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Religion vs. spirituality in Germany and the US

German and American flagsThe concepts “spirituality” and “religion” have exceptionally vague meanings, yet purport to cover something universal. That is, these terms should be able to describe something found across cultures, but their definitions seem too imprecise to have any real significance. While seeing how people from across the world understand the terms “religion” and “spirituality” remains a grand task, researchers from the US and Germany have collaborated to see the differences between how Americans and Germans use these terms.

Despite both US and Germany being Western countries, salient differences exist regarding how their cultures regard religion and spirituality. For instance, the majority of Americans consider themselves “spiritual,” whereas at most only 25% of Germans do. Furthermore, Americans more readily identify as both “spiritual” and “religious,” but Germans tend to shy away from the latter term. Already, common demographic data has suggested that culture affects how people understand the concepts of “religion” and “spirituality.” The University of Bielefeld's Barbara Keller and Constantin Klein, together colleagues at universities in the US and Germany, aimed to spell this out in more detail.

The researchers accomplished this by gathering 1,886 participants from the US and Germany. These volunteers filled out surveys, completed interviews, and conducted an experimental task. The surveys began by asking for the respondents to free-write their definitions of “religion” and “spirituality.” This openness allowed the researchers to use qualitative as well as quantitative analyses. After that, the surveys included the Mysticism Scale, the Big Five personality trait scale, the Attitudes toward God Scale, the Psychological Well-Being and Growth Scale, the Loyola Generativity Scale, and the Religious Schema Scale.

The researchers unfortunately do not provide details as to what happened during the interviews. Moving on to the last phase (having the participants do an experimental task), the researchers designed an experiment that would make clear the differences between German and American understandings of spirituality and religion. They relied on “classical semantic differentials.” A classical semantic differentials task presents a word or phrase before a person, and then asks that person to assess that word or phrase by selecting from a set of predetermined opposing adjectives. Specifically, these adjectives form three dimensions: evaluation, potency, and activity. The evaluation dimension presents opposing adjectives such as nice–awful, fine–coarse, heavenly–hellish, smooth–rough, mild–harsh, and clean–dirty. So when completing the evaluation dimension of this task, a survey-taker might describe the word “spirituality” as “nice, fine, heavenly, smooth, mild, clean.” The potency dimension includes the following adjectives: big–little, powerful–powerless, strong–weak, long–short, full–empty, and many–few. Finally, the activity dimension is composed of these adjective pairs: burning–freezing, hot–cold, fast–slow, sharp–dull, light–dark, and young–old.

Additionally, the researchers added adjective pairs relevant to spirituality and religion, including “liberating–oppressive,” “modern– traditional,” “this worldly–other worldly,” “secular–holy,” “sacred–profane.” (Previous research had already established classical semantic differentials as cross-culturally valid.)

By analyzing the data gathered from the classical semantic differentials task, the researchers found that, compared to Germans, Americans see less of a difference between religion and spirituality. Across the three dimensions (evaluation, potency, and activity), Americans overall picked the same adjectives for both spirituality and religion. By contrast, Germans selected the same adjectives for religion and spirituality mainly in the potency dimensions (but even then the overlap was not as strong as for Americans), and with almost no overlap in the activity dimension.

Americans and Germans agreed in describing “spirituality” as “creative,” liberating,” “flexible,” and “individual,” but no similar agreement could be found for “religion.” Americans tended to classify religion as “subjective,” while Germans selected the adjectives “holy,” “sacred,” and “moral” (Germans considered both religion and spirituality “subjective”). Finally, regarding words that fit both “spirituality” and “religion,” Americans and Germans alike chose “strong,” “moral,” and “sacred,” while least frequently choosing “new,” “modern,” and “lonely” (and Germans, unlike Americans, also rarely picked “rational” or “laissez-faire”).

The researchers concluded that, “For both the American and German sub-samples, it seems that ‘religion’ per se is barely visible. Rather, where it spreads across associations, it overlaps with ‘spirituality.’” In other words, the concept of religion existing without spirituality does not seem to exist in either of these cultures. More than that, it appears that “spirituality” does all of the work and has all of the connotations that researchers of religion typically desire and mean. Well, at least for Americans and Germans. It would be unfortunate to begin a project by being sensitive to cultural differences, and then conclude by ignoring all cultures except for the two in question.

For more, see “The Semantics of ‘Spirituality’ and Related Self-Identifications: A Comparative Study in Germany and the USA” in The Archive for the Psychology of Religion.


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