The Effect of Spirituality on Prosocial and Civic Behaviors
An interview with Pamela King on the intersection between belief and action.
Posted December 11, 2020
In our political and social climate, what guides our voting, beliefs, and actions? In this interview, Dr. Pamela King draws from her research to demonstrate the role of spirituality and religion and our search for meaning on our prosocial and civic duties as human beings.
Pamela Ebstyne King, Ph.D. is Peter L. Benson Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Science at the Thrive Center for Human Development in the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her primary academic interests focus on the intersection of human thriving, moral, and spiritual development. Her current research includes studies on environments that promote thriving and on the nature and function of spiritual development in diverse adolescents and emerging adults. She has extensively studied and written on conceptualizations of thriving and positive youth development. King is coauthor of The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective, co-editor of The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, and co-author of the forthcoming Thriving with Stone Age Minds (Intervarsity Press) with Dr. Justin Barrett.
Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?
Pamela King: My interest in the study of spirituality is both personal and academic. As a person of faith, I have been very intrigued to further understand the psychological resources within my own experiences of religion and spirituality. While working with youth in various settings early in my career, I was struck by how young people with an active faith seemed to have more assets for navigating the often complicated years of high school and college. I started asking questions like, “How do the beliefs, social community, rituals, practices, and potentially transcendent experiences of various traditions help or hinder people to thrive?”
Around that time was the Columbine school shooting, and scholars began asking not only what is troubling American youth, but what is promising in them? The field of Positive Youth Development emerged. With that, an openness to the role of spirituality as a positive resource for young people became a possibility to study. I was able to pursue these interests through a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University where I worked with Dr. William Damon, a gracious and generous mentor who opened many doors for me to study a formally disregarded topic.
JA: What was the focus of your study?
PK: The Study of the Spirituality in America is an elaborate study that was conducted by the Fetzer Institute in early 2020 in collaboration with Hattaway Communications, an advisory board, and a group of academic reviewers. I was part of the latter. The study involved 16 focus groups, 26 in-depth interviews, and 3,609 surveys that were completed by a nationally representative survey of adults in the U.S.
Given the changes over the last 50 years in the spiritual landscape in America—where we have shifted from traditionally being a relatively religious country for the West to presently increasingly favoring the term “spiritual” than “religious”—the study sought to understand how Americans currently experience spirituality and how spirituality may be linked to civic life.
Some of the topics included spiritual and religious identity; community, civic, and political behaviors; perceptions of the relationship between spirituality and public action; and beliefs about transcendence.
Not surprisingly, this wealth of data continues to be explored by a panel of researchers. The initial findings are summarized in the Fetzer Institute’s website and report. My focus in the study has been explaining the aspirational component and exploring how spirituality is connected to prosocial and civic behaviors.
JA: What did you discover in your study?
PK: Despite decreasing trends in religious attendance, the vast majority of Americans still consider themselves religious and spiritual (70 percent). About 88 percent of the sample reported being involved with at least one spiritual or religious activity a week. Whereas, an additional 16 percent consider themselves to be only spiritual. In addition, more than half of the sample reported a desire to become more spiritual. The focus groups and interviews underscored that, at this time within the United States, spirituality is a complex, diverse, and nuanced phenomenon that people of all spiritual and religious identities experience.
Regarding how spirituality is linked to behaviors, the data shows that the more a person identifies as spiritual, the more likely they are to value community and civic behaviors. Those who report as being more spiritual are more prone to believe that it is very important to make a difference in their communities or contribute to the greater good. About 40 percent say that spirituality influences their civic engagement. Just under half of those surveyed report that spirituality influences their political views. In addition, this representative sample was split on agreeing that their spirituality informs their political actions.
JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?
PK: Even though religion gets substantially bad PR in the U.S.—between news of congregational attendance declining and the generalizations often made about bigotry, exclusiveness, and violence associated with smaller sects—Americans are still engaging with the transcendent. No doubt, the forms and expressions of searching for the sacred seem to be changing; but God, meaning in life, moral guidance, and transcendent sources of hope are still important to most Americans.
A second finding that was striking to me is that spirituality is not necessarily associated with civic engagement and action, which may be a result of the historic separation of “church and state” with the U.S. It also may be due to the fact that many spiritual and religious beliefs emphasize transcending our earthly existence and/or emphasize the afterlife. Some spiritualities promote a dualism that elevates the spiritual and devalues the material or physical.
Thus, it is very important to consider the beliefs and doctrines that are taught and embodied, and how they are connected to how people live their lives. For example, most religions affirm acts of mercy and compassion—tending to the poor, ill, and marginalized. Not surprisingly, these types of prosocial attitudes and behaviors were more often linked to being spiritual in the current study, whereas, advocacy, voting, and protesting are often considered political actions. Although these were less frequently associated with being spiritual in the current data, it would be interesting to see if these findings would be similar for those attending religious denominations that actively affirm and encourage social activism and social justice.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this series, along with all other Hope + Resilience posts, here.