Saturday, December 6, 2014

Are You Religious or Spiritual?

The distinction between being spiritual and being religious has become more pronounced in the last hundred years. Whereas until the 20th century the two terms were used interchangeably, present day studies show a clear divergence of the terms and the characteristics of those who hold the two types of beliefs.

A three-year international study involving 57 researchers in 20 countries (1) found that humans are predisposed to believe in some sort of eternal being and an afterlife irrespective of their culture or teaching. Children below the age of three believe that their mothers and God can see inside a box, for example, but by the age of four they realize that their mothers are not all-seeing. Yet many continue to believe in an all-seeing God throughout adulthood. Adults across many different cultures believe in a duality of spirit and body, the former surviving beyond death.

In a study from Rice University (2,3), researchers found that more than 20 percent of scientists consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. They used terms such as “individual, personal and personally constructed” to describe spirituality, whereas terms such as “organized, communal, unified and collective” were terms used to describe religious thought. They see both science and spirituality as “meaning-making without faith,” and spirituality as “seeking a core sense of truth…consistent with the work they do as scientists.”

Spirituality and religion have different effects on health as well. In a study at Oregon State University (4,5), researchers found that religion helps regulate behavior and health habits, such as smoking or alcohol consumption, while spirituality, which may include meditation and prayer, helps with psychological problems and inner peace. According to a University of Missouri study (6), spirituality of any sort, whether or not affiliated with an organized religion, is associated with better mental health. “With increased spirituality people reduce their sense of self and feel a greater sense of oneness and connectedness with the rest of the universe,” said Dan Cohen, one of the co-authors of the study. “What was interesting was that frequency of participation in religious activities or the perceived degree of congregational support was not found to be significant in the relationships between personality, spirituality, religion and health.” Recovery from serious illness such as cancer or stroke was positively related to spiritual beliefs. Interestingly, “forgiveness was the only spiritual trait predictive of mental health after personality variables were considered.”

We can also see differences in criminal behavior between those who identify themselves as spiritual versus religious. In a study at Baylor University (7), researchers analyzed data of 14,322 individuals between the ages of 18 to 28. They found that 11.5 percent identified themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” 6.8 percent as “religious but not spiritual,” 37.9 percent as “both spiritual and religious,” and 43.8 percent as “neither spiritual nor religious.” Those who were “spiritual but not religious” were more likely to commit property crimes and, to a lesser extent, violent crimes than those who were either “religious and spiritual” or “religious but not spiritual.”  Those who identified themselves as “neither spiritual nor religious” were less likely to commit property crimes than those who were “spiritual but not religious.” The researchers theorized that those who were “spiritual but not religious” were less conventional than the religious group and may not have the community restrictions from parents or organized religions to restrain them, or the fear of “supernatural sanctions.”

Spirituality may take many forms, even those based on purely fictional works, such as novels and films (8,9). There is a growing movement in such beliefs as “Jediism” and The Force based on the Star Wars films, for instance, or those based on the works of Tolkien and the existence of Middle Earth. Some even attest to having seen Middle Earth during astral projection. That there is a need for spirituality is evident in its universality across all cultures and over the history of mankind. Some have even hypothesized an evolutionary advantage for a belief in an afterlife and a higher power after man evolved self-consciousness and the realization that he is mortal. Studies have shown distinct differences in brain function in religious versus non-religious individuals (10), which supports the idea of a biological basis for religion in human evolution.

Whether man evolved to believe in a higher being and an afterlife for the purpose of self-preservation, however, says nothing about what, if anything, exists outside our physical universe. One of the errors in logic that even our most logical minds make is concluding that God does not exist simply because we can poke holes in our very limited ideas of God. God either exists, or not, independent of what we think. But if believing in a religion or simply being spiritual has a positive effect on our surviving this life, why not believe? It can’t hurt. If after you die you find out there’s nothing but oblivion, well, then you can be upset.


1.     University of Oxford. "Humans 'predisposed' to believe in gods and the afterlife." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 July 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110714103828.htm
2.     Rice University. "More than 20 percent of atheist scientists are 'spiritual', study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 May 2011. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110505124039.htm
3.     E. H. Ecklund, E. Long. Scientists and Spirituality. Sociology of Religion, 2011; DOI: 10.1093/socrel/srr003
4.     Carolyn M. Aldwin, Crystal L. Park, Yu-Jin Jeong, Ritwik Nath. Differing pathways between religiousness, spirituality, and health: A self-regulation perspective. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2014; 6 (1): 9 DOI: 10.1037/a0034416
5.     Oregon State University. "Religion, spirituality influence health in different but complementary ways." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 March 2014. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140328103043.htm
6.     University of Missouri-Columbia. "Spirituality correlates to better mental health regardless of religion, say researchers." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 August 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120820132332.htm
7.     Baylor University. "'Spiritual' young people more likely to commit crimes than 'religious' ones." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 June 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130612144732.htm
8.     Markus Altena Davidsen. Fiction-based religion: Conceptualizing a new category against history-based religion and fandom. Culture and Religion, 2013; 14 (4): 378 DOI: 10.1080/14755610.2013.838798
9.     Taylor & Francis. "'Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view': Jediism and other religious movements." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 December 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131218095853.htm
10.  Dimitrios Kapogiannis, Gopikrishna Deshpande, Frank Krueger, Matthew P Thornburg, Jordan Henry Grafman. Brain Networks Shaping Religious Belief. Brain Connectivity, 2013; 131126141800007 DOI: 10.1089/brain.2013.0172