The Sociology of Spirituality: Why and how we believe

May 23, 2018

Since the beginning of time, human beings have struggled with the idea of being alone in the universe. We have looked to find evidence and believed solely with faith that he is a part of a larger whole, one facet of the dazzling diamond that is the universe. The focus of this literature review is to explore the ways people express their relationship with a divine being be it through heavy symbolism, a perfect mass attendance, scientific evidence, or rejection of structured practice altogether and the place that this relationship has in the human experience. The studies concerning the subject have included surveys, academic reports, personal accounts, research inquiries, and sponsored conferences. In an attempt to understand if all religions are essentially praying to the same God, as well as defining the difference between spirituality and religion, these set of sources help to divide a broad topic into more approachable subsets of information. The spiritual impulse to trust in a divine power is rooted in biological impulse, and that need has manifested into the various religions that we now see today. It is critical for people not only to believe in something, but also to understand why they believe, to be able to justify their convictions in the face of doubters, especially when the doubting comes from within. To have faith is a constant battle at finding balance between emotion and reasoning. The current state of the research is quite extensive, each of the sources in this review concluding that spirituality is rising above religion, but each has a slightly altered differentiation between the two.

Literature Review


Some sources rely on set definitions of spirituality and religion respectively and base the rest of their arguments on these definitions. For example, Ecklund and Long, in their report on their survey of scientists and how they understand the connection between spirituality and science, mention that spirituality is completely subjective. Spirituality is an emotion or feeling that prioritizes the condition of the human soul and spirit, rather than material objects or trivial pursuits. However, according to Říčan, spirituality and religion can be separated by their levels of rigidity. He says that religion is characterized by “uninspired rigidity and lack of feeling” while spirituality allows for more creativity in search of the “authentic inner experience.” This source offers an explanation as to why some people consider themselves as spiritual and not religious or do not associate with a specific church. According to Říčan, when the term spirituality was introduced, churches rejected the notion because it encouraged possible followers to follow their own paths of faith, tailored to their specific needs.. In the same vein, Wood and Bun agree that there is a distinct difference between the two topics. In modern Euro-American societies, citizens are given freedom in terms of their religious practices and beliefs. In light of this, there has been an increase in spirituality, but not necessarily religion.

Methodologies + Findings

Strategic Exploration

Some sources used surveys to develop their research. Ecklund and Long polled 275 scientists at the top 21 research universities in the United States. Knoblauch also used an international survey to determine the change in social structure that encouraged the popularity of religion over spirituality and Americans’ tendency to gravitate toward “expressive individualism.” Other sources use case studies to provide evidence for their arguments. Knoblauch uses the baby boomer generation to exemplify that spirituality is not an enemy of religion, but rather, a transgression of its boundaries, while Wolf uses the same approach of isolating a single event to exemplify a larger social phenomenon. Nolan-Haley uses New York City as a case study to exemplify how religion can create borders by examining the governmental organizations that exist in the area.

Each survey held a common result: spirituality is on the rise and religion is on the decline. Of course, this shift isn’t occurring at a rate fast enough for any significant change to be visible in the upcoming years, but it is evident that a growing number of people are turned off by tradition and structure. Spirituality, as mentioned prior, is a general concern for the quality of one’s own character in relation to their own unique moral code. Religion, on the other hand, has a preset list of rules and guidelines that can deliver a believer to the promised afterlife of eternal bliss. More and more young people are opting for the option that allows for more freedom and autonomy: spirituality.

Using history as evidence

The sources that used historical context as evidence did well in persuading their audience of their respective arguments. Fletcher, a distinguished medieval historian, uses his profound knowledge to ground faith filled belief systems in solid facts.  Fletcher provides a historical background for the extensive relationship between not only humans and the divine but also the relationships between humans who worship different divine beings. Interestingly, the Catholic University of America, during their annual conference titled “Religion and Spirituality in the Society,” explains the importance of relevance of Catholicism through its importance in the larger context of world history  The conference references the current epoch as the Anthropocene, a title that is controversial in itself. The “Age of Man” refers to very recent history where man has been the chief deciding factor in evolutionary processes and has served as a faster catalyst than biological evolution. The actual designation of a new epoch is under debate, but there is a general consensus that the human race’s influence on the natural world

Armstrong offers an in-depth origin story of the three main worldly religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Connecting to the biology of Why God Won’t Go Away, Newberg’s piece, Armstrong explores the “idea” and experience of God in order to cope with the mysteries of existence. In a similar way, Chavez grounds the importance of the semiotics of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe in Mexican history, focusing on the history of her rise in popularity both in Mexican culture and the state of Christianity after the Spanish Conquest. Guadalupe continues to be a catalyst for social and political change. He proposes Guadalupe as a model church and Juan Diego as a model Christian. In modern Euro-American societies, citizens are given freedom in terms of their religious practices and beliefs. In light of this, there has been an increase in spirituality, but not necessarily religions. Again, the trend of spirituality rising above religion is apparent.


The use of symbols and shapes is also an effective method to measure the importance of divine intervention in social communities. Carroll, in his book Sacred Geometry and Spiritual Symbolism, explores the triangle and the arc as the basic shapes that make up majority of religious and spiritual emblems. Wolf also explores the importance of symbols, namely the Virgin Mary, and how she serves as a representation of hope. Wolf discusses the functional aspects of the symbol, tying conceptual ideas with visible shifts in societal paradigms. He relates the symbol to major social relationships in Mexican society. Symbolism is important because it allows modern-day anthropological researchers  to understand what was important to a specific, ancient society and the ways in which these peoples manifest their priorities into symbols. Both of these authors use both science and spirituality to understand humanity’s role in the awe-inspiring universe.


