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What Does Being Spiritual Mean?

Findings from a recent Pew Research Center survey reveals that 70% of U.S. adults identify as spiritual while 22% consider themselves spiritual but not religious

May 29, 2024 By: David O'Reilly Read time:

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What Does Being Spiritual Mean?

Austin Vivolo doesn’t recall what grade he was in when his parents stopped going to church, only that he and his older brother were delighted. “We thought, ‘Oh, we don’t have to go to that boring place anymore where we always have to be quiet.’”

Today the Boca Raton, Florida, massage therapist “definitely believes in God” but concedes his concept is “different from the typical.”

“My God is essentially the totality of all reality, of everything conceivable and nonconceivable,” says Vivolo, who is 28. And it’s not in the communal setting of a church but in the centering stillness of yoga practice—on a beach sometimes, at sunrise—that he seeks to “connect with the ultimate truth of my being.”

Like 28% of U.S. adults and 43% of those under age 30, Vivolo claims no affiliation with organized religion, counting himself among the growing millions of Americans who identify as religiously “none” or “nothing in particular.”

Yet despite this trend, a Pew Research Center survey finds that belief in a spiritual realm beyond this world is widespread among Americans, even for those who are not religious. “Overall, 70% of U.S. adults can be considered ‘spiritual’ in some way, because they think of themselves as spiritual people or say spirituality is very important in their lives,” says the report, “Spirituality Among Americans,” which was published in December.

Conducted July 31 through Aug. 6, the nationally representative online survey found that 48% of U.S. adults identify as religious and spiritual, 22% as spiritual but not religious, 10% as religious but not spiritual, and 21% as neither. Despite such different identities, the report found that 83% of all adults believe humans have a soul or a spirit in addition to their own physical body, and 81% say there is something spiritual beyond the natural world, even if they can’t see it.

The findings come amid a backdrop that shows that the Christian share of the U.S. population has been declining in recent decades, notes Gregory A. Smith, Pew Research Center’s associate director of research. Although 16% of adults over age 65 report no affiliation with organized religion, that’s how 43% of 18- to 29-year-olds like Vivolo view themselves. Another recent Pew analysis of religious trends projects that by 2070, Christians might represent just a half to a third of the U.S. population—down from 9 in 10 as recently as the early 1990s.

Thousands of respondents also took the time to jot a few words or sentences about what the term “spiritual” means to them. The result is a broad range of findings both quantitative and qualitative, statistical and personal.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

“So that raised the question for us,” says Smith, co-leader of the survey. “What does it mean? Are we headed towards secularization,” a worldview largely devoid of God and transcendence? “Or could it be that the U.S. is becoming more spiritual even as it becomes less religious? So this survey was designed to measure the spirituality of the American public.”

But first the researchers had to grapple with what exactly is “spirituality?” The word comes to English from spiritus, Latin for “breath,” with connotations of life force. Some people understand it to be a practice like prayer or meditation, others as belief, still others as experiences of awe, peace, or transcendence. “So we flipped that ambiguity,” Smith explains, “and used it to our advantage.”

Rather than ask the 11,201 survey respondents—who are part of the Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel—if they agree with some prepared definition of the term, the survey elicited their understanding of spirituality. Many of its questions invited respondents to identify the practices, beliefs, and experiences they consider spiritual, and to supply their own understanding of spirituality.

“I think that’s one of the key contributions of the study,” says Smith. Thousands of respondents also took the time to jot a few words or sentences about what the term “spiritual” means to them. The result is a broad range of findings both quantitative and qualitative, statistical and personal.

“To me, spiritual means to be in touch with nature, see the beauty in everything, feel the love of Mother Nature, to know that there is something out there that is greater than me …” wrote one respondent.

“The belief that a supreme being is the creator and ultimate controller of the universe and that humans’ existence in this realm is transient,” wrote another. “I associate spiritual with religious, something that takes me out of my everyday life,” said a third. Vivolo, who did not participate in the survey, defines spirituality as “the science of the unseen.”

Other respondents described spirituality as “something larger and more creative than science,” or “a relationship with God,” or “connecting with the creator,” or “living in accordance with the Bible,” or “being one with your soul, emotions, feelings, actions.”

The study also took a close look at how Americans who describe their religiosity as none or nothing in particular view the notion of spirituality. In a separate report based on the survey, “Religious ‘Nones’ in America: Who They Are and What They Believe,” released in January, the Center’s researchers found that 17% of “nones” identify as atheist, 20% say they are agnostic, and 63% choose “nothing in particular.”

Most nones believe in God or another power, even though they rarely attend religious services, and about half think of themselves as spiritual. Most say religion does some harm, but many also think it does some good, and they are not uniformly anti-religious. Most nones also “reject the idea that science can explain everything.” As a group, the nones tend to vote less often and are less civically engaged than the religiously affiliated, but the data shows that atheists and agnostics participate in civic life “at rates matching or exceeding religiously affiliated people.”

Roughly half of Americans say they believe that animals, graveyards, and elements of nature such as rivers, trees, and mountains have spirits or spiritual energies. But a closer analysis of the data reveals some important differences. Although half of evangelicals and two-thirds of atheists agree that nonhuman animals don’t have spirits, many evangelicals believe that only humans have spirits. Most atheists believe that neither humans nor animals have spirits.

And while 54% of adults say they believe in “God as described in the Bible,” the data shows marked differences here as well. Fully 84% of people who identify as religious and spiritual believe in the biblical God, while just 20% of the spiritual-but-not-religious share that belief.

"To me, spiritual means to be in touch with nature, see the beauty in everything, feel the love of Mother Nature, to know that there is something out there that is greater than me..."

—Survey Respondent

“The survey really shows us what’s going on under the hood when people talk about spirituality,” says Evan Stewart, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and an associate editor at the journal Sociology of Religion. “This kind of polling is really useful in establishing basic facts and baselines about the topics we study.”

Pew Research Center began surveying Americans’ religious beliefs and attitudes decades ago. And although it has previously dipped its toe into the murkier waters of spirituality, this is its deepest dive yet into the subject. Smith says the “Spirituality Among Americans” survey “asked a lot of questions we never asked before.”

For the first time, the Center explored how many adults believe that people who have died can communicate with the living (42% say yes), assist the living (46%), harm the living (18%), or be united with other loved ones who have already died (57%).

About 45% of all survey respondents reported feeling a deep sense of wonder about the universe, or a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being, or a sudden feeling of connection with something from “beyond this world.” Three in 10 reported encountering a spirit or “unseen spiritual forces,” 7 in 10 believe in heaven, and 6 in 10 believe in hell—the same number who believe in both.

“What surprised me” about the survey “was the significant portion of spiritual practices that pertain to the supernatural,” says John C. Green, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Akron and co-author of the 2020 book Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics. “Despite the argument that we live in a secular age … this shows that a lot of people care about things that go beyond the material world.”

Green, who has long advised the Center on the development of its religious surveys, says he hopes to see its future surveys of spirituality ask more questions about secular values and probe the spiritual practices of those who identify as nones. “When nones pray,” he says, “what are they doing?”

As a social scientist, Green also finds it intriguing that “secularism has yet not formed the kinds of strong communities that religion does.” Although religious traditionalists lean Republican, the nones—who broadly lean Democrat—tend to vote and volunteer less. And that has Green wondering how the mounting tide of young American nones might coalesce into politically and culturally impactful social groups in the years ahead.

“It’s going to be fascinating to see,” he says, “how the next generation works these things out.” 

David O’Reilly was the longtime religion reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Henry P. Davis III
The church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Henry P. Davis III
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