Universität Bielefeld

© Simon A. Eugster

Spirituality in Germany and U.S.A.

This project was funded by the German Research Foundation.

Central questions

Being "spiritual" has become increasingly popular in the last 30 years. Many in the U.S.A. self-identify as "spiritual" or even as "spiritual, but not religious." In many European countries, we see a similar development even if on lower frequency levels. Are we witnessing a "spiritual turn" or a "spiritual revolution"? Despite the popularity of being "spiritual,"which we observed already in our study on deconversion, it is not clear however what "spirituality" really means. Survey results may portrait the frequencies of religious, spiritual and secular orientations, but fall short in information about the semantics, about the functional characteristics and psychological correlates, and about the biographical contexts of these contemporary orientations. Results from our research answer at least some of these questions.


Based on questionnaire data from respondents in Germany (N=773) and the U.S.A. (N=1113), the aim of this project has been the differential cross-cultural study of the semantics and psychology of "spirituality." The qualitative biographical approach opens a diachronic perspective on the interaction of cultural and individual developmental trajectories.

One of the unique features of the Bielefeld Cross-cultural Study on Spirituality is the research. Data consist of: 1. answers to an online-questionnaire, 2. transcripts of personal interviews and 3. results from an experiment. Analyses therefore follow the model of data triangulation, but also the model of method triangulation.

Biographical contexts of the self-identification as “spiritual” have been studied with the (Faith Development Interview, FDI). This semi-structured interview consists of 25 questions which cover 4 domains: 1) Life review, 2) Relationships, 3) Values and commitments, and 4) Religion and world view. For narrative analysis, of special interest are small and dense narratives, which address central aspects of participants' faith or world view.

In order gain more insights about our respondents' understandings of "spirituality," we offered space to write down their definitions in free entries in the questionnaire. 1039 respondents in the US and 727 in Germany have accepted this invitation. Thus, we have a large number of entries, which range from a few words to two or three sentences. This rich data base opens a new perspective on the semantics of "spirituality."


To analyse the free entries regarding “spirituality”, we have used a detailed procedure of coding meaningful units in all entries for "spirituality" – which resulted in 44 categories (and 44 variables in our data base). Then we have reduced these 44 categories by principal component analysis and a second order PCA resulted in ten dimensions ( see Chapter 9 in Streib & Hood 2016). The following figures illustrates these ten dimensions and their considerable variety.

Psychological characteristics for „spirituality,“ which have emerged as most eminent in the data of the Bielefeld-based Cross-cultural Study on “Spirituality,” are the following:

  • Mysticism predicts self-rated “spirituality.” The Mysticism Scale (Hood, 1975) is an effective measure to assess self-rated “spirituality.” (see Chapter 11 in Streib & Hood, 2016 for more details)
  • Openness to experience, one of the Big Five personality dimensions, is for “more spiritual than religious” individuals significantly higher than the norm values for the USA. Nevertheless, “neither religious nor spiritual” persons are still higher in openness to experience. (see Chapter 12 in Streib & Hood, 2016 for more details)
  • The religious schemata clearly relate to “spirituality:” truth of texts and teachings (ttt) is high for “religious” persons xenosophia/inter-religious dialog (xenos) is high for “spiritual” persons, except atheists and non-theists. (see Chapter 13 in Streib & Hood, 2016 for more details)
  • “Spirituality” and mysticism are associated with psychological well-being, generativity and emotional stability. (see Chapter 25 in Streib & Hood, 2016 for more details)
  • The analyse of interviews shows how “spirituality” is lived and understood individually, and how diverse the individual reference to religious or secular aspects is (see Chapter 23 in Streib & Hood)

“Spirituality” has a variety of meanings in different biographies and is experienced in different ways. Perhaps this is what makes the word so attractive: It offers a common place, a space for exploring identity and self-understanding with respect to religion and world view, a semantic offer which allows individuals to express what moves them and what they experience without forcing them to use the semantics of “religion”. The self-identification “spiritual” allows “spiritual” atheists in the USA to indicate that they are not without sensitivity for transcendent experiences.

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.