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What is Spirituality, Anyway?
Is “Spirituality” so Broadly Defined that Testing for it is Meaningless?

There has been an explosion of research addressing spirituality over the past two decades. The use of the term “spirituality” is a staple of our everyday vernacular, whereby many have friends who will identify as spiritual, but not religious. The ubiquity of the “spiritual” label is curious given that a definition of spirituality is rarely discussed. Granted, people are often not required to precisely define concepts that they are discussing, so the fact that spirituality means different things to different people is largely irrelevant in everyday conversation. However, this definitional ambiguity is problematic for researchers who seek to explore the relationship between spirituality and other constructs. In other words, while the average citizen can communicate in imprecise ways and get away with it, scientists and researchers do not have that luxury.

The idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

The current paradigm within the spirituality literature is that higher spirituality has a tendency to be associated with better health. Higher spirituality is allegedly linked to numerous health benefits (e.g., satisfaction with life, better general health 1, less depression2, etc.), and there has been an effort within the literature to promote spiritual diversity in the healthcare system.3 There is also academic interest in how spirituality components relate to quality of life assessments4, as well as movements to incorporate spirituality into clinical practice.5 In short, spirituality is experiencing a prolonged interest from both the academy and the public at large. However, these positive findings are somewhat marred by a fundamental issue within the associated literature, namely what spirituality actually is.

Within the academic literature there does not appear to be an agreed-upon definition of spirituality, while there also appear to be radically different conceptualizations of what “being spiritual” means. One review paper with the express intent of clarifying the definition of spirituality summarized its findings by stating, “Spirituality is an inherent component of being human, and is subjective, intangible, and multidimensional.”6 This statement means that all humans are spiritual although they experience this spirituality differently. However, such a statement is not helpful because it could be used to justify any range of definitions. Offering carte blanche to the spirituality definition does nothing to advance the field of research. If everything can be spiritual then logically, any measure purporting to measure spirituality is justified.

Surprisingly, while definitions of spirituality are difficult to come by, measures of spirituality are not. In a recent review of various spirituality measures7, a journal article listed close to three dozen measures of spirituality. These measures were classed according to their purpose (e.g., general spirituality, spiritual well-being, spiritual needs, etc.) and were rated on their quality. The purpose of the review article was to organize existing measures of spirituality into a typology that would allow for a better understanding of the measures’ purposes. Within the article, the authors devoted reasonable space to providing evidence that these measures were reliable (i.e., if a participant takes the survey again their score is close to the first time); but there was very little discussion on whether the measures were valid (i.e., whether the measures were actually measuring spirituality). For the purposes of the review article, the working definition of spirituality was, “a sense of transcendence beyond one’s immediate circumstances… purpose and meaning in life, reliance on inner resources, and a sense of withinperson integration or connectedness.” As with the previously quoted definition of spirituality, this definition is less than helpful as it could mean a host of different things.

“In the future, science will be able to explain everything” (Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale8). Oddly, agreement with this statement would result in lower spirituality scores.

How would one go about defining spirituality in a way that is valid; that is, ensuring that a definition is uniquely and exclusively spiritual? Defining terms scientifically is often difficult even with concepts that everyone agrees exist (e.g., intelligence, happiness, hunger). The spirituality literature appears to sidestep this problem by defining a person’s level of spirituality by what he/she may score on spirituality indices. This approach is common within social science research as it provides a meaningful basis of comparison between studies. For example, intelligence can be discussed in a general way that people can understand, and researchers will use a person’s score on “IQ Test X” for comparing people between studies. However, the working definitions of spirituality are extremely varied, occasionally contradictory, and often include abstractions without obvious meaning. A consequence of this variety of definitions is that spirituality can only be meaningfully discussed by scores on specific measures, rather than in a broad conceptual way. While this approach may allow the literature to move forward (in terms of volume of studies), it does nothing to clarify what spirituality actually is.

