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Americans' Spiritual Searches Turn Inward

Americans' Spiritual Searches Turn Inward

by George H. Gallup Jr.

"It's not about you," writes Rick Warren in his new, best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, ". . . You were born by his [God's] purpose and for his purpose." Many Americans may not agree with this statement. According to a December 1999 poll, although most Americans (86%) believe in a personal God who answers prayers, nearly half (45%) say that when deciding how to conduct their lives, they would pay more attention to their own and others' views than to God and religious teachings.

Three in 10 Say They Are Spiritual, Not Religious

As described in The Next American Spirituality, which Tim Jones and I wrote, the pendulum may be swinging away from what is beyond us to what is within us. In the 1999 survey, we asked, "Do you think of spirituality more in a personal and individual sense or more in terms of organized religion and church doctrine?" Almost three-quarters opted for the "personal and individual" response.

In a January 2002 poll, 50% of Americans described themselves as "religious," while another 33% said they are "spiritual but not religious" (11% said neither and 4% said both). When respondents to a 1999 Gallup survey were asked to define "spirituality," almost a third defined it without reference to God or a higher authority: "a calmness in my life," "something you really put your heart into," or "living the life you feel is pleasing."*

As further evidence of the focus on self in spirituality, many people today appear to be practicing a "do-it-yourself" faith -- taking pieces from various traditions and building their own kind of "patchwork" faith. For example, according to a September 1996 Gallup Poll, one-fifth of people who describe themselves as "born again" also say they believe in reincarnation.

Drilling down deeper into Gallup research, we find that Americans' perceptions of their spirituality are far different from the actual practice of their spirituality. According to a December 2002 Gallup Poll, in response to the statement, "I am a person who is spiritually committed," 47% of Americans gave a response of "strongly agree." However, only 13% responded "strongly agree" to all nine items on Gallup's Spiritual Commitment scale (see "How to Measure Spiritual Commitment" in Related Items). This indicates that although many individuals believe themselves to be spiritually committed, that commitment is often not manifested in traditional religious activities.

Bottom Line

Individualism is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, and the influence of individualism extends into American spirituality as well. As world events and daily life become increasingly complex, the tendency is to retreat inward, effectively shutting out the rest of the world. As a result, retreating individuals create an increasingly private spirituality. The challenge for leaders of faith communities is to encourage individuals to connect their inner lives with their outer actions and engage with their communities and the world -- making their beliefs consistent with their practices. Successfully accomplishing this will pay great dividends, both for congregations and America as a whole.

*Findings are based on a quality 1999 study titled 24 Hours in the Spiritual Life of America, in which people were asked to trace, hour-by-hour, their spiritual thoughts, beliefs an actions during a 24-hour period.

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