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Many Atheists & Agnostics Say They're Deeply Spiritual

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Spirituality

Spirituality

Photo: Victoria Snowber/Getty

Spirituality is usually treated as an aspect of theistic religion. There's good reason for that: the distinction between spirituality and religion isn't nearly as stark as some imagine. However, there's no logical barrier preventing atheists from feeling like they are spiritual any more than there's a logical barrier preventing atheists from being religious — it all depends on how you define "spiritual", just as it depends on what sort of "religion" we're talking about.

This is demonstrated by the fact that a quarter of all atheists and agnostics in America regard themselves as "deeply spiritual". That's a smaller percentage than among theists in America, but it's still a significant percentage of all nonbelievers.

The Barna Group conducted surveys from January 2005 through January 2007 and one issue they asked about was how spiritual people felt (margin of error: +/- 3.2%):

I am Deeply Spiritual
  • Atheists & Agnostics: 25%
  • Christians: ?

It's odd that they didn't have data on how many Christians felt spiritual, but in an earlier 2002 survey of how Americans describe themselves, Barna asked how many describe themselves as "deeply spiritual" and this survey breaks down the demographics a bit more (margin of error: +/- 3%):

Deeply Spiritual
  • Evangelicals: 87%
  • Non-Evangelical, Born Again: 73%
  • Notional Christians: 51%
  • Non-Christian Faith: 57%
  • Atheist/Agnostic: 19%

It's clear that spirituality occurs far more frequently in the context of religious theism, at least in the United States. It's possible that spirituality among atheists would be reported more frequently in a society where atheism itself is more common and religious theism less common. Such societies exist, but I'm not aware of any surveys done there on this question. It would be interesting to know the results if such a survey is ever done.

Nevertheless, it's also clear that feelings of spirituality are fairly strong among atheists and agnostics — not as common as among theists, but still strong. This is something that more secular-minded atheists who eschew anything religious, including spirituality, will have to take into account. Coalitions of atheists working together on politics and other matters may not achieve as much if questions about spirituality are ignored or dismissed.

 

Growing Spirituality among Atheists?

One thing that should be noted is the growth in how many atheists and agnostics describe themselves as "deeply spiritual" — 19% in 2002 then 25% in 2007. The margin of error for both is +/- 3% which would plausibly bring the two figures together and mean that there has been no growth. What's more, this is only two data points and two surveys, so it's not a lot of information to base any firm conclusions on.

On the other hand, the margin of error could go in the other direction and separate the two figures, making the possible growth even greater. Is there perhaps a reason why more atheists and agnostics would self-identify as spiritual at all, never mind deeply spiritual?

Maybe. I'm not sure that there is anything which would cause lots of atheists and agnostics to start calling themselves deeply spiritual if they didn't before, but we do know that more and more people in America are willing to admit to atheism and agnosticism. It could be that many people who recently started calling themselves atheist or agnostic may be bringing with them previous attitudes that lead them to consider themselves still spiritual.

A quarter of all atheists and agnostics may not be large in absolute numbers, but it's still a significant percentage of nonbelievers. If you know very many atheists and agnostics, chances are good that a few of them feel deeply spiritual. This contradicts the common perception of atheists as being entirely secular, anti-religious, and anti-spiritual.

 

Atheists, Agnostics, and Spirituality

How do you feel about spirituality? Do you count yourself as one of the atheists or agnostics who feel deeply spiritual or even just a little bit spiritual? Or do you reject spirituality in all its forms just as you reject theism and religion? Do you think it's good for atheists to feel deeply spiritual or do you think this might contradict atheism in some way?

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