This problem is exacerbated by the high variability of the items contained within spirituality measures. Spirituality measures will often inquire about concepts that may not be immediately associated with one’s perception of spirituality. Questions for spirituality address topics such as social interaction, meaning in life, environmental consciousness, etc. Contrasted with these are questions about interconnectedness, oneness with the universe, higher powers, benefits of prayer, etc. Some spirituality measures even have items that ostensibly inquire about the limitations of science: “In the future, science will be able to explain everything” (Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale8). Oddly, agreement with this statement would result in lower spirituality scores. Because spirituality is often being defined by the measure used to assess a person’s spirituality score, it is informative to investigate the specific items that are assessing spirituality.

Often, spirituality measures will have items related to social functioning. For example, the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale contains the items, “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong” or “I feel a selfless caring for others.”9 In a similar vein the Spirituality Assessment Scale10 presents items such as “I have a general sense of belonging” or “I feel a kinship to other people.” In addition, the Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale includes items such as “When I wrong someone, I make an effort to apologize” and “I examine my actions to see if they reflect my values.” These questions appear to be addressing how persons interact with other people, and presumably, the better social skills a person has, the healthier he/she is likely to be. However, the answers to these items are counted towards a global spirituality score. Global spirituality scores, which are in part the product of questions about social functioning, are in turn linked to better health outcomes.11 Yet, it is confusing as to why the word spirituality encompasses these characteristics, especially given that other measures (e.g., social support assessments) explicitly investigate these topics.

A different issue plaguing the spirituality literature is whether spirituality is intrinsically linked to a belief in god(s). Nearly all spirituality measures have at least one item that references god(s), higher powers, Creators, etc. (e.g., Spiritual Perspective Scale12, Spiritual Assessment Scale), and numerous spirituality measures have multiple items associated with a god construct (e.g., the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality13, Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale, Spiritual Health Inventory14). To be fair, these measures will often provide caveats that god(s) is whatever you define him/her/it to be, but this does not change the fact that this question does not apply to everyone. One may argue that deities represent a “power greater than oneself,” but this is a semantic argument. Using a placeholder that is functionally undifferentiated from god(s), but refusing to label it “god(s)” seems to be without benefit to understanding spirituality. Persons who object to “god-related questions” probably do not object to the specific word selection (i.e., “god”), but probably do object to the overarching concept (i.e., “a metaphysical unproven construct”).

The fact that god(s) is a recurring topic within many spirituality measures raises a number of important questions for researchers. Having items on surveys that are only answerable if one assumes the existence of deities seems to be a step away from the idea that spirituality is “an inherent component of being human.” With all other things being equal, persons who do not believe in god(s) (i.e., atheists) will be “penalized” on their spirituality score because of their non-belief. Given the prevalence of questions regarding belief, one could reasonably conclude that spirituality necessarily includes a belief in some form of higher powers. If this is the case, then spirituality is not an inherently human construct, as not all humans can or do believe in deities.

To address this criticism, measures may allow items to be omitted if non-applicable to persons; however, this fix does not address the underlying objection. Either conceptualizations of deities are necessary for an assessment of spirituality (which would exclude atheists), or conceptualizations of deities are not necessary for an assessment of spirituality (which would raise questions about why so many items address deities). In either case, it is clear that spirituality has either substantive definitional issues or substantive measurement issues, or both. Of course, researchers could argue that deities are often a part of many persons’ spirituality, but are not necessary. However, all this demonstrates is that the idea of spirituality is so varied that everyone experiences it differently. If this is the case, how can a measurement of spirituality be valid for everyone?

Skeptic 21.4 (cover)

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 21.4 (2016).
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It is important to note that these aforementioned spirituality measures have been published in peer-reviewed journals. They are reliable, have convergent validity, and they can be used to predict a variety of health outcomes. These facts are not disputed. However, it must also be made clear that if the items assessing spirituality are about social functioning, life purpose, or emotional maturity, then it is curious as to what makes these items “spiritual”. That these items are related to health outcomes is not surprising given that a bounty of literature has already established this in other fields. If the items assessing spirituality are suspect, then the reliability of the measures is ultimately immaterial to proving the benefits of spirituality. It would be as though “not smoking” was included as an indicator of spirituality, and if researchers then marvelled over the benefits of being spiritual. If spirituality measures do not uniquely predict health outcomes (beyond what is established by other constructs), then researchers should either modify how spirituality is being assessed or critically consider whether items within these surveys unambiguously measure spirituality. Ultimately, much of the investigation into spirituality seems less like research and more like recycling. END

