Spirituality versus religiosity



Completely excluded and ignored by certain theories such as behavioural, terms like spirituality or religiosity become central concepts in humanistic theories. Their centrality and importance has led to a harsh competition between them. When they were treated separately, their relationship was not fully understood. The same happened when their contents were overlapped and even considered identical. Thus, the long-term and consistent debate related to the limits between the two terms has determined us to explore the complex intertwining of senses and meanings, because new bases for future research may only be set upon getting a deeper insight into them. We have taken into account the possible integration of spirituality among the most important personality factors (the Big Five) and the close connection between the spiritual dimension of human psyche and the issue of cultural adaptation. Finally, we have not forgotten to highlight the relationships between spirituality/religiosity and the good or bad health status of the human body.


A young science that had to deal with influential contesters from the early days – let us remind you that the great German philosopher Kant had stated not long before it was founded that no science of the psyche was possible – psychology has always included among its top concerns the operationalization of concepts. However, as a discipline included usually among social sciences, psychology had a hard time defining its first-rank concepts. The same happened for the concepts of religiosity and spirituality, because their generality issued controversies, leading to extreme viewpoints.

Thus, in case of religiosity and spirituality, behavioural psychologists solved the matter in the simplest way, by overlapping them perfectly. More precisely, to them, spirituality and religiosity do not exist as processes or dimensions of the psyche, like many other general concepts (personality traits, reasons, attitudes, etc). Psychologists, behaviourists thought, had given too rapidly into the temptation of creating sophisticated theologies or demonologies [1] using such general concepts. In fact, people have acquired ever growingly complex skills, like any other animal, until they noted certain behaviours that they have later self-labelled as religious or spiritual.

Whereas they are extreme contesters of behaviourist statements, humanist psychologists admit the existence of religious behaviours that do not rely on authentic mental processes.

Such is the case of the American psychologist Allport, who made the now classical distinction between intrinsic religiosity and extrinsic religiosity. According to Allport, extrinsic religiosity is the closest to the religious behaviour defined by behaviourists because there are many people for whom going to church, practicing religious rituals or attending them, is just a manifestation emptied on any authentic contents [2].

However, contrary to the behaviourist view, extrinsic religious behaviour does not lack motivation or purpose. The intentions of a person acting religiously just for the others may be of being socially accepted, of displaying wealth in public, of being considered a notable member of the society, of having electoral success, etc. Over time, the practice of religious rituals may become automatic gestures without which a person does not imagine life, but such behaviours do not go deeper than that. These characteristics of hypocritical religious behaviour, resistant to change, are also pointed out by common sense psychology. As the saying goes, just as a wagon put in a garage does not turn into a Mercedes, a person does not become a believer just by entering a church.

Religiosity is, however, more that a superficial behavioural manifestation, subjected to contextual influences. The true core of religiosity is represented by profound religious beliefs.

The characteristics of such beliefs, to make up this core, are stability and coherence, and such stability and coherence – the stable and multidimensional core of human religiosity – lead to many of our religious behaviours and practices.

Once it became clear that religiosity has several dimensions, more theoretical methods emerged, naturally, in order to describe and explain them. For instance, some scientists have highlighted the existence of three great dimensions of religiosity: cognitive, emotional and behavioural, which in their turn comprise second-rank dimensions [3].

Other theoreticians have underpinned – in a rather similar way – that the dimensions of religiosity relate to religious doctrine, to religious practice and to spirituality. But, before dividing religiosity into distinct components, greater or fewer, it is worth mentioning that several researchers of various specialties – among whom the Romanian historian of religions and writer Mircea Eliade – believe that religiosity, under the form of the sacred, is a universal dimension of our psyche [4].

Another important humanist psychologist, A. Maslow, also places religiosity among the most important values, which he calls B-Values. These supreme values, situated at the top of his famous pyramid, are Being Values and they are not in direct, but in indirect connection with the other needs, situated on the lower levels of the pyramid. The difference between these needs and B-Values is most definitely a difference in nature, not in degree, according to Maslow [5].

Hence, for this American humanist psychologist, an accomplished – and, as we may say,

happy – person has climbed all the levels of the pyramid, up to the top, to the last level, which one does not reach by simply climbing a level, but in another way.” Because he placed religiosity at the highest level, Maslow – just like Allport – viewed this concept as having essential complexity and importance.

As a central trait of personality, universal, stable and important, religiosity must be appraised nomothetically, namely in a general way, when approaching it from the perspective of science (psychological, sociological, anthropological, etc) or culture. Let us not forget that, ever since Aristotle, we have learnt that science may only pertain to the general, not to the particular.

Nevertheless, regardless of its universality and importance, religiosity acquires a concrete idiographic expression, an expression where the uniqueness of the manifestation prevails to the detriment of the general. The soul no longer relates to the others, but to itself and to its inner becoming. In other words, when religiosity becomes intrinsic, it reaches spirituality and it may be observed, appraised or treated only from the perspective of its unique form acquired within the person living and expressing it.

Thus far, we have focused on the term religiosity to the detriment of spirituality. Now it is high time we delimited the two terms. Therefore, religiosity seems to be an individuals willingness to orient and involve himself or herself in a certain religion, but many researchers define it as generally as possible as including ritual, moral, ideological, doctrinal, intellectual, experiential, cultural, etc, dimensions. Under these circumstances, it is normal to view religiosity as perfectly overlapping the concept of spirituality.

