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7 in 10 U.S. adults consider themselves spiritual

More than 20% of those surveyed describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." The study finds a wide variety of religious experiences and expressions among those who consider themselves "spiritual."
Ted Shaffrey
More than 20% of those surveyed describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." The study finds a wide variety of religious experiences and expressions among those who consider themselves "spiritual."

The terms "spiritual" and "spirituality" have been difficult for researchers and scholars of religion to define. Does being spiritual involve a sense of wonder? Does spirituality include a feeling of well-being or peace? Does either require the belief in God or a higher power? The terms seem so elastic as to include any number of disparate ideas or experiences.

A new study from Pew Research explores what the term "spiritual" means to the people who describe themselves that way. It also looks into the beliefs and practices of those who say they're "spiritual but not religious."

In "Spirituality Among Americans" Pew surveyed more than 11 thousand people earlier this year and found that 7 in 10 U.S. adults describe themselves as spiritual in some way.

Nearly half say they are both religious and spiritual, which is to say they participate in religious institutions as well as have personal spiritual practices or ways of thinking about the world that aren't necessarily based on a formal religious tradition.

22% of U.S. adults say they are "spiritual but not religious." 21% say they are neither spiritual nor religious. And 10% say they are religious but not spiritual.

The U.S. religious landscape has changed in recent years, becoming significantly more diverse. While the country is still predominantly Christian, portions of Jews and Muslims have increased as well as the numbers of other religious groups including Hindus and Buddhists.

But researchers have tracked an overall decline in religious affiliation, meaning fewer Americans say they are members of a specific religious group.

"Many have tried to make sense of that," says lead Pew researcher Becka Alper. "Is the U.S. public becoming more secular? Are they becoming more spiritual?"

Alper says researchers wanted to get a better understanding of spiritual beliefs, practices, and experiences.

Among the findings:

83% of all U.S. adults believe people have a soul or spirit in addition to their physical body.

81% say there is something spiritual beyond the natural world, even if we cannot see it.

74% say there are some things science cannot possibly explain.

45% say they have had a sudden feeling of connection with something from beyond this world.

38% say they have had a strong feeling that someone who has passed away was communicating with them from beyond this world.

30% say they have personally encountered a spirit or unseen force.

What does "spiritual" mean?

When it comes to understanding what the word "spiritual" means, the vast majority (74%) say it means "being connected to something bigger than myself." 70% of those surveyed say "spiritual" specifically means "being connected with God." 64% say it means "being connected with my true self." Just 40% of respondents say that being spiritual means following a specific religious faith.

But people also reported a variety of other understandings of the word spiritual, including being connected with nature, being connected with other people, being connected to loved ones who've died, being open minded, or simply continuing family traditions.

A common thread among many of those aspects of what it means to be spiritual is the word "connected."

One interesting finding is that the experiences of evangelical Christians (who are predominately white) and members of historically Black Protestant churches are similar. The vast majority of both groups say that they experience a deep sense of well-being at least once a month due to their spiritual beliefs and practices. That same was less true of other religious groups such as Catholics or Mainline Protestants.

Varieties of religious experience

The Pew study gave respondents an opportunity to also describe in their own words what being spiritual means to them. The anonymous responses were wide ranging, including:

"Being one with your soul, emotions, feelings, actions."

"Believing in something larger and more creative than science."

"One with the universe!"

"The belief that a supreme being is the creator of the universe, and that humans' existence in this realm is transient."

"It means having a relationship with God and a belief system that includes a responsibility to do what is right."

Because this survey was the first time Pew asked many of these questions specifically about spirituality, it's not possible to establish any trends from the data. Rather, Alper says, "The goal of this study is to establish a baseline."

Pew plans to continue asking these and similar questions in the coming years, which will allow them to gain a deeper understanding of the evolution of religion and spirituality among Americans.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.