About the Author

Dr. David Speed completed his master’s and doctorate at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His primary field of interest is religion and health, but will research anything that “catches his eye”. He is a member of the Atheist Research Collaborative, which is a non-partisan group that researches atheism and irreligion. When David is not researching, teaching, or working, he is at home with his wife Betsy and his daughters Aliya and Charley.

References
  1. Dunn, K. S. 2008. “Development and Psychometric Testing of a New Geriatric Spiritual Well-Being Scale.” International Journal of Older People Nursing, 3, pp. 161–169.
  2. Matheis, E. N., Tulsky, D. S., & Matheis, R. J. 2006. “The Relation between Spirituality and Quality of Life Among Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury.” Rehabilitation Psychology, 51, pp. 265–271.
  3. Pesut, B., Fowler, M., Taylor, E., Reimer-Kirkham, S., & Sawatzky, R. 2008. “Conceptualising Spirituality and Religion for Healthcare.” Journal of Clinical Nursing, 17, pp. 2803–2810.
  4. O’Connell, K. A., & Skevington, S. M. 2010. “Spiritual, Religious, and Personal Beliefs are Important and Distinctive to Assessing Quality of Life in Health: A Comparison of Theoretical Models.” British Journal of Health Psychology, 15, pp. 729–748.
  5. Carlson, T., McGeorge, C., & Toomey, R. 2014. “Establishing the Validity of the Spirituality in Clinical Training Scale: Measuring the Level of Integration of Spirituality and Religion in Family Therapy Training.” Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 36, pp. 310–325.
  6. Tanyi, R. A. 2002. “Towards Clarification of the Meaning of Spirituality.” Journal of Advanced Nursing, 39, pp. 500–509.
  7. Monod, S., Brennan, M., Rochat, E., Martin, E., Rochat, S., & Büla, C. 2011. “Instruments Measuring Spirituality in Clinical Research: A Systematic Review.” Journal of General Internal Medicine, 26, pp. 1345–1357. doi: 10.1007/s11606-011-1769-7
  8. Hatch, R. L., Burg, M., Naberhaus, D. S., & Hellmich, L. K. 1998. “The Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale: Development and Testing of a New Instrument.” Journal of Family Practice, 46, pp. 476–486.
  9. Underwood, L. G., & Teresi, J. A. 2002. “The Daily Spiritual Experience and Scale: Development, Theoretical Description, Reliability, Exploratory Factor Analysis, and Preliminary Construct Validity Using Health-Related Data.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24, 22–33.
  10. Howden, J. 1992. Development and Psychometric Characteristics of the Spirituality Assessment Scale. Texas Women’s University.
  11. Matheis, E. N., Tulsky, D. S., & Matheis, R. J. 2006. “The Relation between Spirituality and Quality of Life Among Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury.” Rehabilitation Psychology, 51, pp. 265–271.
  12. Garner, L. F. 2002. “Spirituality among Baccalaureate Nursing Students at a Private Christian University and a Public State University.” Christian Higher Education, 1, pp. 371–384.
  13. Johnstone, B., McCormack, G., Yoon, D., & Smith, M. 2012. “Convergent/Divergent Validity of the Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/ Spirituality: Empirical Support for Emotional Connectedness as a ‘Spiritual’ Construct.” Journal of Religion & Health, 51, pp. 529–541.
  14. Korinek, A. W., & Arredondo Jr., R. 2004. “The Spiritual Health Inventory (SHI): Assessment of an Instrument for Measuring Spiritual Health in a Substance Abusing Population.” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 22, pp. 55–66.

