National Edition

Religious vs. spiritual: Study says the truly 'spiritual but not religious' are hard to find

Published: Friday, Aug. 16 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, July 22 2014 12:36 p.m. MDT

"We did not force respondents to say yes or no to questions about religion and spirituality, so we could simply listen for when they invoked this oppositional rhetoric, even if they were describing others, rather than themselves," Ammerman wrote.

The researchers then organized the responses to questions about spiritual and religious experiences into four "packages," or ways of talking about spirituality. Often, a participant used more than one of these approaches:

1) Theistic. Spirituality is about God, especially one's relationship with God, and any mysterious encounters or happenings that result from it. Researchers found 71 percent of the sample referred to spirituality in God-oriented terms they learned from their faith traditions.

“I love to be out on that boat on the ocean for the same reason I like to be in my garden, ’cause I feel close to the Lord and the beauty of the world,” a woman told researchers in explaining a photo she took of her family's boat.

2) Extra-theistic. Spirituality is not framed in theistic terms but rather as a kind of transcendence that is “bigger than me” and beyond the ordinary.

“Experiencing things that are calming and healing in what might almost be a spiritual way — I’ve had that from lots of things. Music, movies that I love, and books," a secularist from Atlanta told researchers.

But most participants who were active in a religious group also expressed spiritual experiences in extra-theistic terms.

3) Ethical. Spirituality is living a virtuous life by helping others and transcending one’s own selfish interests to seek what is right. This is a definition of spirituality that all respondents, from the most conservative Christian to the secular neo-pagan, agreed was the essence of authentic spirituality.

4) Belief and belonging. This spirituality package was defined differently by those who were active in a religion and those who weren't. "Believing, for instance, could either be a way of talking about devout spirituality or a way of describing superstition," Ammerman wrote. "Belonging can represent a positive identity or a symbol of being trapped in an authoritarian tradition."

She said that the tension between the two definitions sheds some light on why people would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.

"Those who are actively engaged with a religious tradition were very likely to link their belonging positively with their sense of what spirituality is," Ammerman wrote. "Those who have rejected traditional religious participation, on the other hand, link belonging with an absence of spiritual authenticity."

Perception and misunderstanding

Among those who have a negative view of organized religion, Ammerman's team found that claims of being spiritual but not religious were a way for people to draw moral and political boundaries rather than make a statement of belief and practice, she said.

By analyzing participants' stories, researchers discovered that some people wanted to describe themselves as "spiritual" to avoid being perceived as selfish and unaware that there is something beyond themselves. But they didn't want to be labeled as "religious" because that identity has been co-opted by an image of someone trapped by rules, rituals and superstition, Ammerman said.

Carla Henry, a 49-year-old Pentecostal, wasn't part of Ammerman's project, but her attempt to distinguish between the terms "spiritual" and "religious" also illustrates how separating those aspects could create a misleading understanding of her religious experience.

"I would probably identify with the word 'spiritual' more, because to me it implies a more intimate connection (with God) than 'religious,’ ” she said. "To me, 'religious' means something that you are doing, where 'spiritual' is something that you are feeling or experiencing."

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