The most interesting proof of the existence of God or explanation of his existence is these of scientific evidence. Several of the sources concerning the sociology of spirituality rely on science, namely biological phenomena, as evidence for their claims. Psychology Today includes an article on Spirituality. The brief article mentions “cognitive dissonance,”  the tendency for humans to explain away opposing ideas to a belief that they hold strongly. Again, this source emphasizes the trend of humans wanting to feel like they are a part of something greater than themselves. Interestingly, suspended around this particular article are links to other pieces titled, “Are Americans Really Becoming Less Religious” and “Why Are Educated People More Likely to be Atheists.” SImilarly, in Newberg’s book, the authors’ claims are rooted in a “long-term investigation of brain function and behavior” as well as imaging techniques used on meditating Buddhists and Franciscan nuns.



Most of the conflict amongst the various sources resides in the definitions of spirituality and religion, the lines becoming blurred when claiming that spirituality is on the same side or the opposing side of religion. Majority of the sources do agree that spirituality is more subjective than religious rites, but they are not in consensus whether this difference is beneficial or draining to the traditional religious practices. Those that prefer to refer to themselves as “religious” often feel uncomfortable with the deep, confliction traditions of some of the world’s largest religions like Christianity or they cannot relate to the rest of the congregation in a formal Catholic mass. Religion is seen as ancient and fixed while spirituality is modern and malleable.


An interview with Cayetana Gomez, a 70 year-old Roman Catholic who is an active member in her church, serving as a Eucharistic Minister. This transcript has been translated from Spanish.

A = Anissa

C = Cayetana


A: How would you describe your faith?

C: I have not attended a religious school, but my Catholic faith is from when I was a child. My parents taught me this faith, this religion. I go to mass every Sunday, I’ve gone to religious retreats, and I like them very much.

A: Who or what has taught you the most about your faith?

C: The church. My mom taught me when I was young to go to mass and to pray the rosary. She had lots of little saints in our house, but no I don’t have saints. I only believe in Jesus and praying the rosary. At night when I can’t sleep, I pray the rosary and I love my religion. I would never change it for another.

A: How have you strayed from the teachings that your mom presented to you as a child?

C: I haven’t strayed from my religion. When my husband died, I felt angry at God because I thought that God had taken him from me and that it was God’s fault that I was alone. I searched for God again and I reconciled with him, and now I feel much closer to him. Without God, I wouldn’t be able to live because he is my companion. I live alone but He is always with me in every moment. I love Him and I love my religion. I am a Eucharistic Minister in my church and I love serving because I know God wants me to do work for him there.

A: Who is Jesus Christ?

C: For me, he is the Son of God.

A: How is he different from God and the Holy Spirit?

C: The Holy Spirit and God are one being. God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three in one being.

A: What is Jesus capable of?

C: He is capable of everything. He is the ruler of the universe, of us, of everything. As long as we align ourselves with him and follow his guidelines, he is capable of many things in our lives. I couldn’t live without him because he has helped me get through my trials and tribulations, when I feel lonely or sad. When I feel alone, I talk to Jesus and then I feel at peace.

A: Why did Jesus die on the cross?

C: For our sins. It is the price he paid to save us from our sins.

A:In Matthew chapter 20 verse 28, Jesus says they He came “to give his life a ransom for many” Do you consider yourself “saved”?

C: Yes, I consider myself saved because Jesus died for me and through the sacrament of Baptism, we are saved. I know that if God were to call me home, I would go with Him to heaven, I wouldn’t go to a different part. This is the belief in my heart.

A: What do you say to followers of Judaism who do not consider Jesus to be a prophet, the messiah, or the son of God?

C: I don’t like that they believe that, I don’t like them. If they tried to tell me their beliefs, I would tell them that I already have my own. I don’t want any other teachings because I have mine.

A:  When Christ comes again, who will be saved?

C: Everyone. When Christ returns for us, he will save all of us. This is why we have to stay ready because he is going to call us and we need to hear his voice. Those who don’t want to hear or understand won’t be saved, but those who do will. We need to know that he will save this world.

A: Will only the Catholics and Christians be saved, or everyone?

C: No, anyone that believes in and follows Jesus will be saved, their religion doesn’t matter. It’s important that you look for his voice when he calls and that you accept Jesus in your heart.

A: How has the role of Christ in daily life changed throughout the generations?

C: I think that God has the same importance, but the parents of my generation taught us that God is on the cross, and that was the only way to think of Him. Now, I don’t think in this way. I came from this generation, but in these times, I know that Jesus isn’t there. He is with us, he is alive, living with us. He isn’t dead, he is alive. I feel Jesus with me, he is here. He accompanies me in the car , in the church. I appreciate this generation of young people who understand that Jesus walks amongst us, he is not stuck on the cross.

A:  What do you think of non-denominational Christians who do not celebrate the Virgin or the saints?

C: I like the Christians, we are all Christians, but there are different distinctions. What I don’t like is how they don’t celebrate the Virgin because all of us have a mother, God has a mother. The Virgin had her child and gave Him to us. I have a lot of Christian family members and I like how they express their love for God, but when it comes to the Virgin, I don’t appreciate their beliefs. We all came from a mother, including God.



In CNN’s faith blog, Weiss talks about Pope Francis’s invitation to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican. The article asks, when they were each praying, were they praying to the same God? The idea of a common God is thought to release religious tensions and result in less violence committed in His name. Since the establishment of the different religious factions, believers have fought, both physically and ideologically, for their faith, for something that they cannot prove.

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