Spirituality Research: Have We Unfuzzied the Fuzzy Yet?

There is a well known article in spirituality research circles called “Religion and Spirituality: Unfuzzying the Fuzzy” (Zinnbauer and Pargament, 1999).  It’s a pretty fuzzy title. But have we unfuzzied the fuzzy yet? Well, sort of.

There is growing interest in the scientific study of spirituality. Looking at the number of journal abstracts from two journal databases[1] that use “spirituality” as a keyword, we see the number of abstracts has grown from one article in 1944 to 283 in 2003.[2] I did a check before writing this and the new total is 1812 as of July 29, 2014.

This is a large jump since 2003.These are only two research databases, and really only represents the tip of the iceberg. But it is interesting because it shows quite clearly that the field is maturing. There are grounded, practical reasons to study it. Many professions have a spiritual component, even if it is not immediately obvious.

 Types of spirituality research

Overall the research literature is comprised of six types of articles focusing on definitions and theory

  • subjective scoring of spirituality through scales and surveys research
  • spiritual sensitivity training for health professionals
  • spiritual intervention techniques for mental health/family therapy and counseling
  • community projects: assessment of social impact
  • review articles

Common ground in research findings

In a study that looked at 283 articles, researchers found that three dimensions stand out. Spirituality is understood as a way to 1) make meaning, 2) experience the transcendent, and 3) value cherished beliefs. In general, older adults will describe it in terms of actions—prayer and forgiveness for example. Younger individuals see it more as a relationship with God, or state of being. Research such as this is an important reminder: our understanding of spirituality is more coherent than fuzzy. Having said that, there is one area that continues to be a problem.

 Areas of disagreement

Are religion and spirituality the same or different? Researchers are still divided on this point. Some theorists see religion and spirituality as inseparable. This makes sense if we consider that historically spirituality is expressed through religion. However, the growth of the spiritual but not religious movement has complicated things. Although many people still see religion and spirituality as connected, many do not. They consider spirituality an aspect of human nature regardless of any formal religious content.


[1] PsycInfo and Ageline

[2] Information cited here is based on Anthony Ribaudo and Masami Takahashi, “Temporal Trends in Spirituality Research: A Meta-Analysis of Journal Abstracts between 1944 and 2003, Journal of Religion, Aging and Spirituality, 20 1-2 (2008).