Spirituality Research: Measuring the Immeasurable?

Article excerpt

A 1986 article on spirituality and science began with the words, "Most social and behavioral scientists avoid attention to the spiritual nature of humanity." (1) That still is true in some specialties, but spirituality has become a prominent subject of research in those most closely related to religion, health, and well-being. This article summarizes and critiques significant developments in psychological and other research on spirituality. It provides an introductory foundation for beginning research on the subject and critically analytic suggestions for persons already grounded in it. Endnote references can guide readers deeper into aspects of spirituality that intrigue them.

The Popularization of Spirituality

Popular magazines that once aimed at political correctness by shunning discussions of religion have resumed publishing front cover stories about it. News reports no longer avoid mentioning the religious orientations and spiritual experiences of newsworthy persons for whom they are a concern, although most use only "God talk" substitutes about personal faith in Jesus Christ. Since the late 1980s, there has been a rising crescendo of popular interest in spirituality and its marketplace (2) of religious and pseudo-religious phenomena, including meditation, mysticism, psychic healing, yoga, spirit guides, witchcraft, New Age cults, and alternate religions, some of which openly or covertly incorporate themes and techniques from ancient Greek, Gnostic, or Eastern religions.

The popularization of spirituality is accompanied by expanded recognition of the centrality of religion in human societies and a surge of interest in studying spiritual phenomena. (3) Annual meetings of many professional societies include sections on religion-related topics that once were shunned, if not banned. Entire conferences gather around spiritual themes. (4)

Empirical research on and related to spirituality has rapidly expanded since the late 1980s in the social and behavioral sciences, social work, nursing, medicine, neurobiology, and other academic specialties and applied professions. It matters not whether popularization stimulated scholarly investigations or reflected the growing recognition that spirituality is important, for they are closely interrelated. These interests also reflect major trends in the politics of global society, culture wars, international warfare, and significant migration patterns. Spirituality is increasingly recognized as a concern that penetrates to the core or essence of both human nature and society.

This article focuses upon one significant facet of those developments, the multidisciplinary research on spirituality. By answering key questions, it sketches some highlights of the research, methods, and tools used to investigate spirituality; samples of findings; research problems and limitations; and relevant Christian values. It mentions some of the challenges for future research and provides references to help interested scholars and researchers quickly locate helpful resources for their investigations, whether they are at beginning or advanced stages of study.

How Did Spirituality Research Begin?

The American Scientific Affiliation was far ahead of its time when the question of the amenability of spirituality to scientific study was included in its joint conference on "Science and Christian Faith" with the Research Scientists' Christian Fellowship at Oxford University in July 1965. (5) Interest in spirituality was stimulated in part by a nagging feeling that the central core of religion may have been cut away from the sociology of religion. The claim of Charles Glock, a prominent sociologist of religion, that all of the manifestations of religious commitment in all religions of the world can be subsumed under five interactive and researchable dimensions (ritualistic, ideological, intellectual, experiential, and consequential) also motivated that work. …