On the other hand, the aforementioned aspects show clearly: extrinsic religiosity does not pertain to spirituality. Excluded from the sphere of extrinsic, formal religiosity, spirituality seems to find its place only within intrinsic, inner religiosity. However, it does not suffice to circumscribe spirituality exclusively in the space of intrinsic religiosity, as generous as such space may be. Spirituality seems to outline itself as a concept with claims of independence from religiosity because certain meanings of the term spirituality do not overlap the term religiosity. More precisely, according to many researchers, one must not be deeply religious to be a spiritual being, and to the extreme, to belong to a certain religion [6].

Consequently, it may be stated, without being wrong, that a person may be religious without also being spiritual, if he/she chooses to live religiosity intrinsically. They may also be both religious and spiritual when finding the optimal way for their personal and spiritual development without being necessarily religious – to live spiritually, so to say. Ideally, religion may be considered the form under which essence – namely spirituality – is experienced.

We have deliberately insisted on proving that the great psychologists of personality, mostly humanists (Alport, Maslow, Rogers, May etc.), but not exclusively (e.g., Jung), consider religiosity and spirituality as highly important concept to define personality. We may thus descend at the level of exploring the connection between religiosity and other personality traits or factors.

Maybe the most suggestive metaphor chosen by an important theoretician and researcher of the Big Five paradigm [7, 8]. that can set light on the relationship between personality factors and personality traits is the one where factors are compared to galaxies, while traits are compared to the stars comprised within these galaxies. Hence, it becomes clear that factors are considered personality structures of the highest complexity, on the top personality organization level, embedding, beyond doubt, the personality traits.

Now we can understand better why some researcher insist that religiosity – the complexity and generality of which was outlined above – should be considered a first-rank personality factor, not a mere personality trait among other traits. Were such the case, Religiosity should join the existing five major personality factors, (Introversion/Extraversion, Neuroticism,

Agreeability, Conscientiousness and Openness to experience). Consequently, the well-known paradigms Five Factor Model and Big Five would become Six Factor Model and Big Six.

A solid argument for including religiosity among the first-rank personality factors is that – starting from the complexity and generality of this concept – we may describe or explain many other components or dimensions of our personality. Namely, religiosity has been proven to have numerous connections with other personality levels or structures.

However, there are equally strong arguments against including religiosity among the first- rank personality factors. The main argument thereof is that, while the classical five personality factors are independent (orthogonal) from one another, most scientists had to agree that religiosity – whereas with measurable effects on personality traits – is not a trait independent from personality [9].

Various research conducted to discover the relations between the dimension of religiosity and the five classical personality factors – (all studies have been featured in the great synthesis of Saroglou [10]) – have concluded that subjects with high religiosity score lower on Neuroticism and Openness to experience, but significantly higher in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness.

In other words, subjects scoring higher in religiosity seem to be less vulnerable to mood instability, namely to anxiety, depression and hostility. They are more conscientious and more altruistic; at the same time, they are more inflexible, at least from a cognitive viewpoint, and maybe from other, too. In the practical part, we will reprise these conclusions with more details, mostly given that religiosity under its extrinsic form has been found to be closely connected to high scores in Neuroticism, which may seem paradoxical, were there not a psychological explanation for it. However, researchers have agreed that, in order to see whether there is a correlation between certain personality characteristics and religiosity, many more studies are necessary.

As we have stated above, whereas it may not be an independent personality trait, religiosity has measurable effects on personality traits. Thus, a first important relation pointed out by researchers is the connection between religiosity and the attitude we adopt concerning death.

As expected, after the 2011 terror attacks in America, many studies have been dedicated by American psychologists to peoples attitude concerning death and the imminence of terror attacks.

By exploring this territory, Norenzayan & Hansen have found a direct and strong correlation between religiosity and the attitude concerning death. They have shown that – when subjects are shown the obvious existence of death – they tend to believe in God more, to have greater religiosity and, interestingly, to believe more in divine intervention [11].

Following the same line, a study conducted in 2006 in Germany had the main objective of observing the reaction of Germans to the imminence of a terror attack. By using the distinction made by Gordon Allport (featured above) between intrinsic religiosity and extrinsic religiosity, the authors of this study [12] have selected for their research two types of subjects: intrinsically religious and non-religious.

The study has concluded as follows: intrinsic religiosity helps us deal with learning of the imminence of a terror attack. The authors of the study have found that, while intrinsically religious subjects remained calm and positive facing such serious threat, non-religious religious were overwhelmed by negative emotions. Due to the presence of negative emotions, there was lower incidence of positive emotions, and a serious impairment of the adaptation and self-efficacy capacity.

Another interesting research has found religiosity to have a beneficial effect when learning about an apocalyptic scenario. Those who believe that the soul is eternal seem to be more psychologically protected against the threats of scenarios predicting the imminence of apocalypse [13], compared to people who do not believe the soul is immortal.

The beneficial effect of the religiosity phenomenon has also been highlighted by social psychology studies [14]. It appears that, when religious concepts are activated through priming techniques, we make spontaneous, unconscious associations with concepts and we tend to make prosocial actions. However, the aforementioned authors have concluded that the controlled activation of religiosity activates certain associations with prosocial behaviour, while the activation through priming techniques of the concept of God would lead to other types of associations.

Last, but not least, it is worth reminding that a growing number of researches has proven the positive correlation between religiosity/spirituality and optimism [15], body health [16.17], mental health [18, 19], and wellbeing (happiness) [20-24], etc. These optimistic conclusions for the physical and mental balance of people stand to show there are still many inciting research fields in the so generous domain of religiosity and spirituality.


DÎRȚU Cătălin [1]

SOPONARU Camelia [2]

[1] Psychology,Al. I. Cuza” University, Iași (ROMANIA).

[2] Psychology,Al. I. Cuza” University, Iași (ROMANIA).


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