Jan 13 2009

Spirituality is Just a Word

Published by at 9:14 am under psychology,religion,science

Perhaps the greatest challenge for social scientists consists of defining variables so they can be understood, isolated, and accurately measured.

Say you suspect that parenting can influence a child’s academic achievement. While academic achievement is fairly easy to define in a way conducive to isolation and measurement — and understanding and potential replication – parenting is a trickier matter. What do you mean by parenting? Time spent together, strength of attachment, type of discipline used, what?

That said, you can probably guess which word in this title to a new research finding got me asking questions: Spirituality Is Key To Kids’ Happiness, Study Suggests.

No, it wasn’t happiness, although that word came in second place. How did they measure the happiness variable? A subjective well-being questionnaire, maybe?

The answer is spirituality. (I never would have predicted I’d one day pen that sentence. At least without the italics.) I immediately wondered how the researchers defined that variable and measured it. For it  is key to our understanding of their work.

New study suggests spirituality, not religious practices, determine how happy children are.

To make children happier, we may need to encourage them to develop a strong sense of personal worth, according to Dr. Mark Holder from the University of British Columbia in Canada and his colleagues Dr. Ben Coleman and Judi Wallace.

So by spirituality they mean a strong sense of personal worth? Not quite. Here’s where we find what the authors really meant.

The authors found that those children who said they were more spiritual were happier. In particular, the personal (i.e. meaning and value in one’s own life) and communal (i.e. quality and depth of inter-personal relationships) aspects of spirituality were strong predictors of children’s happiness. Spirituality explained up to 27 percent of the differences in happiness levels amongst children.

Groan. Why don’t the authors just call an egg an egg? Instead, they go with the vague term “spirituality” which carries more than a basketful of connotations. In effect, the eggs they actually measured were referred to as something like “the possibly divine products of a chicken.”

As the article points out,

Both spirituality (an inner belief system that a person relies on for strength and comfort) and religiousness (institutional religious rituals, practices and beliefs) have been linked to increased happiness in adults and adolescents.

Although I find that to be somewhat of a whitewash of the true, messier case, what perturbs me is the failure of virtually all of the studies and researchers to control for secular alternatives. The underlying assumption is that there is religion/spirituality on one hand and there is nothing on the other.

I beg to differ. My guess is that a family with, say, a strong tradition of and interest in gardening — a family that spent quite a bit of time together planning, tilling, harvesting, entering produce in country fair competitions, etc. — would show equal benefits to those provided by the thoughts and activities we call religion and spirituality. Or the family of bird-watchers that spent time in the common pursuit of seeing birds, learning about them, protecting their habitats, etc. I would also venture to guess that people active in the Audubon Society would likewise measure higher in life satisfaction and health.

When researchers use terms like “spirituality” they should forthrightly and honestly clarify what they mean. I would rather they not use that term at all, for it is a sloppy, misleading word. Furthermore, I predict that those who come down on the “religion is good” side of the current so-called culture war will use findings such as these to bolster their cause.

And yet “religion” and “spirituality” in the scientific domain are just words for worldly, natural phenomena — thoughts and objects and events that can be studied. And should be. But without misleading people about their true significance.

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Afterthought: And why the choice of the word “determine” in the lead sentence (“New study suggests spirituality, not religious practices, determine how happy children are.”)? And why in the singular? Why not “predicts,” as is more accurately used further down in the body? Determine has strongly causal connotations. It makes a case for something that hasn’t really been made.

4 comments

4 Comments to “Spirituality is Just a Word”

  1. [...] San Francisco Boys Chorus and the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Our program presents, in this slot, Spirituality is Just a Word, posted by Andrew Bernardin at the evolving [...]

  2. k.greybeon 19 Jan 2009 at 8:41 am

    Just to let you know, Rationally Speaking dealt with the same issue:
    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/01/spirituality-for-skeptic.html

  3. Andrewon 19 Jan 2009 at 9:19 am

    K.
    Thanks for the tip/link.
    A.

  4. James Pomeroyon 19 Jan 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Words like “spiritual” and “soul” are slippery as all get out, and their definitions (outside the machinations of theological tracts) are rarely given. It seems that their use is one of great assumption; one is supposed to know already what is meant. But in my experience there is, among believers, a frightful shallowness in understanding what precisely is meant. How many of these people, do you suppose, can tell you the difference between nephesh, psyche, and anima? How many between soma psychikon and soma pnuematikon?

    Asking what is meant by “spiritual”, “soul”, or “god” is likely to result in as many different answers as there are people asked, outside the pat regurgitation of Kindergarten-level standards, of course.

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