The semantics of "spirituality" and "religion" in light of corpus linguistic analysis

We thank Stefan Altmeyer, University of Bonn, Germany, for his contribution to the analysis of the data of our project. These corpus analyses are his work.

In order to assess our respondents' understandings of "spirituality" and "religion," we have invited them to write down their subjective definitions in free entries in the questionnaire. And because 1039 respondents in the US and 727 in Germany have accepted this invitation, we have a large number of entries, which range from a few words to two or three sentences and sum up to about 40,000 words in total for the US and 30,000 for the German sample. This rich data base opens a new perspective on the semantics of "spirituality" in relation to "religion." How did we analyze these data? One of the two avenues we have taken is corpus linguistic analysis, a procedure to identify characteristic and outstanding words (keywords).

For the corpus investigation we focused on keyword analysis, comparing a body of texts (research corpus) to another body of texts (reference corpus), which can be as large as an electronic data base of spoken or written language with millions of words. The aim is identifying the linguistic unique characteristics of the research corpus - which is indicated by the unique (deviant from the reference corpus) frequencies of specific words (keywords). The measure for such "uniqueness" is called keyness (and calculated on the basis of a log-likelihood procedure). Results for this comparison are presetned in detail in: Altmeyer, S. & Klein, C. (2016). "Spirituality" and "Religion" - Corpus Analysis of Subjective Definition in the Questionnaire. In H. Streib & R. W. Hood (Eds.), Semantics and Psychology of "Spirituality". A Cross-cultural Analysis (pp. 105-123). Cham, Heidelberg, New York, Dordrecht, London: Springer International Publishing Switzerland; and: Altmeyer, S., Klein, C., Keller, B., Silver, C. F., Hood, R. W., & Streib, H. (2015). Subjective definitions of spirituality and religion. An explorative study in Germany and the USA.  International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 20.

For a contrastive comparison of "spirituality" and "religion," it is revealing to analyze the free entries for "spirituality" (research corpus) in relation to the free entries for "religion" (reference corpus). The following figures present the nouns with highest keyness.

Keyword Analysis of Free Entries for "Spirituality," with Free Entries for "Religion" as Reference Corpus (and vice versa) in the US Sample (n=1,039)

In the corpus of the total free entries for "spirituality," the following nouns emerge as keywords with highest keyness: "feeling," "spirit," "connection," "soul" and "self;" in contrast, in the entries for "religion," a completely different set of nouns appears as characteristic: "set," "group," "rules," "beliefs," "people," "worship," "system" or "organization."

The next figure presents the same comparison of free entries for "spirituality" and "religion" for the German sample. The German nouns that are characteristic for "religion" are similar to what is presented for the US sample: it is "Regeln (rules)," "Gemeinschaft (community)," "Kirche (church; worship)" and "Dogmen (dogmatic propositions)," that are characteristic for "religion." The nouns which emerge as characteristics for "spirituality" mark - again - a clear contrast to the texts for "religion:" "Geist (spirit)," "Meditation," "Natur," "Esoterik," "Jenseits (other world)" and "Seele (soul)" are the outstanding characteristics for "spirituality."

Keyword Analysis of Free Entries for "Spirituality" with Free Entries for "Religion" as Reference Corpus (and vice versa) in the German Sample (n=727)

Publications / Articles


Streib, H. & Hood, R. W. (Eds.) (2016). Semantics and Psychology of "Spirituality". A Cross-cultural Analysis. Cham, Heidelberg, New York, Dordrecht, London: Springer International Publishing Switzerland.


Streib, H. & Keller, B. (2015). Was bedeutet Spiritualität? Befunde, Analysen und Fallstudien aus Deutschland. Research in Contemporary Religion (RCR) - Band 20, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Keller, B. & Streib, H. (2013) Faith Development, Religious Styles and Biographical Narratives: Methodological Perspectives. Journal of Empirical Theology 26, 1-21.

Keller, Barbara, Klein, Constantin, Anne, Swhajor, Christopher F., Silver, Ralph W., Hood, and Streib, Heinz. "The Semantics of 'Spirituality' and Related Self-identifications: A Comparative Study in Germany and the USA". Archive for the Psychology of Religion. (PDF)

Streib, Heinz & Hood, Ralph W. (2011). “"Spirituality" as Privatized Experience-Oriented Religion: Empirical and Conceptual Perspectives”. Implicit Religion 14.4: 433 - 453. (PDF)

Streib, H. (2008). More Spiritual than Religious: Changes in the Religious Field Require New Approaches (PDF)