Organized religion is easy to define as group participation in beliefs and rituals. There is usually a priest, a place, and a prayer (1). Spirituality is trickier. It is often defined in terms of its opposites: anti materialism, lack of concern with worldly success, out-of-body sensations, and weakening of the ego.

The decline of religion in developed countries offers a unique perspective on the religion-spirituality connection. What happens to spirituality as organized religion declines? Are regular churchgoers more spiritual to begin with?

Are Religious People More Spiritual or Less Spiritual?

Scholars distinguish between public religiosity and private piety. People who attend church regularly may not be very religious in private. They lack private spirituality.

One index of religious depth is ethical conduct. People who attend church frequently like to adopt a high moral tone but they do not always deliver in practice. Publicly religious people are not more ethical in their conduct and actually fall short in several areas according to research (2). They are more likely than atheists to cheat on exams, for example, possibly reflecting more fear of negative evaluations by others.

Another intriguing area of failure is sexual misconduct (1). Despite espousing family values, religious conservatives spend more on online pornography. Long before the Internet, in the 1970’s, religious conservatives were more interested in casual sex with other men in public restrooms (tearoom trade) reminiscent of the Larry Craig scandal.

Religious people are focused on whether a person follows rules laid down by others. As a consequence, they have an underdeveloped capacity for moral reasoning through which thoughtful individuals devise their own ethical rules and principles (2). So their moral reasoning may be in a state of arrested development - they simply defer to the rules.

If organized religion closes some doors in regard to ethical sophistication, religious people might also be less open to a broad range of spiritual experiences. One way of investigating this issue is to compare secular developed countries with more religious poorer nations.

What happens to spirituality in secular countries?

Some of the most developed countries are already predominantly secular. So what happens to spirituality in countries where the majority is no longer religious?

Religion/spirituality is arguably a basic trait found in everyone. Spiritual experiences have a neural basis, suggesting that the human brain was molded to facilitate religious experiences.

Although there is no single “God spot” in the brain, feelings of self-transcendence are associated with reduced activity in the right parietal lobe, a part of the brain cortex located a few inches above the right ear (3). Spiritual experiences use many different parts of the brain, however. So what do people in secular countries do with these brain functions after they abandon formal religion?

Analysis of secular countries suggests a clear, if surprising, answer. Although residents typically express a casual and condescending attitude towards organized religion, their interest in spiritual questions persists. Indeed, curiosity about topics such as the origin and meaning of life increases as does interest in world religions and practices such as yoga, tai chi, and transcendental meditation (4).

Interest in many different religious traditions may be symptomatic of secularization. The spiritually curious select from a menu of global beliefs and practices without being deeply committed to any of them.

Residents of secular countries, such as Sweden or Japan, express great interest in the supernatural, particularly in fiction and entertainment. Why do people in “godless” developed countries abandon formal religious beliefs yet willingly suspend their supernatural disbelief when it comes to novels, films, and soap operas? Such contemporary fiction is replete with supernatural elements such as vampires, ghosts, angels, witchcraft, and time-traveling aliens.

It may be that however much secularists reject religious beliefs, their evolved susceptibility to supernatural belief remains. Their spiritual propensity is just as strong but it is no longer focused on organized religion.


1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at:

2. Barber, N. (2004b). Kindness in a cruel world: The evolution of altruism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

3. Johnstone, B., Bodling, A., Cohen, D., Christ, S. E., & Wegrzyn, A. (2012). Right parietal lobe-related “selflessness” as the neuropsychological basis of spiritual transcendence. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. accessed at on 5/30 2012.

4. Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.

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