One man consoling another
By David Campbell

To many people, religiosity and spirituality are two ways of saying the same thing. But the recently released "What Does Spirituality Mean to Us? A Study of Spirituality in the United States Since COVID," along with its 2020 predecessor, makes clear that religiosity and spirituality are not the same. At a time when organized religion is on the decline, it is more important than ever to understand the many ways that people connect with the transcendent, for while some do so through conventional forms of religious worship, others seek spirituality through other means. 

The data produced through this project is like the Webb telescope, only instead of distant stars, it has revealed the interior lives of many Americans—how they think and feel about their relationship to a higher power.

This report stands out both for the important questions it poses and for the innovative methods used to answer those questions. In addition to a high-fidelity public opinion survey (conducted with a gold-standard probability sample, a rarity), these researchers asked people to visualize their spiritual lives by drawing, not just verbalizing, their thoughts. This is a simple yet brilliant way of having people represent what, to many, is difficult to put into words. The resulting analysis is a fascinating exploration of people “in their natural habitat,” as they represent how they conceive of their connection (or not) to a higher power, and to other people. I hope other researchers take note of this powerful tool.

This report would thus be valuable at any point in time, but it is even more so in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. To what extent did the pandemic affect both Americans’spirituality and religiosity? Did the public health crisis ignite a spiritual reawakening? Or did it lead people to abandon any hope in a higher power? The answers are subtle—neither a reawakening nor a large-scale abandonment of belief. While there are slight declines in various measures of spirituality, this is not the whole story. The report also finds that spirituality has provided resilience. These innovative data show that spirituality is like a vaccine, inoculating people against isolation and despair.

I am especially excited to see this report’s conception of spirituality enter the “bloodstream” of the empirical study of Americans’ values and views. As the report sagely notes, we are in a period of polycrises—that is, many crises compounding one another. How does spirituality—and the lack thereof—shape the nation’s response to the threats facing democracy? Or attitudes toward climate change? Or a desire for racial justice? Or any of a number of other challenges facing the nation? 

However, we need not stop at America’s borders. The insights provided by this project also have applicability in other nations and cultures. I look forward to learning what aspects of spirituality are common across different contexts. In short, this report has done what the best research is designed to do. It answers one set of important questions while spurring still more.

David Campbell is the Packey Dee Professor of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame and author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. You can learn more about him here.