44 Comments

  1. millard dunton says:

    “Spirituality” is a concept of a power greater than ourselves and the interaction of that power in our daily lives, such as : prayer for a specific outcome, visions, etc. First-hand reports of such contact are usually treated with skepticism. However, if you truly believe in a power greater than oneself, you are less likely to exhibit the baser instincts of: self-centeredness, material greed, cruelty, hostility – to name a few.

    “there’s something happening here. what it is ain’t exactly clear”

    • mikeyb says:

      Yes, gravity is indeed greater than I. And it interacts with my life, daily. If I’m not careful I’ll fall down the stairs. Whether or not gravity permits me “to exhibit the baser instincts of: self-centeredness, material greed, cruelty, hostility” is an open question. Religion is the playground for such instincts, usually termed “crusades,” “jihad,” “pogrom,” etc.

    • Raf says:

      Millard Dunton: You made a strong statement by saying: “However, if you truly believe in a power greater than oneself, you are less likely to exhibit the baser instincts of: self-centeredness, material greed, cruelty, hostility – to name a few.”
      Please share your evidence to support it this hypothesis.

    • Ben says:

      Millard, I get your point but let’s face it, history is full of people who believe in higher powers doing absolutely horrible things.
      Right up to the present day.

      • millard dunton says:

        we can not ascertain the spirituality of anyone based on a superficial examination or their proclamations. some accountability to your personal higher power is implied

        • Patrick Stirling says:

          An interesting hypothesis: that if you exhibit these “negative” traits (greed etc), you are therefore not spiritual, irrespective of what you profess. I’ve no idea how you’d test this, let alone prove it. Especially since this article asserts that no-one has even defined “spirituality”, let alone measured it.

      • Carol Douglass says:

        Thank you! The statement that “belief in a higher power” keeps anyone from being greedy, selfish, etc, is frighteningly naive. Name one person who is greedy, selfish, crude, belligerent, powerful who doesn’t profess also to “love the bible,” be god-fearing and all the other standard professions of “goodness.”
        It takes very little knowledge of history to know that the idea that “goodness” is due to religiosity–and precisely Christian religiosity, although go back in time or geographically and it would mean something different–is a false one.

  2. Bob Jase says:

    Spirituality is measured by how many crystals owned + how many Deepak Chopra books owned + how much (in US dollars) was spent in the past 30 days over at Goop.

  3. Stephen Nowlin says:

    Great topic. Humans appear to desire to have an emotional relationship to existence, whether religious or secular. For some that desire is supernaturalized and called spiritual, while for others the same sensations are simply called emotional, or more emphatically poetic, profound, or transcendent. It seems to me our evolved biology permits an emotional reaction to living (lucky us!) — shouldn’t any objective scientific study avoid the notion of “spirituality” as being anything other than just a particular semantic description of a very cool and not terribly well-understood biological function, for which humans have many names?

  4. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    After getting to the end of this article, I was disappointed that the author didn’t sum it up by saying that we should toss out the term ‘spirituality.’ Instead, these studies should examine the effects of certain beliefs/positions held by people, e.g. in a soul, an afterlife, a higher-power, a higher-purpose of life, etc.

    Whether or not some folks would lump these beliefs/positions into the category of spirituality is irrelevant to the effect those beliefs/positions have on us – separately and in combination with others.

    Remember: we’re not trying to write a dictionary here – we’re trying to understand what is going on! Let’s skip the semantics and get to the actual causes and effects – as long as we can describe them well, it doesn’t matter much what we call them.

  5. Poly Ethylene says:

    Spirituality: a lot of loose talk about feeling good.

  6. Thom Moore says:

    My dictionary defines spirituality as: “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”

    I suggest an atheist update: “the quality of being concerned with information and ideas as opposed to material or physical things.”

    IMHO, information and ideas are the most demonstrably real entities that are not material or physical things. I’m reminded of the quote variously attributed to Socrates or Eleanor Roosevelt: “Strong minds talk about ideas; average minds talk about things; weak minds talk about other people.

