - to such an entity has always seemed to me to be a two fold problem of species ego combined with some bizarre need to limit things to the easily comprehensible. Here, we go back to that age old instinctive Fear response when faced with the unknown or incomprehensible. Relegate it to terms, and conditions, which even the simplest mind can understand and you remove much of the fear.
Am I necessarily "fit" to determine who is and who isn't on a path towards enlightenment? Obviously not, since I'm simply another human being.
Do I have a better than average grasp on the difference between Spirituality and Religion? I like to think I do, simply from the amount of time I've spent on the subject as part of my philosophical/esoteric/paranormal studies. I am, however, by no means Through with those studies nor do I ever expect to BE through with them. There's simply to much material out there to be easily covered in a single lifetime. I'm definitely NOT a Religious person, and haven't been since I reached an age of self determination and ability to study for myself. I rejected Christianity - along with Judaism, Islam, and all other forms of organized, clearly defined, and restrictive religious view - once I'd done sufficient study on my own to know that they were all simply too limiting in the greater scope of existence.
I reached That point by the time I was 12, btw.... I was fortunate in having parents who encouraged my study of a wide variety of religious viewpoints, and who insisted that I question, and then search until I found satisfactory answers to those questions. I've read the bible cover to cover, as well as doing some of my own translation work from the original Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew. (Did that as a joint project with my father at the age of 17, during summer break from school between my sophomore and junior years.)
I've read the Koran through from cover to cover, though I have yet to get around to doing any of my own translation work on that from the original Aramaic. (Someday, eventually, when I have time and don't have 20billion other irons in the fire lol) I've studied several of the Krishnic and Hindu texts, though not as extensively as I'd like to. (Again - someday, hopefully lol)
I've put in time studying various texts that have been specifically Excluded from the Judaeo-Christian bible, most of which were deleted during the conclaves held in the reign of Constantine. (A man who murdered his wife and son; made lunar sects, prophecy and private meditation illegal; and then adopted Christianity as his "official" religion just before death out of fear that one of the sects he had wiped out <"the pure" is what they called themselves, devotes of a spider deity, actually> were actually correct about certain things, after encouraging the erection of temples to himself and an association between himself and the sun. His political dictates played a significant role in what was - and what wasn't - included in the officially sanctioned texts that were included in the current bible.)
And I've spent a lot of time studying the works of early philosophers and some of the less than conventional 'lunar' religions that are often lumped under the heading of "new age" or 'pagan' religions.
At it's core - religion is a tool towards teaching the outer mysteries to the masses while maintaining control over those masses. The "outer" mysteries being those things available easily to all, especially those who do not desire to spend time delving into the Inner mysteries - those things which go beyond simple acceptance and faith, to plumb the depths of that which is not as easily perceived.
Religion, because of it's placement of the inner mysteries outside the Comprehension of all but a chosen few Elite (as in a priesthood) to lead the rest, strives not to teach - but to contain and control. In effect, it protects the status quo and strives to continue protecting and maintaining it, even (or perhaps Especially) at the expense of those it claims to shelter from "dangerous" knowledge.
And by setting a large portion of knowledge outside the bounds of humanity, it maintains that control, enforcing it with warnings of dire consequences (such as "hell" in the mythos of Judaeo-Christianity and other religious offshoots of early Judaism.)
When it cannot maintain control through psychological manipulation of the mass (those "warnings") it takes matters a step further, proclaiming things to be "heretical".... "forbidden".... dangerous..... and directly punishing offenders to the status quo - traditionally by means of death either through military campaign (crusades) or torture (inquisitions). This routine of crusade/inquisition has not been limited strictly to the Judaic offspring, though it has decidedly been more Common with all religions in the ages since Constantine.
Knowledge has always been dangerous to the auspices of the "Church" (whatever church that might be) because it removes the Necessity for intermediaries to stand between Common Man and The Universe. If you and I are just as capable of learning Greater Truths as some elite priesthood, what need do we have in the long view to maintain that priesthood as a thing apart - special, elevated, and somehow "better" than average?
No need - so the priesthood is dissolved, and control is lost over the masses. Throughout history, those attacked most fiercely by Religion have been those who rejected the control of religion, and those who endorsed doing their own thinking and philosophical searching.
Inherently, spirituality touches on those Truths that have been traditionally guarded by an elite priesthood.
Truths of what mankind's place is in the greater scheme of things, truths of purpose, truths of understanding our interdependent relationships both with each other and with the rest of the universe around us.
At it's core, spirituality searches for greater purpose, and strives to Individually define our roles within life. It helps us, as human beings, to determine where everything "fits" so to speak. It answers the "Whys" of existence, in greater or lesser detail, as each individual determines their own need to know the "why."
It acknowledges, in various ways, that mankind is NOT the ultimate on the evolutionary scales, nor the master of all knowledge and creation. It acknowledges, through it's questioning and the answers derived from those questions, that there are things that we have not yet learned - either individually or as a species - about how our universe works. And it strives in it's way to progress from that point of lack of knowledge to a greater understanding and harmony with what Is, and what Works.
Spirituality requires the facility.. and the time.. for philosophical searching on an individual level. Religion denies the need for such self searching, and discourages philosophical endeavors for any outside that chosen elite.
Spirituality dictates questioning life, self, authority, convention. Religion discourages questioning of authority, and loathes the desire of the philosophical to step outside the bounds of convention. (It is, after all, disruptive to the status quo and the power base of the elite to do such questioning or to refute convention.)
Can religion LEAD to spirituality? Yes, at least to a limited extent. The problem which crops up is that a reliance on religion teaches people to Continue relying upon religion for their answers. It kills the drive to explore potentials and possibilities, and encourages a lack of thought, a lack of questioning - a total acceptance (on faith and insufficient knowledge) of what one is told to believe.
Some people, obviously, are satisfied with that, and lack the drive to look beyond what they're told to believe. They will, in my personal opinion, always be rather limited in what they are capable of comprehending, simply because they have given up the tendency towards further exploration. Only time itself will determine whether I'm correct or incorrect in my hypothesis about their spiritual limitations... and I'm neither bold enough, nor vain enough, to rule out the possibility that I could be completely off the mark in such thinking.
Can spirituality lead to Religion? Not typically, in my opinion, simply because once a person starts on a path of spiritual enlightenment which isn't held in check by a specific religious dictate - they rapidly outgrow the limiting nature of such dictates. While it's remotely possible, it's highly unlikely.