The Spiritual Species

Clay Routledge

Summer 2020

Survey after survey on the state of religion in the United States paints a similar picture of faith in decline. Just in the last decade, according to Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as Christian has decreased from 77% to 65%, while the number of religiously unaffiliated is up from 17% to 26%. Atheists, at an estimated 4%, continue to make up a very small fraction of the population, but that number is double what it was a decade ago.

This supposed secular shift becomes much more dramatic when focusing on younger generations of American adults, and when considering specific religious behaviors that may better reflect deep commitment to a faith, such as frequent attendance at religious services. Around 40% of millennials today are religiously unaffiliated, and less than half of Americans attend church at least once a month. More broadly, religious ideas, symbols, lessons, and conversations are increasingly absent from American public life.

Atheists and champions of secularism are emboldened by such trends. They view the decline of religion and its influence on culture as a sign that humans are becoming more enlightened — that people are moving beyond antiquated supernatural beliefs and toward a more evidence-based and rational approach to life. They imagine a purely secular-humanist future in which people will no longer turn to faith for guidance and inspiration.

Regardless of the state of traditional religion, however, there is not much reason to believe people can ever become truly secular. Human beings are an inherently spiritual species, and striving to reject this part of our nature undermines our ability to flourish. Spirituality and the religious traditions that help shape and regulate our spiritual lives play vital roles in the human quest for meaning, which is central to our psychological, social, and physical health as well as to our economic growth and prosperity. We should thus be skeptical of claims that we are growing less religious and of attempts to eradicate religion from the human experience.


The popular belief that human beings can move beyond religion to become fully secular beings is based on a cultural-learning, or blank-slate, view of religion. According to this view, people's attitudes, interests, beliefs, and goals are shaped entirely by their social environments. The assumption is that people are born non-religious, and that they come to hold a range of supernatural and related religious beliefs as a function of enculturation. To support the cultural-learning view, advocates point to the fact that people from different cultures have distinct religious beliefs, and that these beliefs often change over time as a result of education, scientific discovery, and engagement with people who hold different beliefs.

The cultural-learning approach does have value: It helps explain the diversity of religious faiths and why believers tend to follow the specific religious traditions in which they are raised. But it also neglects a growing body of research on the psychology of religion and spirituality. The dogmas, rituals, and related practices that distinguish or unite different faiths are certainly influenced by our families, communities, and broader cultures, but cultural learning is only part of the story. Ignoring other aspects of our spiritual nature has led many to overestimate the extent to which society has secularized.

Fewer people today may be identifying as religious and attending religious services, but there is scant evidence that they are abandoning spiritual pursuits and supernatural beliefs altogether. It would be more accurate to describe many current trends as evidence not of secularization, but of religious substitution.

Regardless of what people think about the religious beliefs and practices of past generations, today's Americans overwhelmingly hold beliefs that go beyond a purely scientific view of the natural world. A 2003 Gallup survey found that around three-fourths of Americans endorse some type of paranormal belief — in other words, they believe in such things as ghosts, witchcraft, reincarnation, astrology, telepathy, or clairvoyance. What's more, the less people are engaged in traditional religious practices, the more inclined they are to hold alternative supernatural and paranormal beliefs. For instance, Pew found that people who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as are regular churchgoers. The Baylor Religion Survey similarly observed that the less often people attend religious services, the more likely they are to hold paranormal beliefs; the individuals least likely to endorse paranormal beliefs are those who go to church at least once a week. Other surveys have shown that young adults are less likely than older adults to describe themselves as religious but are more likely to hold a range of alternative spiritual and paranormal beliefs. And the most "secular" regions of the country are where New Age and pagan beliefs and practices thrive.

Such trends are not confined to the United States. A survey of Canadians found that though young adults are less likely than older adults to believe in God and Jesus Christ as the son of God, they are equally or more likely than older adults to believe in life after death, the existence of angels, and people's ability to communicate with the spiritual realm. Surveys in the United Kingdom and Sweden also show that belief in ghosts has been rising in recent decades.

