Boston University professor Dr. Nancy Ammerman organizes spiritual and religious experiences into four packages. I share her research as one way to help children understand and define these terms.

1) Godless (nontheistic) spirituality

Spirituality is not framed in terms of God but rather as a kind of transcendence that is “bigger than me” and beyond the ordinary. A secularist from Atlanta said:

Experiencing things that are calming and healing in what might almost be a spiritual way–I’ve had that from lots of things: music, movies that I love, and books.

2) God-centered spirituality

Spirituality is about God, especially one’s relationship with God, and any mysterious encounters or happenings that result from it.

I love to be out on a boat on the ocean for the same reason I like to be in my garden, ’cause I feel close to the Lord and the beauty of the world.

3) Ethical spirituality

Spirituality is living a virtuous life by helping others and transcending one’s own selfish interests to seek what is right. This is a definition of spirituality that all survey respondents, from the most conservative Christian to the secular neo-pagan, agreed was the essence of authentic spirituality.

4) Belief and belonging

This spirituality package is defined differently by those who are active in a religion and those who are not. Ammerman wrote,

Believing, for instance, could either be a way of talking about devout spirituality or a way of describing superstition. Belonging can represent a positive identity or a symbol of being trapped in an authoritarian tradition. Tension between the two definitions sheds some light on why people would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Conclusions of interest to children:

  • Spiritual and Religious are rarely at odds but intersect often in the daily lives of people as they describe their spirituality.
  • When conflicts/tensions arise it is almost always when individuals/groups use religion to draw political and moral boundaries.
  • Research shows more common than uncommon spiritual practices and beliefs between those who say they are religious and those who don’t.

Link to complete article by journalist Matthew Brown.


Get help here when your older kids ask the difference between religious and spiritual. Click to tweet