Challenging the idea of “spiritual but not religious”

Smiling guru with open arms over white background

Many people assume a sharp contrast between spirituality and religion. Spirituality involves strange experiences and feelings of ecstacy, whereas religion means boring sermons and social obligations. Hence, people often identify as spiritual but not religious. However, it remains an empirical question as to how distinct religion and spirituality actually are. Research by sociologist Nancy Ammerman (Boston University) indicates that, in fact, the line between spirituality and religion is quite blurry.

Ammerman not only wanted to conduct fresh research into the question of the difference between spirituality and religion, but also wanted to figure out how the assumption that this difference is stark became so common. Part of the reason for this view’s popularity stems from how researchers interpret the data. Specifically, many people respond to the question, “To what extent do you consider yourself to be a religious person?” with a “not” or “slightly,” and at the same time answer the question, “To what extent do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person?” with “moderately” or “very.” When this happens, researchers interpret these results to mean that religion and spirituality are independent dimensions. But Ammerman has argued that this “religion on one axis, spirituality on the other” view greatly oversimplifies the relationship between religion and spirituality.

Instead, Ammerman worked from the bottom up to see what people actually count as spiritual in their lives (rather than working with preconfigured categories). To do this, she gathered a sample of 95 participants, ranging from Catholic to conservative and liberal white Protestant, from African-American Protestant to Jewish, Mormon, and Neo-Pagan. Importantly, this sample did not consist of overly spiritual or religious people – in fact, fewer people in the sample regularly attended religious services than the national average. With the help of research assistants, the participants would keep an oral diary where they would record their thoughts and stories about spirituality. All the participants would add diary entries on a regular basis. The researcher made sure not to define “religion” or “spiritual” for the participants but to work inductively in order to determine how the participants themselves understood and used these terms.

After analyzing the data from the diary entries, 11 distinct dimensions of spirituality emerged. Below, they’re described by the order of their frequency. First, and most commonly (75/95 participants), spirituality consists in identifying with or belonging to a religious tradition. That’s no joke. This alone challenges the notion that religion and spirituality are radically different. Second, spirituality involves an ethical dimension, as in morally upright living. Third, spirituality pertains to God or a divine presence. Fourth, spiritual practices, such as reading sacred texts, matter for spiritual life. Fifth, spirituality entails mystery, or things whose explanations exceed ordinary means. Sixth, spirituality provides meaning or purpose. Seventh, spirituality intertwines with belief (in this sample, belief in God especially). Eighth, people not uncommonly (48/95 participants) reported their spiritual experiences as giving them a transcendent connection to others. Ninth, people rely on ritual to have spiritual experiences. Tenth, spirituality gives rise to a sense of awe. Finally, spirituality involves the sacredness and uniqueness of the self.

In the end, only 9 of these 11 dimensions made the final cut. The ethical dimension turned out to be conceptually distinct from spirituality upon closer examination of the diary entries. The researchers also rejected the ritual dimension but for a different reason: it depended too heavily on specific religious traditions and thus would not easily generalize into a framework intended to encompass a variety (if not all) religious traditions.

Even just the remaining nine dimensions suffice to challenge the belief that religion and spirituality relate in a simplistic manner. As Ammerman puts it, “For a large majority, spirituality is defined by and interchangeable with the experiences their religious communities have offered them and taught them how to interpret. For most of those who are actively involved in a congregation, there was no necessary conflict between – religion’ and – spirituality.’” If this research can be generalized to the populace at large, “spiritual but not religious” might change to “religious and therefore spiritual.”

For more, see “Spiritual But Not Religious? Beyond Binary Choices in the Study of Religion” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.