Many who claim to reject all things religious and spiritual are frequently interested in what I describe as supernatural-lite beliefs. These beliefs are often not explicitly supernatural, but they certainly require a leap of faith and have qualities that mimic traditional religious beliefs. They also tend to invoke the language of science and technology, at least superficially, making them more palatable to those who imagine themselves as data-driven secularists. This includes the belief that intellectually and technologically advanced extraterrestrial visitors are monitoring us and have helped shape the development of our societies.

When I started exploring the idea of religious substitution, I was surprised to learn the extent to which Americans are attracted to supernatural-lite beliefs. A 2012 National Geographic poll found that 79% of Americans believe that the government is keeping secrets about UFOs from the public, and 55% indicated that they believe the government threatens those who witness a UFO. Other surveys indicate that around half of Americans believe that intelligent aliens are monitoring human activity. Once again, studies in both the United Kingdom and United States show that the less people identify as religious, the more likely they are to believe in UFOs and that intelligent alien beings are monitoring us.

When I dug into the specific beliefs people hold about UFOs and alien visitors, I noticed a number of similarities between these beliefs and traditional religious beliefs. For instance, alien visitors are often depicted as having godlike powers and serving a protective function. These enlightened beings, believers claim, are here to watch over humans and help us reach our full potential so that we can one day join a larger cosmic community. Some beliefs implicate aliens in the creation of the major world religions, proposing that all the different faiths will one day be united.

Other supernatural-lite religious substitutes include empirically unsupported practices and products promoted by wellness gurus, transhumanist aspirations such as indefinite life extension or transferring human consciousness out of a mortal body, and certain conspiracy theories.

Of course, many of those who reject religion also don't believe in aliens, conspiracy theories, ghosts, witchcraft, astrology, spiritual energy, psychic abilities, or the healing power of crystals, but that does not mean they lack a spiritual side. According to a Pew survey, about one-third of atheists report frequently feeling a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being, 35% say they often wonder about the meaning and purpose of life, and 54% indicate that they often feel a sense of wonder about the universe. Atheists, like believers, also exhibit a teleological bias — a tendency to think about the world in terms of design and purpose, and to believe that things are meant to be — even if they explicitly reject religious explanations. Surveys of scientists indicate that some atheist scientists embrace the idea of a spiritual atheism, or a way to approach deep existential questions in less traditional ways.

Advocates of secularism often view science and religion as having an antagonistic relationship, but studies indicate that most scientists do not share this attitude. Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Rice University sociologist and director of the school's Religion and Public Life Program, has conducted extensive research with her colleagues on how scientists view religion and negotiate scientific and spiritual issues. In one large survey of university professors, scientists in the fields of physics, biology, chemistry, sociology, economics, political science, and psychology were asked to indicate which of the three following statements about religion best describes their own views: "there is very little truth in religion," "there are basic truths in many religions," and "there is the most truth in only one religion." In every discipline surveyed, the majority of scientists indicated that there are basic truths in many religions — 63.5% held this view at the low end (physics professors) while 76.2% held it at the high end (sociology professors), for an average of 71% across fields. In another survey, researchers found that only 15% of scientists believe that science and religion are always in conflict. An international survey conducted by Ecklund's team also found that the majority of scientists in countries such as the United States, France, Italy, and Taiwan believe that science and religion are not in conflict because they speak to distinct realties. Less than a quarter of scientists in every surveyed country said that science has made them less religious.

The differences between theists and atheists shrink even more when researchers probe deeper than self-reported beliefs, which often fail to fully reveal how the human mind works — especially when it comes to spiritual ideas and experiences. Researchers who have reason to believe people are either unable to fully access, or unwilling to completely disclose, how they are being influenced by certain experiences can turn to the body's physiological responses as indicators of a person's psychological state. When people experience emotions such as fear or anxiety, for example, they also undergo physical changes in the body, such as fluctuations in heart rate and levels of cortisol (a hormonal indicator of stress). Anxiety also increases the skin's electrical conductance, which can be measured through a small device attached to the finger.

