What's More Important: Being Spiritual Or Being Part Of An Organized Religion?

New research explores the benefits of nonreligious spirituality.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 1, 2021

A new paper appearing in the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice suggests that there are fewer differences between people who are part of an organized religion versus those who practice spirituality on their own than might be expected — at least from a psychological standpoint. For instance, both groups show elevated emotional well-being compared to non-religious individuals.

"There have been significant changes in the American religious and spiritual landscape in recent years, with fewer than half of all Americans reporting church membership," say the researchers, led by Hansong Zhang of the University of North Texas. "According to Pew Research Center, about 27% of U.S. adults consider themselves as spiritual but unaffiliated with any traditional religious group, demonstrating an increase of 8% in just the past 5 years."

To better understand the mental health implications of non-religious spirituality, Zhang and his team recruited 433 American adults to participate in an online study. In the study, the scientists asked participants to denote their religious affiliation, either as (1) traditionally religious, (2) non-religious but spiritual, or (3) neither religious nor spiritual. They then asked participants to complete a series of psychological scales, including:

  1. Well-being (measured using the 5-item Satisfaction with Life Scale, e.g., "In most ways, my life is close to my ideal")
  2. Meaning in life (measured with the 10-item Meaning in Life Questionnaire)
  3. Depression (measured by the 20-item Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression Scale)
  4. Delusional ideation (measured by the Peters Delusions Inventory with questions such as, "Do you ever feel as if people are reading your mind?")

The scientists then tested to see whether any of the three religious groups (traditionally religious, non-religious but spiritual, or neither religious nor spiritual) differed on the measures listed above.

They found that both traditionally religious and non-religious but spiritual individuals scored higher on measures of life satisfaction than non-religious/non-spiritual individuals (but traditionally religious people scored highest). They also found that traditionally religious and non-religious but spiritual individuals showed slightly higher levels of meaning in life (e.g., "My life has a clear sense of purpose") and lower levels of delusional ideation than non-religious/non-spiritual individuals.

There were some downsides to religiosity and spirituality as well. For instance, the authors found that depression levels were higher among traditionally religious and non-religious but spiritual individuals.

"The main conclusion was that there were relatively few differences between people who identified with non-religious spirituality and people who identified as traditionally religious," say the authors. "Participants from these two groups showed similar patterns on all the major variables of depression, delusional ideation, subjective well-being, and sense of meaning. These findings provide evidence that, at least psychologically speaking, non-religious spirituality and traditionally religious participants may be more similar than different."

The researchers hope their work reduces negative stereotypes and stigma surrounding non-traditional religious practices and affiliations.

"Sometimes people can have negative stereotypes toward people who practice nonreligious spirituality (e.g., thinking they are in a cult)," says Zhang. "I hope the findings from this study can help reduce stereotypes toward religious minority members and help create a more accepting environment."

A full interview with psychologist Hansong Zhang discussing his new research on non-religious spirituality can be found here: Why spirituality, not organized religion, might be the key to finding meaning in life