On Pew’s Podcast: Why Americans Are More Spiritual Than Ever

After the Fact, Episode 23: Rising Spirituality. Listen to it here.

Does one have to go to a church, temple, or mosque to be religious or spiritual? According to the Pew Research Center, a growing number of American adults would say no. In fact, U.S. spirituality is at its highest level ever even as traditional religious beliefs and practices decline. To dig into this phenomenon, I recently sat down with Dan LeDuc. He’s the host of “After the Fact,” a podcast from The Pew Charitable Trusts. We talked about the reasons people turn to religious or spiritual practices in the first place, and the benefits that come from both.

Divine Data

“After the Fact” begins each episode with a data point that reveals something about our world – and in this case, it’s the number 59. That’s the percentage of Americans who say they experience a “deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being” at least once a week, and it’s up seven points since 2007. Nearly 40 percent also say they feel a “deep sense of wonder about the universe” on a weekly basis. What’s more? Even those who say they are agnostic, atheist, or don’t belong to a particular religion are feeling increasingly spiritual. Before talking with me, Dan explored this finding and other trends with the Pew Research Center’s Greg Smith. The numbers show that adherence to traditional religious beliefs and practices such as attending services or identifying with a formal religion has dropped—but America is far from being a nation of non-believers.

Seeing the Forest

How do we explain this spiritual surge? And what are the effects of religious and spiritual experiences? My research at Duke University’s Belief, Affect, and Behavior Lab (“The BABLab”) offers a few clues.

  • It feels good: Research has shown that religion and spirituality can create many positive outcomes, whether by sparking greater connection with others, healthier habits, or a greater overall sense of well-being.
  • The power of positivity: While it’s long been accepted that people turn to religion in order to cope with difficult life events, my research suggests that positive emotions are just as important for sparking religious and spiritual feelings. For example, when we show people video clips eliciting a meaningful positive emotion—such as viewing a beautiful sunset or the birth of a child—they tended to say they felt a higher sense of benevolence or meaning in the world.
  • Beyond the bear: Positive emotions like awe and wonder may actually change how people look at the world by allowing them to focus on the bigger picture. For example, if you’re experience something negative such as being attacked by a bear, you are unable to focus on anything but the bear. But when you’re able to relax, your perspective broadens. You can see the forest—or imagine a higher connection and purpose to life.

Whatever the cause may be, there’s no doubt that religion and spirituality have a significant impact on the lives of many Americans. I encourage you to listen to the full episode to learn more, as well as hear how Greg and I came to our findings. You can also follow my research at the BABLab here.

More from “After the Fact”

“After the Fact” goes beyond the data to bring you nonpartisan analysis and compelling stories. If you like what you heard, click here to check out more “After the Fact” episodes, subscribe to the podcast, and share.

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