Field of Science

When people say they are 'spiritual', what do they mean?

It's fashionable these days to talk about 'spirituality' instead of religiousness. The term is designed to include people who are still basically religious, but who are, perhaps, turned off by traditional religions.

The problem is that if you thought defining 'religion' was tough, well it's a piece of cake compared with defining 'spirituality!

In the US, where most people say they are both 'religious' and 'spiritual', it seems that people use the terms to describe different aspects of religion. In essence 'religious' means you are a churchgoer, while 'spiritual' means that you feel connected to some larger, supernatural belief.

To find out whether similar ideas prevail in Europe, Joantine Berghuijs (a PhD researcher at Utrecht University) and colleagues surveyed 2344 Dutch people - a mix of men and women of all ages.

They found that only 25% called themselves both religious and spiritual, while 16% said they were only religious and 19% said they were only spiritual. The rest (40%) were neither.

They found that people who said they were spiritual did tend to hold  a bunch of non-traditional beliefs - spiritual transformation, belief in paranormal issues, monism, experiences of non-religious transcendence, paranormal experiences, and karma.

The graphic maps out how people in each of the four groups (religious + spiritual, spiritual only, religious only and neither) scored on 'religious' and 'spiritual' beliefs.

You can see that the 'spiritual only' group scores high on spirituality but low on religion (meaning things like traditional religion, such as affiliation, attendance and prayer). That's as you would expect.

However, the strange thing was that those who were 'spiritual and religious' were actually more religious than those who were just 'religious'. They were also more spiritual than those who were only spiritual.

On digging further, they found that the ‘both spiritual and religious’ group could actually be split into two: one group that combined "a strong orientation toward traditional religion with new spirituality and one that is mainly oriented toward new spirituality".

What they suggest is that, in the Netherlands at least, people who say they are spiritual are probably at a half-way point between the religious and non-religious. Calling yourself religious (and not spiritual) probably reflects a 'life orientation' rather than any particularly strong beliefs.

Whereas people who are both spiritual and religious are highly religious - they probably represent the 'new religious' movements. Some are revival movements within established churches, while others are opposed to traditional religions.

Either way, it seems that what people mean when they say they are spiritual probably depends on whether or not they also think they are religious!
Berghuijs, J., Pieper, J., & Bakker, C. (2013). Being ‘Spiritual’ and Being ‘Religious’ in Europe: Diverging Life Orientations Journal of Contemporary Religion, 28 (1), 15-32 DOI: 10.1080/13537903.2013.750829

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Thanx Tomas, fun review. And those are intuitively how I see the terms often differentiated the USA.

    When I started your article, I wondered what the Dutch words for Religion and Spiritual were. I know that the romance languages all use equivalent cognates for both. And Germanic languages use cognates for the English word religion. But the germanic word spiritual is not a cognate:
    gestelijk [Dutch]
    geistig [German]

    My initial parochial reaction 'Wait, they aren't testing the same thing. In Dutch and German, that is 'Ghosty' or 'Ghost-ual'."

    Then I realized that "Spirit" is kind of like a "Ghost". So I searched around a bit more [mind you, only using Google translate.
    Scandinavian, Slavik and Latin languages' word for Spiritual do not contain the word "Ghost" as do some Germanic languages.

    So I wondered if having the same word for Spirit and Ghost (as Dutch and German do), changes the outcome.

    Then I found another exception: Welsh are 'ghosty' too, it seems:

    crefyddol (religious)
    ysbrydol (spiritual)
    ysbryd (ghost)

    Oh this is fun. Yes, yes, google translate is horrible. But you get my point.

    Has it been tested in the USA that "spiritual" includes speaking to the dead, possession, ghosts and stuff for folks. Or, is "spiritual" cleaner in English and the romance language unlike those barbaric Teutons and the daffy Welsh [btw, I am Welsh heritage].

  2. @1: The Dutch words are as follows:
    spiritual = spiritueel
    religious = religieus

    Not that hard, huh?

    There is a Dutch word 'geestelijk', but that means 'mentally' or 'psychologically'. The noun 'geestelijke' however means 'clergyman'.

  3. What it means IMO is "I want God in my life, but I don't want to follow the rules." It's good or bad, like everything but I tend to think you have to take a stand at some point about something. It shows character.


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