Two-year study says most Americans identify as spiritual regardless of religion
KALAMAZOO, Mich. — The likelihood that Americans will vote or otherwise engage in civic and political life is informed by their spiritual identity, according to a new two-year study released in the last 50 days before the 2020 elections.
People who identify as highly spiritual are more likely to say that it is important to make a difference in their communities and contribute to greater good in the world, the new Fetzer Institute study finds. They are also more likely to be politically engaged. More than half (56 percent) of study participants who consider themselves very spiritual, for example, say they “always” vote, compared to 38 percent of those who consider themselves slightly spiritual. Similarly, approximately one-third of those who consider themselves very spiritual report attending a meeting to talk about political or social concerns (33 percent) or contacting a government official (30 percent), compared to those who consider themselves slightly spiritual (18 percent and 20 percent, respectively).
“Fetzer’s mission—to help build the spiritual foundation for a loving world—is rooted in the conviction that we are intrinsically spiritual beings,” said Bob Boisture, Fetzer Institute president and CEO. “Our mission compels us to learn about the myriad manifestations of spirituality and then—based on those learnings—to discern how they can be better cultivated and engaged for personal and societal well-being. Based on decades of Fetzer experience, and confirmed by this study, there is both a depth and diversity of spirituality within and outside faith traditions that isn’t yet reflected in our main cultural narratives.”
The study explores spirituality in America to better understand religious and spiritual identities, finding that most Americans consider themselves spiritual regardless of religious affiliation. Seven-in-ten survey respondents say that spirituality is important in their lives, with the vast majority of people considering themselves both spiritual and religious.
Additionally, six-in-ten people aspire to be more spiritual – and the more spiritual or religious people see themselves, the more likely they are to aspire to be even more so.
“The health and racism pandemics of 2020 have spurred social and personal upheaval, prompting many people to evaluate their aspirational convictions, and even question traditional sources of meaning, values, and beliefs,” wrote Pamela Ebstyne King of the study’s findings. King is the Peter L. Benson chair of applied developmental science in the Thrive Center for Human Development within the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. “Through spirituality, people potentially have access to prosocial ideals and beliefs, a community to support them, and a source of transcendence that motivates behaviors aligned with their spiritual ideals.”
The findings of the two-year study, which can be accessed at SpiritualityStudy.org, come from a nationally representative survey of 3,609 individuals ages 18 and above, conducted online and by phone between January 16 and February 2, 2020, by NORC at the University of Chicago; as well as 16 focus groups conducted across the country between fall 2018 and spring 2019, and 26 in-depth interviews with individuals of different religious and spiritual backgrounds, recruited through NORC’s AmeriSpeak® Panel.
“One of the most striking findings of this study is what happened in the focus groups: People who came in with one view of themselves, their spirituality, and its effects on their lives often came to different conclusions by the end of the discussion. When it comes to what we think spirituality is and how it works, it matters who you are talking to,” wrote Nancy T. Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion emerita at Boston University. “While spirituality is an increasingly widespread topic in U.S. culture, it doesn’t have an officially designated definition, and there are few if any organized locations where people talk together about what it means – except, of course, organized religious groups.”
In addition to an analysis of the findings, the study’s report includes expert insights and commentary from scholars and practitioners including Ammerman; King; Ruth Braunstein, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut; Omar M. McRoberts, associate professor of sociology at The University of Chicago; Roman R. Williams, executive officer of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion; and Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, Lavern ’39 and Betty DePree ’41 VanKley professor of psychology at Hope College.
About Fetzer: With a mission to help build the spiritual foundation for a loving world, the Fetzer Institute works to catalyze a global movement that encourages personal spiritual exploration and new ways of knowing our sacred world. Its collaborations focus on areas such as the health of our democracy and the landscape of spirituality in society. The Institute believes that nurturing transformed communities in which all people can flourish requires us to go beyond political, social, and economic strategies to address the psychological and spiritual roots of the world’s most critical issues.
Shannon Craig Straw, West End Strategy Team