In one study, psychologists at the University of Helsinki sought to determine the physiological effects of daring God to do harmful things and whether those effects differ between atheists and theists. Their hypothesis was that if atheists do not in any way believe in God, then challenging God to hurt people should not cause them any distress. But if at some underlying level, religious ideas regarding a deity do affect atheists, then atheists might show physiological signs of stress after challenging God to cause harm. In the first experiment, researchers brought atheist and theist participants into a laboratory and instructed them to read aloud a number of statements, including sentences such as, "I dare God to turn all my friends against me." They also directed them to read neutral statements and statements that were offensive but did not involve God. While participants read these statements aloud, the researchers measured their physiological arousal via skin conductance. The researchers also asked participants to self-report how uncomfortable making these statements made them feel. As one might expect, theists reported higher levels of distress than atheists after daring God to do harmful things. For the physiological response, however, theists and atheists showed similar levels of heightened physiological arousal when provoking God.

The researchers also conducted a second experiment to address the possibility that the physiological effects observed were due to the specific types of harm being proposed, not the fact that the participants were provoking God. After all, even if people do not believe in God, daring God to do bad things could trigger a stress response because of the negativity of the provocation. To rule this possibility out, the researchers asked participants in the second study to read additional statements that involved identically harmful outcomes but did not invoke God, such as, "I wish my friends would turn against me." The findings only further confirmed that atheists experience distress at the physiological level when provoking God: Atheists exhibited significantly higher skin conductance when reading aloud the harmful statements that involved God than when reading aloud the harmful statements that did not involve God. In other words, it was the spiritual aspect of these negative statements, not their pernicious content, that triggered the greatest distress response from atheists. Atheists may not consciously believe in God, then, but they exhibit a bodily stress response identical to that exhibited by believers when provoking him.

In sum, the findings of research using diverse methodologies, measures, and populations are at odds with the view that human beings are becoming a secular species. As our societies become more individualistic, safe, and affluent, people may be breaking away from the traditional shared-belief systems that bind individuals and communities together, but our spirituality remains an immutable aspect of our nature.


Why are many of those who do not subscribe to a religious tradition drawn to alternative supernatural and supernatural-lite beliefs? Why do even atheists report spiritual interests or display signs of being influenced by religious ideas, even if only at the physiological level? In other words, what makes humans naturally spiritual?

Like all organisms, humans are engaged in the struggle for survival. Our bodies are made up of a variety of systems that work in concert to keep us alive, and much of this requires no conscious attention from us — we don't have to think about breathing, for example. In fact, our brains regulate many bodily processes without our conscious attention. Yet humans are unique from other organisms in several important ways, especially in terms of our cognitive capacities.

The cognitive capacities that rely on our conscious awareness have played a vital role in helping us form complex societies, bend nature to our will, and make the types of scientific discoveries and technological innovations that grant us safer, longer, more comfortable lives. At a fundamental level, then, human beings are conscious thinkers. We want to solve problems and make sense of the world. And because we are highly self-aware, we also want to make sense of our own existence. We ask existential questions about meaning and purpose, and we must grapple with existential uncertainties and fears. We are organisms in search of transcendent meaning. We don't just want to live; we want our lives to matter. We long to feel like part of something larger and more enduring than our brief mortal lives.

A large body of research indicates that religious and spiritual pursuits uniquely contribute to our search for meaning. Theists are more likely to find meaning in their lives than atheists, and highly religious individuals are more likely to discern meaning than those who are less religious. The more people engage in religious practices such as prayer or attending religious services, the more they view their lives as meaningful. And compared to those who are not very religious, those who are highly religious are better able to perceive meaning in the face of difficult life events.