  7. Anne Lindsay says:

    I make a distinction between science and mysticism. I know when I’m doing science and I know when I’m doing mysticism. I don’t know where the meeting place is – whichever part(s) of the brain are ‘lit up’ I suppose. When I talk to Jesus I’m in that mystical space. Call me absurd if you like. Faith is absurd. It’s the way I’m made – since childhood. I take after my lovely Irish Catholic grannie, forbidden to openly practice her faith by my rabid Presbyterian grandfather, but transmitting her love of icons and the Hail Mary secretively to me. I don’t resent or dislike my atheist sibs or husband. I do wish one of them (she knows who she is) wouldn’t tell me what I believe instead of asking.

  8. Bob Pease says:

    In 1957 I was working for Hughes Aircraft as a “Technical Writer”

    If nothing else , we learned the rules of writing rather than a ego trip trying to impress colleagues with bogus elegance.

    A typical example ;

    Saying “cognizant of appropriate parameters ” meaning “knows about the things that will work”

    This article shows me that ” the temporal parameters associated with
    expression of ideology appropriate to spirituality have demondtrated minimal change in the temporal distance between the Korean conflict and the Trump shenanningans ”
    or in English:

    Technobabble seems to still be in fashion.

    Dr, Sidethink Hp. D.

  9. Geek Mobile says:

    “However, if you truly believe in a power greater than oneself, you are less likely to exhibit the baser instincts of: self-centeredness, material greed, cruelty, hostility – to name a few.”

    I’m not sure I buy this, absent well-designed studies showing this outcome.

    I don’t have a problem believing that those with a belief in a higher power *believe* themselves to be less likely to exhibit these “baser instincts”. But self-reporting is notoriously unreliable.

  10. Darin Smith says:

    I think any discussion of spirituality should begin with a discussion of “spirit”. What is it? Because if there is no spirit, there is no spirituality. Spirit is that thing that allows a human being to choose other than what the selfish gene programs. It is without question that evolution is true. Likewise, the truth of the selfish gene is beyond dispute, in that the goal of a gene is selfish, to pass itself on to the next generation. In that, the animal body is simply the vessel through which the gene expresses itself and accomplishes its purpose, i.e to pass itself on to the next generation. Any action on the part of the animal, or gene vessel, contrary to the goals of the selfish gene are evidence of another actor in the equation. For instance, altruism. If there is nothing beyond the animal and selfish gene, then there is no true altruism, and there are simply variations of reciprocal altruism. But if true selfless altruism exists, then there is evidence of another player, which could be called the spirit, or the soul. Without this other actor, humans are simply advanced animals, acting at the impulses of the selfish genes that they carry, with no free thought or free action in a deterministic universe, at least as far as quantum mechanics allows.

    • keith cook +/- says:

      No issues with what you wrote apart from, I don’t hold that we have free will but it is how you conduct yourself within a deterministic world that matters, that is, you have the perception of free will. Education, environment, etc all play a part in how and what choices you make… Fundamentally, you and I had no choice in our genetic makeup or the environment we were born too. Tell me if you think otherwise who is in control? even of your own genes. No one gene is in control, person or group I’d say, just a perception but for all that we co operate and work it out, on the whole that is.
      But further to yours I have some additional thoughts.
      The brain is an organ evolved, nothing special about that, plenty of mammals around, birds with smart brains what is special is the prefrontal cortex a late comer to the party. We need not give spirituality any more dues than this brain expansion. When this organ awoke to self awareness it brought with it the universe, language, clay pots, tools, art, planning, observation, empathy, love, hate, arrogance… no need for another player, again, it evolved bringing these emotions and analytical skills with it, it fine tuned and articulated itself and we need to just look around for it’s best and worst.
      I invoke spiritualism by way of the prefrontal cortex, the only part of the brain with no direct link to the external world with it’s fondness of using, manipulating and searching out what the world has to offer and understanding it’s place in it… It clearly needs to shut up sometimes and let in some reboot time and rest and if it means it is felt differently by individuals, what of it?
      Self awareness to me is spirituality, one in the same, I just don’t make it any bigger than that, something external.
      Nothing is bigger than wondering where the universe ends and it ends in wonder. The last is not mine but I like it.

