Defining Religion and Spirituality


  • To be able to talk about religion and spirituality or study these concepts scientifically, we have to come up with working definitions of these terms.  
  • But defining religion and spirituality is surprisingly difficult, in part, because we are living in an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-faith world, and in part, because the meanings of religion and spirituality evolve over time, and the meaning of these terms have rapidly changed over the last 50 years. 
  • For much of the 20th century, religion was seen by psychologists and other social scientists as a broad term that covered both the individual and institutional, both the good and the bad, and both the traditional and nontraditional forms of spirituality. In fact, some classic definitions of religion would be hard to distinguish from modern-day conceptions of spirituality. 
  • In the latter part of the century, the term spirituality was introduced and began to take on some of the meanings of religiousness. In the process, broad-based views of religion gave way to narrower perspectives, and the terms religion and spirituality became increasingly polarized from each other. 
  • Today, many people make striking contrasts between these two terms, such as religion as institutional versus spirituality as individual, and religion as bad versus spirituality as good.

Are Religion and Spirituality Opposed to Each Other?

  • We believe that religion and spirituality are not opposed to each other. 
  • On one hand, to see religion as purely institutional overlooks the fact that these organizations are concerned with the well-being of their individual members. 
  • On the other hand, to treat spirituality as purely individual overlooks the many ways spirituality expresses itself in intimate relationships, marriages, families, friendships, organizations, communities, and cultures. Even personal spiritual expressions unfold in a larger religious, social and cultural environment. 
  • Similarly, the view of religion as a “bad guy” doesn’t square with the large number of studies that have shown the benefits of various types of religious involvement for health and well-being. And the view of spirituality as a “good guy” overlooks its darker side, such as its capacity to foster self-centeredness and insensitivity toward others. 
  • In short, the tension between religion and spirituality may be overstated. Studies show that most people in the U.S. describe themselves as both religious and spiritual. For example, one national survey found that about 
    • 65% of Americans label themselves "religious and spiritual"
    • 15 to 20% of Americans call themselves "spiritual but not religious"
    • 5 to 10% of Americans say they are "religious but not spiritual" 
    • 5 to 10% of Americans say that are "neither religious nor spiritual"  Source: Marler & Hadaway, 2002

How Do We Define Spirituality for Scientific Study?

  • Drawing on the work of Pargament, we define spirituality as “the search for the sacred" for the purpose of conducting scientific research.
  • There are two important terms here: search and sacred. 
  • The term “sacred” refers not only to concepts of God and higher powers, but also to other aspects of life that are perceived to be manifestations of the divine or imbued with divine-like qualities, such as transcendence, immanence, boundlessness and ultimacy. Beliefs, practices, experiences, relationships, motivations, art, nature, war – virtually any part of life, positive or negative, can be endowed with sacred status. 
  • By search, we are referring to an ongoing journey, a process that begins with the discovery of something sacred followed by attempts to build and conserve a relationship with the sacred, and when necessary, efforts to transform nontraditional; they can follow well-trodden pathways established by traditional institutions or they can construct their own distinctive pathways that have little if anything to do with established religions.

How Do We Define Religion for Scientific Study?

  • Building on the work of Hill and Pargament, we define religion as “the search for significance that occurs within the context of established institutions that are designed to facilitate spirituality.” 
  • The term “search” refers once again to the ongoing journey of discovery, conservation, and transformation.
  • In this case, however, the destination of the search is “significance,” a term that covers the many goals that religion can help people pursue in their life journeys -- psychological, social, physical, and spiritual destinations of significance to them. 
  • Religion occurs within the larger context of established institutions and traditions that have as their primary goal, the facilitation of spirituality. It is the spiritual character of the mission religious institutions that makes religious institutions distinctive; no other social institution has spirituality as its primary goal.

How Are Religion and Spirituality Alike?

  • Spirituality and religion are similar in several respects. 
  • First, the sacred lies at the core of both religion and spirituality. Without a sacred substance, religion and spirituality would be indistinguishable from other terms often used within the larger field of psychology, such as well-being, community, meaning, hope, and authenticity. 
  • Second, both spirituality and religion are dynamic, searching processes. Both change and evolve over time through the processes of discovery, conservation, and transformation. In this sense, we can think of religion and spirituality as key parts of the journeys people take over the course of their lives. 
  • Third, both spirituality and religion are multi-dimensional and multi-level processes. In their spiritual and religious journeys, people can take a number of pathways toward the significant destinations in their lives. These paths are not necessarily followed in isolation from other people. We can think about both religion and spirituality as they are expressed by individuals, couples, families, organizations, communities, and cultures.
  • Fourth, both spirituality and religion have the potential for both good and bad. 
  • Finally, both spirituality and religion matter because they are concerned about issues of great value. Spirituality is directed toward sacred destinations. Religion is directed toward significant goals, goals which may be sacred in nature. In fact, when religion is focused on the sacred,  it becomes indistinguishable from spirituality.

How Are Religion and Spirituality Different From Each Other?

  • Although religion and spirituality are similar in important respects, they also differ from each other on key two dimensions: function and context. 
  • Function refers to the significant goals associated with spirituality and religion. 
    • In terms of function, religion is directed toward the pursuit of a wider set of destinations or significant goals than spirituality. Religion serves the important purpose of facilitating spirituality itself, but it serves other functions as well, including those that are psychological, social, and physical. 
    • In contrast, spirituality focuses on the search for one particular significant destination, the sacred.
  • Context refers to the larger social environment in which spirituality and religion unfold. 
    • With respect to context, religion is more limited than spirituality. Religion is embedded within an established, institutional context. By “established” we are speaking of long-standing organizations and institutions whose mission is to facilitate members’ connection with the sacred. 
    • In contrast, although spirituality can be a vital part of traditional religious life, it can also be expressed in nontraditional contexts.

(This material was adapted from Pargament, Mahoney, Exline, Jones, & Shafranske, in press.)

Recommended Resources:

  • Hill, P. C., Pargament, K. I., Hood, R. W. Jr., McCullough, M. E., Swyers, J. P., Larson, D. B., & Zinnbauer, B. J. (2000). Conceptualizing religion and spirituality: Points of commonality, points of departure. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 30, 51-77. DOI: 10.1111/1468-5914.00119
  • Pargament, K. I., Mahoney, A., Exline, J. J., Jones, J., & Shafranske, E. (in press). Envisioning an integrative paradigm for the psychology of religion and spirituality. In K. I. Pargament (Ed.-in-Chief), J. Exline & J. Jones (Assoc. Eds.), APA handbooks in psychology: APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality: Vol 1. (pp. xxx-xxx). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Pargament, K. I. (1999). The psychology of religion and spirituality? Yes and no. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 9, 3-16. DOI: 10.1207/s15327582ijpr0901_2
  • Pargament, K. I., & Mahoney, A. (2009). Spirituality: The search for the sacred. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed.) (pp. 611-620), New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Zinnbauer, B. & Pargament, K. I (1999). The emerging meanings of religiousness and spirituality: Problems and prospects. Journal of Personality, 67, 889-919. DOI: 10.1111/1467-6494.00077
  • Zinnbauer, B. J., Pargament, K. et al. (1997). Religion and spirituality: Unfuzzying the fuzzy. Journal for the Scientific Study of
    Religion, 36
    , 549-564. DOI: 10.2307/1387689

Updated: 03/17/2021 11:14PM