Though many studies show that religion provides and protects meaning, my research team was interested in the question of whether the human need for meaning is why people are religious to begin with. This might help us understand not only the function of religion, but also why individuals who abandon traditional religion turn to religious substitutes. In other words, does the human need for meaning orient us toward spiritual and religious interests? Is our inherent spirituality somehow tied to our inherent quest for meaning?

To determine whether the need for meaning is a driver of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, my colleague Andrew Abeyta and I drew on past theory and research regarding the human need to belong. Behavioral and social scientists have long argued that humans have a fundamental need to belong. As a corollary, social psychologists have posited that even though belonging is a basic human need, the degree of that need should naturally vary between individuals. That is, everyone needs relationships, but some people might be especially focused on obtaining and maintaining social bonds (high need to belong), whereas others are not (low need to belong).

We proposed that if meaning, like belonging, is a basic human need, it would also vary between people — in other words, some people may think about meaning frequently and intently, while others do not. To measure the need for meaning, we modified the need-to-belong questionnaire to focus on matters of meaning instead of belonging. In our questionnaire, research participants rated their level of agreement with statements such as, "I have a strong need to find a sense of meaning or purpose in life," and, "[i]t bothers me a great deal when I feel like my life lacks meaning or purpose." We then conducted studies in which we administered our need-for-meaning questionnaire, questionnaires assessing other psychological traits that have been shown to predict religiosity, and measures of religious belief and spiritual experiences.

Again, all human beings have a need for meaning. But if religion and spirituality are motivated in part by this need, the people who score the highest on our need-for-meaning questionnaire should be the most religious and spiritual. And this is precisely what we found. People who scored high on the need for meaning, when compared to those who scored low on this need, were more likely to believe in God, feel committed to religion, and report having spiritual experiences.

These effects remained when statistically controlling for other hypothesized cognitive, emotional, social, and personality drivers of religion. In fact, we observed that the need for meaning is not just a predictor, but the strongest predictor of religion and spirituality.

These findings suggest that our spiritual nature is rooted in our existential nature. Faith helps provide meaning, and the need for meaning orients us toward faith. Based on this work, I suspect that those who are called to religious and related vocations score especially high on the need-for-meaning scale. My team just completed a study that found that the need for meaning also predicts the type of volunteering and philanthropic behavior that often goes hand in hand with religious faith.

The need for meaning thus orients people toward religion and spirituality. But what about religious substitutes, such as paranormal and supernatural-lite beliefs? My research team also explored this question, and we similarly found that higher need for meaning is associated with a greater attraction to a range of non-traditional beliefs, especially among the religiously unaffiliated and atheists. For instance, we found that higher scores on the need for meaning predicted the endorsement of various supernatural and paranormal ideas like the belief in reincarnation, horoscopes, and mindreading, but that these effects were largest, and sometimes only statistically significant, among atheists.

We also conducted several studies focused on beliefs in UFOs and alien visitors. In this work, we replicated previous research showing that the less religious people are, the more likely they are to hold a range of beliefs about intelligent alien visitors monitoring and even influencing the lives of humans. We also found that atheists are more likely to hold these beliefs than theists. Using statistical modeling, we discovered support for the proposal that people who aren't particularly religious, as well as non-believers, are more inclined to believe in UFOs and alien visitors than believers because they lack a strong sense of meaning and are thus more actively searching for meaning than their more-religious counterparts. This research offers empirical evidence for the idea that those who have not internalized an established religious, existential structure through which to understand the world are searching for something to fill the void. This makes them more attracted to a number of paranormal and supernatural-lite ideas, including the belief that we are not alone in the universe and that intellectually and technologically superior beings are watching over us.

Researchers have found other evidence supporting the assertion that our existential nature — our need for meaning and purpose — motivates spirituality and religiosity. Studies show that when people experience threats to meaning, they become more religious, spiritual, and willing to take leaps of faith. These findings are not restricted to the university laboratories of research psychologists, either; psychologists at the University of Auckland observed that at the same time religious faith was decreasing in New Zealand, it increased among those who were personally affected by a devastating earthquake that killed 185 people. Another study that focused on Google search trends across 16 nations found that higher-than-usual weekly searches for life-threatening diseases predicted higher search volumes the following week for religious terms such as God, Jesus, and prayer. A third study of individuals in Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Tajikistan discovered that the greater exposure to war people experienced, the more likely they were to participate in Christian and Muslim religious groups, even years after the war. Such findings suggest that people may increasingly turn to spiritual ideas and beliefs in response to the current coronavirus pandemic.

