Analysis: new research findings should prompt us not to make assumptions about what it means to be "religious" or "spiritual"

By Bernadette Sweetman and Gareth Byrne, DCU

Do we have a predetermined set of criteria that makes us categorise someone as "religious"? Is there a built-in value judgement that follows? In the Irish context, given its cultural, political and social history, religion seems somehow patched into our DNA. Most of us tend to have strong opinions on the issue of religion, perhaps because of personal experience or media coverage. In fact, it is hard to think of a subject matter that is more contentious in Ireland than religion, especially in recent decades.

But rather than looking from the outside and categorising someone as "religious", what might be learned by listening to those who clearly state "I am a religious person"? Does it make a difference? And what happens when you throw the word "spiritual" into the mix? After all, how often do we hear phrases such as "I am more spiritual than religious"?

Researchers at the Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education at Dublin City University are working on a three-year nationwide study on adult religious education and faith development. The first phase consisted of an online survey open to all Irish adults in spring 2019 covering a range of issues which attracted 738 responses from all counties and age groups. Early analysis of the data indicates some significant findings regarding Irish adults and their responses to the statements "I am a religious person" and "I am a spiritual person". The findings should prompt us to reflect more before making assumptions about what it means to be "religious" or "spiritual".

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Of the 738 respondents, 64% considered themselves as religious in comparison to 79% who considered themselves as spiritual. Age did not make a big difference: more of the respondents in their 50s said that they were religious than any other age group, but they were also the largest proportion of respondents calling themselves spiritual. This similarity went through all the age groups: they were just as religious as they were spiritual regardless of age. 

Being both religious and spiritual highlights a bigger divide. Of those stating they were religious, 79% strongly agreed that they were also spiritual. However, only 47% of those who said they were spiritual strongly agreed that they were also religious. In other words, a greater proportion of those who were religious, also identified as spiritual. In contrast, a much smaller proportion of those respondents who said they were spiritual also identified as religious. It would be fascinating to delve deeper and to explore how a "religious" person defines the term "spiritual" and how a "spiritual" person defines the term "religious".

Is this a Catholic-only phenomenon?

Respondents were asked to indicate their religious affiliation using the same categories as the 2016 census.  In almost all of these categories, greater proportions stated that they were spiritual rather than religious. For example, 72% of Catholics stated that they were religious in comparison to 85% who stated they were spiritual. Notably, whilst just 30% of those of "other" affiliation (many of whom clarified that they were formerly Catholic) said they were religious and 81% stated they were spiritual. 

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The outlier was those who indicated they belong to the Church of Ireland. They identified as religious in the same numbers as spiritual. Is there something about the Church of Ireland community that has a less stark divide between people's understanding of "religious" and "spiritual"?

Another avenue to explore is that of community or being associated with a group. The terms "organised religion" or "religious institution" sometimes feature as qualifiers to distance oneself from the label "religious", especially in preference to the label "spiritual". In this survey, 75% of religious respondents in comparison to 67% of spiritual respondents strongly agreed that "belonging to a faith community is important to me". 

Similar differences are evident when asked if "weekly worship is important to me". 68% of those who were religious strongly agreed in comparison to 60% of those who were spiritual. 70% of those who were religious strongly agreed that "going to church on Sunday is important to me", whilst 61% of those who were spiritual strongly agreed with the statement. 

Is there something about the Church of Ireland community that has a less stark divide between people's understanding of "religious" and "spiritual"?

When it comes to prayer, nearly 30% more of both groups, religious and spiritual, rate praying on their own more highly than praying with others. Such findings may spark a conversation about the privatisation of religion.

All in all, what does a religious Irish adult look like anyway? We suggest parking the assumptions and the one-size-fits-all labels of "spiritual" and "religious" because it is a diverse spectrum. We need to clarify the terms 'religious’ and ‘spiritual’ in their many shades. Lots of questions lie ahead with many research avenues to investigate. A universe yet to be explored.

Dr. Bernadette Sweetman is a Post-doctoral Researcher in Adult Religious Education and Faith Development at the Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education at the Institute of Education at DCUDr. Gareth Byrne is director of the Mater Dei Centre for Catholic Education at DCU.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