    • Jenny H says:

      I thought that ‘spirit ‘ was alcohol — or other volatile liquids.
      Though of course hydrochloric acid is spirits of salts.
      Of course ‘spirituality’ is defined as “essence distinct fro matter” — so maybe human spirit is nothing more than the emr we radiate? Or is it nothing more than our entropy????

  11. Stephen Nowlin says:

    I think the question “What is spirituality anyway?”, implies a rejection of traditional definitions like those found in a dictionary and their substitution with a definition that is more scientific. And the answer to the question, as it was asked, can only be that spirituality is a word for an emotionally fulfilling sensation which is no different than one might experience listening to music, viewing a sunset, or looking at art. The idea that spirituality is exclusive to the religious, or the notion that it is a sensation available only to believers in some form of the supernatural, is wrong.

  12. Mjones78 says:

    ‘Spiritual’. A term used by a male human on his online dating profile to enable him to get a date, rather than using the more accurate term ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’, which will label him a bad person in the minds of 95% of women.

  13. awc says:

    “Spirituality” is similar to philosophy only without applying ‘logic or reason’ to test the claoms beong made.

    “Spirituality” = magical thinking

  14. BillG says:

    Spiritual view = deist
    Religious view = theist
    Scientific view = agnostic/atheist

  15. Estelle K. Meislich says:

    Richard Feynman had it- Out one night with a date, she remarked how beautiful the stars were. He replied, “Yes, and I know what makes them shine.” Stel

  16. Stel says:

    please delete my name

  17. Bob Pease says:

    As an aside, the comic caricature of an African-American woman fits in well with the tone and depth of this article .

    She would be 6′ 7″ tall and weigh 240 lbs

    Dr. S.

  18. Barbara Harwood says:

    Spirituality is equally shared by all living creatures. It is present in anything that is alive. Because we all have it, it is much like intelligence. It is what we do with it that matters. It is special and should not be taken for granted. We may be able to combine all of the chemicals that make up a living body, but we have yet to make it alive.. Whether you belive in God or not, God still believes in you.

  19. Russ says:

    The definition of spirituality has always been so ambiguous and lacking in conformity of definition that one must abandon logic and reason in order to be satisfied with the variety of explanations given for it. It is such that whenever I hear a person stating “I am not religious, but I am spiritual”, what I actually hear in my mind is the translation of that into a more comprehensible and more accurate “I am not religious, but I am ambiguous and my thinking is lacking in definition.” It’s a statement which seems to be overcompensating for a lacunae elsewhere.

  20. Bijonbo says:

    An important distinction is whether or not you believe in disembodied spirits. If you do, that’s where we part ways.

  21. squweh says:

    When neurons are fired by seeing a sunset, listening to a Chopin etude or sitting in a church pew, it is almost certainly the product of evolution. These experiences are beneficial to our survival. It is understandable that most people define these experiences by evoking the supernatural, but they can be understood from a purely secular perspective.

  22. John Aalborg says:

    The term, when used by most, is a measure of a lack of self examination. That the creator of all god’s children is “the original deadbeat dad” is so obvious that when I realized this idea is also rarely examined, I copyrighted the phrase above (in the 90s I believe — I have moved on). It is the title of my short monologue on the Lord’s Prayer (where we grovel and beg). The MS is the only thing I have bothered to place in the Library of Congress. Happy at first after paying the 25 bucks, I now cringe whenever I hear another human glowing with pride while using the term spiritualism. Thank you all who helped me find a happy read this morning!

  23. John Bell says:

    Spirituality” is really a meaningless term. People think that if they say religious then they will be thought of as intolerant and superstitious.

  24. Ronald Crowe says:

    David Speed’s article, which does not employ clear writing, can be summed up in a way that would have saved us all a lot of time:

    “Is spirituality so broadly defined that testing for it is meaningless.” Yes.

  25. John Aalborg says:

    A hooker was once pointed out to me as having a lot of spirit.

  26. OldNassau says:

    The same vagueness and ambiguity detailed by the author easily applies to the concept known as “intelligence”.

  27. Jenny H says:

    Spirituality is a mixture of vague concepts and self-hypnosis.

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