Most people have got a reasonable idea of what’s meant by the word ‘religion’, even if it’s hard to tie down precisely. But what about ‘spirituality’? It’s an important question because there’s an increasing body of research into spirituality, rather than religion.
The concept of ‘spirituality’ is used in these studies specifically to get away from the idea that religion is the be-all and end-all in terms of personal fulfilment, happiness, and health. Surprisingly, however, the two are then often bundled together as a conglomerate. When describing their research, you often hear something like: “Religion/spirituality is helpful in…”
Take, for example, a recent study into the outcome of drug treatment. The authors, Brad Conner and colleagues from UCLA, looked into whether religious and/or spiritual patients responded better to a treatment programme using drug substitutes (e.g. methadone).
They found that patients who scored high on the spirituality index were better able to cut back on their opiate use. However, there was no relationship to scores on the religious scale.
But in an accompanying review, Are religiosity and spirituality useful constructs in drug treatment research?, they don’t differentiate between the two when it comes to looking at their effects on outcomes. Spirituality and religion are assumed to be closely related.
So just what is spirituality? Conner et al put it like this:
Religiosity, as typically defined, encompasses a belief in god, various dimensions of
involvement in organized religion, such as denominational affiliation (e.g., Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Jewish), frequency of attendance at services, acceptance of doctrinal beliefs and norms, and social interaction with fellow congregants. Spirituality emphasizes an inner quality that “facilitates connectedness with the self, other people, and nature.”22(p. 557) While R/S are frequently linked concepts, many people view themselves as spiritual rather than religious,4,19 and the distinction between involvement in organized religion and a person’s “inner quality” requires operationalizing instrument definitions clearly.
So far so good, but here’s the crunch:
There is also some disagreement regarding whether belief in a supreme being or sacred realm is an essential element of spirituality. Without such belief, spirituality may be difficult to distinguish from purely humanist beliefs and personal characteristics such as self-efficacy and optimism.
I’ve emphasized the last sentence, because it highlights the problem. Many of the scales used to measure ‘spirituality’ actually encompass ideas that a lot of atheists would be very comfortable with.
For example, here’s a list of the items on the Spirituality Index of Well-Being Scale:
1. There is not much I can do to help myself.
2. Often, there is no way I can complete what I have started
3. I can’t begin to understand my problems.
4. I am overwhelmed when I have personal difficulties and problems.
5. I don’t know how to begin to solve my problems.
6. There is not much I can do to make a difference in my life.
7. I haven’t yet found my life’s purpose.
8. I don’t know who I am, where I came from or where I am going.
9. I have a lack of purpose in my life.
10. In this world, I don’t know where I fit in.
11. I am far from understanding the meaning of life.
12. There is a great void in my life at this time.
Based on my own responses to those questions, I would be marked as highly spiritual!
The Spiritual Well Being Questionnaire has four components: personal (meaning and value in one’s own life); communal (quality and depth of inter-personal relationships); environmental (sense of awe for nature); and transcendental (faith in and relationship with someone or something beyond the human level). Only the ‘transcendental’ component would reliably distinguish atheists from those who believe in spirits, per se. And, as I’ve reported before, atheists most definitely do have a sense of awe for nature.
The Daily Spiritual Experience Scale, which is probably the most widely used in health research, tries very hard to focus on more religious ideas (like, “I feel God’s presence”). But even so, it’s deliberately constructed so as to include atheists. In describing the rationale for the scale, the authors (Underwood et al 2006) state for one of the items:
Item: Peace. 6. I feel deep inner peace or harmony. This item was one of those that has increased the appeal of this scale for atheist and Buddhist researchers and those with target populations in these or similar categories. And yet it also can elicit experiences for theistic subjects.
It also includes other items like I accept others even when they do things I think are wrong, and I feel a selfless caring for others.
So the reality is that many atheists are spiritual, at least as defined by these scales. Many aspects of spirituality don’t require you to believe in magical forces
So, be aware of just how fuzzy is the psychological concept of ‘spirituality’. Even if you are an atheist, when researchers are talking about the effects of spirituality, they may well be talking about you!
Conner, B., Anglin, M., Annon, J., & Longshore, D. (2008). Effect of Religiosity and Spirituality on Drug Treatment Outcomes The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, 36 (2), 189-198 DOI: 10.1007/s11414-008-9145-z
Longshore, D., Anglin, M., & Conner, B. (2008). Are Religiosity and Spirituality Useful Constructs in Drug Treatment Research? The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, 36 (2), 177-188 DOI: 10.1007/s11414-008-9152-0
Daaleman, T. (2004). The Spirituality Index of Well-Being: A New Instrument for Health-Related Quality-of-Life Research The Annals of Family Medicine, 2 (5), 499-503 DOI: 10.1370/afm.89
Underwood, L. (2006). Ordinary Spiritual Experience: Qualitative Research, Interpretive Guidelines, and Population Distribution for the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale Archive for the Psychology of Religion / Archiv für Religionspychologie, 28 (1), 181-218 DOI: 10.1163/008467206777832562
This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.