Study finds the meaning of spiritual experiences is not unique to religious individuals

The feeling of personal smallness in relation to something greater than oneself is a central feature of spiritual experiences for both religious and non-religious people alike, according to new research.

The five-part study of 1,064 adults suggests that the meaning of spiritual experiences is not unique to religious individuals. Recalling spiritual experiences induced feelings of awe and a “small self” in individuals regardless of their religiosity. The study found spiritual experiences were associated with wonder and amazement as well as feeling part of a greater whole.

Not surprisingly, religious and non-religious people reported different sources of spiritual experiences. For religious people, spiritual experiences were often associated with God or the divine, while non-religious people found spiritual experiences in things like nature, yoga, and science.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Jesse L. Preston of the University of Warwick. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

I was interested in what characterizes a spiritual experience. Spirituality is often associated with religion, but they are not the same thing. Many people characterize themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, but spirituality is often difficult to define. I expected that when people thought about spirituality, it was something about the feelings they experience: a sense of connection to others and the universe, and a feeling of something greater than oneself. And so I wondered of the feeling of awe — typified by feelings of wonder and feeling small in relation to something great- might be key to what it means to have a spiritual experience,

What should the average person take away from your study?

First, that spirituality and religiousness are different, but related, and an important part of what they share is the sense of awe. Second, that non-religious people also have spiritual experiences, but the kinds of spiritual experiences they report are different than religious people. Whereas religious people most frequently report feelings of spirituality from their experiences with religion (e.g., reading the Bible, or a feeling of connection to God), and experiences with life/ death, non-religious people are more likely to cite experiences with nature, meditation, and science, for example. But, what all these experiences share was that they elicit deep feeling of awe, and a sense of “small self” in relation to something great and profound.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

I focused on the role of awe here, and I suggest in the paper that the feeling of awe may be one of the key points of overlap between religion and spirituality, and also help explain what it means to be spiritual but not religious. But there may be other factors that spirituality and religion share, and other essential components of spirituality that are important.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One of the most common specific spiritual experiences reported was the birth of a child — at about 9% of the specific examples given. Interestingly, this was the same percent for both religious and non-religious people. Birth of a child captures many key aspects of spirituality – connection to the past and future, wonder, joy, and experience with something that is beyond our complete comprehension — new life.

The study, “Spiritual experiences evoke awe through the small self in both religious and non-religious individuals“, was also co-authored by Faith Shin.