What do Americans mean when they say that they’re spiritual?

It may seem like a straightforward question, but there’s definitely not a straightforward answer, according to a new report on spirituality from Pew Research Center.

The survey found that among the 70% of U.S. adults who can be considered spiritual in some way, certain beliefs about souls, spirits and science are generally held in common.

But members of the group have conflicting ideas about spiritual practices like meditation and varying relationships with religious institutions and ideas.

Pew’s report adds weight to what scholars like Nancy Ammerman, professor emerita of sociology of religion at Boston University, have been saying for at least 15 years: Americans’ relationship to spirituality, as well as religion, is far more complex than it at first appears.

“Spirituality is a word that has as much to do with people’s sense of identity and with their political positions as it does with any kind of sort of identifiable experience or something that you can easily point to,” Ammerman said.

From religious to spiritual

For much of U.S. history, describing yourself as “religious” was about as uncontroversial as calling yourself “American.” A large majority of adults, as well as children, belonged to a faith group and attended worship services regularly.

But in recent decades, the term “religious” has experienced a subtle and then increasingly more significant fall from grace, said Ammerman, who served as an adviser to Pew on the new report. A growing group of Americans is dropping out of organized religion, and even those who remain active can be uncomfortable with the term.

“More and more Americans are rejecting the label,” she said.

This trend is driven by a number of factors, according to Ammerman, like a presumed link between religion and conservative politics and the fact that relatively few young people today were raised in religious homes.

“In the past, being identified as religious was one of the ways people placed themselves among good citizens. It was a way they signaled to others that they were nice people, that they were moral,” she said. Now, some worry that using the label will actually hurt their social standing by making them seem strange or judgmental.

But discomfort with the term “religious” hasn’t quieted Americans’ interest in having an easy way to make themselves look good. That’s where the term “spiritual” comes in, Ammerman said.

“You have to have a way to describe yourself that says to the world, ‘I’m not a bad person. I’m a person with some depth, with some morality.’ Spirituality has come to be the label that people choose,” she said.

In other words, Ammerman believes that a notable share of Americans who call themselves “spiritual” are engaged in a branding exercise. They’re not behaving much differently than “religious” adults in the past, other than the fact that they’re not using the “religious” label.

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What is spirituality?

Pew’s new report includes evidence to back up Ammerman’s conclusion. For one thing, researchers found that Americans often cite religious concepts like God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit when asked to explain what “spiritual” means to them.

“Fully 27% give descriptions tied to organized religion,” Pew reported.

The survey identified a large overlap between religiosity and spirituality. Most of the 70% of U.S. adults who think of themselves as spiritual or describe spirituality as important to them also say they’re religious or that religion is important.

“There is enough overlap between what people mean by ‘spirituality’ and what they have in mind by ‘religion’ that nearly half of U.S. adults indicate they are both religious and spiritual,” Pew reported.

Pew’s survey on American spirituality was conducted from July 31 to Aug. 6 among 11,201 U.S. adults.

In general, Pew found that there’s not a clear dividing line between spirituality and religion. The 22% of Americans who fall into the category of spiritual but not religious have much in common with those who are spiritual and religious.

“They’re not as different as we often think they are,” Ammerman said.

For example, similarly large shares of the spiritual but not religious and the religious and spiritual believe that people have a soul or spirit, that there is something spiritual beyond the natural world and that unseen spiritual forces exist.

“On many questions, ‘spiritual but not religious’ Americans ... are no more spiritual, on average, than U.S. adults who are both religious and spiritual,” Pew reported.

Still there are some key differences, such as that the spiritual but not religious are much less likely than others to believe in the God of the Bible. But members of this category do often believe in a higher power or spiritual force, Pew found.

The survey also showed that the spiritual but not religious are less likely to attend worship services regularly and more likely to hold negative views of organized religion, which fits with what Ammerman has uncovered in her own research.

The spiritual but not religious category “holds together primarily in its negative self-identification as not being religious rather than with a positive set of practices and beliefs around being spiritual,” she said.

What do religious groups do with this info?

Pew’s new report and the broader realm of spirituality research holds good news and bad news for religious leaders, according to Ammerman.

The good news is that a large share of Americans believe in or at least remain interested in religious concepts like God, the afterlife and miracles. The bad news is that it’s unclear how to get someone who identifies as spiritual but not religious to come to church.

“That’s the $64,000 question for religious leaders across the board,” Ammerman said.

Some religious individuals and organizations are responding to recent trends by creating low pressure opportunities for people to explore their religious inclinations.

For example, the “He Gets Us” ad campaign invites people to learn more about Jesus even if they’re currently uninterested in joining a faith group.

“What we’re trying to do is be that bridge so that people can take a first step, whether that’s a reintroduction to the Jesus of the Bible and becoming a follower of Jesus or some self-reflection for Christians who would like to change and become more like Jesus,” said a spokesperson for the “He Gets Us” movement to the Deseret News earlier this year.

This year, the Radiant Foundation released a report along with Gallup highlighting links between spirituality and mental health, and it also has created an app called Skylight to make it easy for young people, in particular, to integrate spiritual practices — like meditation — into their daily routines.

A better understanding

Pew’s in-depth report could deepen understanding of how Americans’ relationship to religion and spirituality is evolving. Ammerman described it as a “major step forward” in terms of understanding recent trends.

It “will lay a foundation for Pew to be able to track trends more accurately in the future,” she said.

Becka A. Alper, a senior researcher at Pew who served as the primary researcher on this report, confirmed that Pew plans to field its spirituality questions again in the future, although she said the timing of that future research is not yet known.

“The idea is that, from here on out, we can occasionally ask how these beliefs and practices and experiences are changing over time,” she said.