WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE SPIRITUAL?
How do spirituality and faith animate our daily lives, particularly during COVID and similar times of challenge? These are the questions at the heart of Fetzer’s "Study of Spirituality in the United States since COVID." Working with social scientists, theologians, and academic experts, the study sought to identify subtle changes in how people experienced their faith and spiritual lives during times of challenge.
About the Study
Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago at the end of the pandemic, the study surveyed 3,651 people from a probability-based sample of the U.S. English-speaking population ages 18 and over. The data, collected in fall 2022, was then compared with the Fetzer Institute’s 2020 study (“What Does Spirituality Mean to Us? A Study of Spirituality in the United States”).
Among the Study's Findings
• Engaging in prayer, art, and time in nature were the most frequent practices reported by the nearly two-thirds of interviewees who consider themselves both spiritual and religious.
• Survey participants reported that almost every spiritual activity people practiced supported their spiritual growth and mental well-being.
• Seven out of ten people said being in nature gave them a sense of hope. Nearly three-quarters of people found prayer—however they define it—helped them endure difficulties.
This study and its 2020 predecessor together affirm through interviews, focus groups, and two surveys that spirituality is an inward and outward experience—it offers a sense of identity, offers tangible benefits, defines individual and group practices, infuses daily practices and experiences, and supports our religious life, our search for meaning and purpose, and our connections to the transcendent.
Subtle but notable differences in findings between the 2020 and 2022 surveys reflect that toward the latter stages of the pandemic people experienced:
- a little more doubt in a higher power;
- a little less feeling of connection to a higher power, all of humanity, the natural world;
- a little less aspiration to be spiritual; and
- a little less engagement in spiritual and/or religious activities.
The new data show that nearly 60% of people reported one or more challenges during the COVID pandemic, such as the loss of a loved one, loss of employment, or financial setback—combined with fewer opportunities for spiritual or religious gatherings. These realities could explain some differences between the 2020 and 2022 studies documenting declines in religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, according to the report.
At the same time, the study found that people who reported improved mental and spiritual health after the pandemic noted expanded spiritual practices, experiences, and prosocial activity.
To design a study that was rigorous and would make a meaningful contribution to the field of spirituality and religion research, we brought together an advisory group whose backgrounds in research, theology, activism, and practice could help us navigate this rich and complex field:
• David Addiss, Director, Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE), Task Force for Global Health: Survey item selection and refinement, findings, and report reviews.
• Baylor University’s Institute for Religious Studies: Literature review about the relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and spirituality and religion.
• Rebecca Bonhag, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University: Literature review.
• David Campbell, Packey Dee Professor of American Democracy, University of Notre Dame: Review and refinement of report findings.
• Richard Cowden, Ph.D., Research Scientist, Human Flourishing Program, Harvard University: Survey item selection and refinement, and additional COVID-19 analysis.
• Matthew T. Lee, PhD, Professor of Social Sciences and Humanities at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and Research Associate, Director of the Flourishing Network at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University: Survey item selection and refinement and report reviews.
• Paige Rice, Senior Associate, Research, Hattaway Communications: Qualitative analysis of open-ended responses.
• Tom W. Smith, Senior Fellow and Director, Center for the Study of Politics and Society at NORC: Survey item selection and refinement, findings, and report reviews.
• Thrive Center for Human Development at Fuller Theological Seminary: Structural equation modeling through AI-machine learning methods on how Americans’ descriptions and views of spirituality changed between 2020 and 2022. Pamela Ebstyne King, PhD, Co-PI; Sung Kim, PhD, Co-PI; Conner Stephenson, MA, Research Assistant; Shannon R. Constable, MA, Research Assistant; Jilleen R. Westbrook, PhD, Project Manager.
• Roman Williams, PhD, and Jason Burtt, PhD: Content and statistical analysis of the more than 1,700 drawings collected.