This is a common phrase and even a headline that pops up from time to time and always seems to lead to a lot of clickbait articles and perhaps even a gasp or two from readers. 

This year the Pew Research headline was “Around 4 in 10 Americans have become more spiritual over time; fewer have become more religious.” Yes, it’s that pesky thing where people say they are spiritual, but not religious — although it is worth noting that Pew doesn’t define either the words “spiritual” or “religious” for participants.

Spirituality is defined as the quality or state of being spiritual. And Merriam Webster defines spiritual as “of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit” and spirit is defined in a myriad of ways including as “the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person.” For a theological explanation of spirit, George Murphy in this month’s issue provides a look at Holy Spirit’s work in the world.

Not exactly that helpful. Some 41% of U.S. adults say they have grown more spiritual over the course of their lifetime, compared with 24% who say they have become more religious. In contrast, 13% of U.S. adults say they have become less spiritual over time, while 33% say they have become less religious. Clearly, there seems to be a nuance worth exploring here whether you are leading a congregation or belonging to one.

Roughly a quarter of those surveyed by Pew gave descriptions of spirituality that were tied to organized religion — for example, citing a belief in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit or other elements of Christian theology. About a third of respondents offered responses that we categorized as “beliefs in something else,” such as belief in a higher power or belief in the unseen or otherworldly.

In the Christian faith, we often look to the Holy Spirit as a key member of the Trinity to guide us and the church. But what does a belief in spirituality tell us about how we think about science? I’m of course not the first person (nor the last) to explore this question. In fact, it comes up as a query in various guises following lectures and in numerous published essays over the years. 

It boils down to a fear that “spirituality” is the antithesis of anything concrete or tangible in our daily lives. This may be the exact opposite for many who pray for guidance on a regular basis, who often say they can “feel” the presence of the spirit or God. Maybe you are one of those people. 

It may surprise you that there is a whole sub-genre in theology and science circles that dates back nearly 20 years called neurotheology. It approaches the question of whether our brain activity is detecting an agent where there is none (i.e. God) or if we can claim that in reality we are “hard-wired” for religion and religious experience.

Experiments to derive scientific data regarding religious experience have been done. 

Professor and neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has carved out some of the emerging science in this area in his imaging of the brains of people who are meditating and praying. He even has said that defining “religiosity” and “spirituality” is a nearly impossible task. In a recent interview with the publication Psychwire, he said: “…we have also argued that spiritual experiences are associated with a relatively complex network of brain structures, more than what is typically activated during everyday experience. It is for this reason that the experience is perceived to be “something extra” — something spiritual.”

Taking this one step further, another common question is whether religious experience counts as something tangible or can be evidence of an essential truth that science cannot measure or reveal. In fact, this question was explored in University of Oxford professor Keith Ward’s 2008 book, “The Big Questions in Science and Religion.” 

Acknowledging the vast number of varieties of religious experience, Ward says we have been trained to say that only the data and observed facts can illustrate the nature of reality. If the world’s religions presented humanity with a mass of total contradictions that would be one thing, but they often seem to agree on the claims they make.

Ward writes, “Rather the data look like a set of closely related and complimentary claims at a general level, but that get complicated by doctrinal, ritual and ethical differences that increase proportionally with increasingly detailed attempts to describe the precise character of the experienced reality and its relationship to ordinary human life and expectations.” 

Could it be that those who claim to be spiritual, but not religious are rejecting identification with a particular religion or denomination. Perhaps, but it shouldn’t be a way to cut off all inquiries into spirituality and our own reality as we perceive it. 

These are the questions of experience that can lead to even better questions and ultimately become a source of inspiration to explore what neuroscientists are curious enough to attempt to capture in the lab.

It could be too that ascribing to being spiritual is simply an acknowledgment that there can be a shared curiosity within our interior lives about the depth and totality of reality that is hard to explain; one that is often captured within the arts and shared in our lived experience. 

It seems to be something that even some scientists ponder — this intangible reality. Whether it is the nature of string theory and quantum mechanics in physics or uncovering what it is about our brains that makes us unique in nature, it is worth exploring. And in that exploring we can be spiritual and religious.

Susan Barreto
Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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