The ubiquitous response of nonatheists who don't practice a religion is "I'm spiritual but not religious." But the definition of spirituality isn't always clear. A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute offers insight on the people who identify with the vague term.
The survey found that 47 percent of Americans identified as spiritual, but only 18 percent were exclusively so.
Of those polled, 29 percent considered themselves both spiritual and religious, while 22 percent were religious but not spiritual. Thirty-one percent identified as neither.
The people who were spiritual but not religious usually maintained a connection to an organized faith. Roughly 20 percent of them identified as Catholic or white mainline Protestant, while a lesser number identified with other religions. About 10 percent were nonwhite Protestant and 5 percent were evangelicals. Thirty percent were religiously unaffiliated.
The results beg the question of how spirituality differs from religion.
"Spirituality is obviously a concept that can be difficult to pin down," said the research institute's research director, Dan Cox, in a phone interview with the Catholic News Service. "The GSS -- the General Social Survey [by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago] -- is a large data set. And it asks, 'Do you consider yourself a religious person, do you consider yourself a spiritual person?' That's not the approach that we took."
The researchers based their measure of spirituality on respondents' identification with three criteria: feeling "particularly connected to the world around them," feeling "like they are a part of something much larger than themselves," and feeling "a sense of larger meaning or purpose in life."
In contrast, religiousness was measured by factors such as frequency of attending organized services and personal reporting of the importance of religion in life.
Perhaps not surprisingly, millennials and independent or liberal people were more likely to align with the open label of spirituality than their older and more conservative counterparts. Women were also somewhat more likely to be spiritual than men, regardless of their religious status, while men were more likely to be both nonspiritual and nonreligious.
Life satisfaction was assessed based on contentment with personal health, family life, relationships, overall quality of life and satisfaction with the state of the nation -- although only 10 percent of individuals across all categories were "completely satisfied" with the last criterion.
Compared to 70 percent and 61 percent of spiritual people who were religious and nonreligious, 53 percent of religious, nonspiritual people and 47 percent of nonreligious, nonspiritual people said they were satisfied with their life in general. The study found a similar trend for perceived health.
"Spirituality may be capturing a deeper sense of connection to something that feels personally meaningful, which would also help explain why people who report being both spiritual and religious are most likely to have high life satisfaction," Clay Routledge, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University, told HuffPost. "These folks have a personal spirituality that is likely connected to a specific meaning-providing religious faith."
That "personal spirituality" seemed to inspire spiritual people to be more benevolent towards others. Just over one-third of spiritual Americans reported doing a favor for someone else within the past week, compared to just over one-fifth of nonspiritual Americans.
Despite spiritual people's higher reported levels of self satisfaction, spirituality remains tied to practices such as yoga and meditation, as well as more abstract ideas such as healing crystals. This might strike some religious or nonreligious individuals as ritualistic or pseudoscientific. But it may just be a reflection of spiritual people's attempt to manifest their sense of meaning and connection into something tangible.
"The practices I consider spiritual are the things I do to care for myself in a deep way, to calm myself when I'm distressed, to create meaning out of the experiences of my life," yoga instructor Meghan Ribar told Vox.
Spiritual people tended to report a deep sense of connection with media, particularly music. Dain Quentin Gore, an Arizona man raised as a Southern Baptist, finds his spiritual experiences in another, less-common form of art.
"Ceremonies, to me, have now become my puppet shows," Gore said. "All of these things are the closest I get to 'religious experience' these days. Making art and puppetry are my transcendent moments."
For others, spirituality is a way to abandon certain ideals of their previous religion while still maintaining a connection to a higher power.
"I never felt comfortable in the church as a social unit, particularly after coming out as gay," said Trish Richards of New York. "I essentially shed all of my religious ties out of self-preservation. It was easier not to have to have the hard 'gay and Christian' conversations, so religion grew even more into this very private and personal thing for me that not a lot of other people were involved in."
Many of individuals who spoke to Vox expressed both satisfaction and disappointment at the lack of community that comes most people's individualistic approach to spirituality.
"I don't tend to like uniformity of practice and belief because that gets a bit cult-y to me," commented Ribar. "It often means people stop asking questions -- that's why I'm shy of organized spiritual community. But I do sometimes long for more people to share things with."
Research director Cox told Catholic News Service that interest in spirituality is increasing. If that continues, people like Ribar may soon find more people willing to share their spiritual experience.