It appears that when people face existential threats that challenge the meaning of their lives by reminding them of their mortality and the uncertainty of the future, they often turn to spiritual and religious beliefs. However, this does not necessarily signal a revival of traditional religion. Just because increased anxieties related to meaning heighten spiritual interests does not mean individuals will be driven to join religious groups or start attending religious services. Many people — particularly those in individualistic, affluent societies — will instead engage in private spiritual practices or turn to religious substitutes.


In an effort to meet the existential needs of our nature in so-called secular times, people are increasingly looking to substitutes for traditional religion. But there is hardly any evidence that these alternatives are successfully providing meaning. In our work examining traditional religion and alternative paranormal, supernatural, and supernatural-lite beliefs, we found that though people subscribe to all of these different ideas in order to fulfill their need for meaning, only traditional religious beliefs are reliably positively associated with the presence of meaning. In fact, we often observe a negative correlation between alternative beliefs and perceptions of life as meaningful. The search for meaning may thus drive non-religious individuals toward religious substitutes, but believing in aliens, ghosts, astrology, and related ideas does not appear to actually make life feel meaningful.

Why do religious substitutes fail to offer meaning? One theory is that traditional religions do a better job of promoting close familial, social, and community bonds than the alternatives. In fact, a large body of research has established a strong link between social relationships and meaning. Belongingness increases one's sense of meaning, whereas loneliness, social exclusion, and alienation decrease it. Similarly, the people who are most resilient against existential anxiety are those who feel socially supported and valued. Since traditional religions tend to privilege duty to family and community over more self-focused aspirations, they facilitate the kind of interdependence that makes people feel supported and valued.

Many alternative spiritual beliefs do not offer any moral guidelines for family and community life. They do not promote the type of social duty that builds strong relationship bonds. And they lack the historical and institutional scaffolding that generates transcendent meaning for individuals by weaving people together across place and time. Indeed, many religious substitutes reflect the individualism of our modern times: They encourage a more self-focused and hedonic search for meaning. It might feel liberating to take a buffet-style approach to spiritual needs, but there is not much reason to believe that, for most people, trying to fashion a personalized meaning framework will be successful. Even within more traditional religions such as Christianity, there are reasons to be concerned about the influence of individualism, which is distorting faith into more of a self-help-focused, egocentric enterprise.

Research also indicates that traditional religion serves a self-regulatory function that benefits one's sense of meaning. Religious beliefs and practices promote self-control. When people attend religious services, study religious texts, pray, and interact with fellow believers, they are better able to discern and pursue personally and socially constructive goals, monitor their own behavior, avoid the types of environments and situations that encourage maladaptive choices, and navigate the life stressors that may otherwise lead to unhealthy behavior. Studies have found that by facilitating order and structure, self-control positively contributes to meaning. Religious substitutes, on the other hand, often lack any self-regulatory qualities or the institutional and social-support systems that help people regulate their behavior.

Critics of religion often portray faith as restrictive — as a form of psychological and social control. In reality, for many believers, religion is a source of freedom. This is because it promotes what I call existential agency — the sense that one has the ability to pursue a meaningful life. Without social and cultural structures that successfully inspire social duty and self-control, people are vulnerable to a crisis of existential agency along with feelings of despair, purposelessness, and hopelessness.

Human beings have an inherent spiritual nature that is at least partially driven by the need for meaning. But to actually help people successfully find meaning, raw spirituality benefits from being shaped and regulated by a belief system that shepherds people together into stable family structures and moral communities, promoting behavior that is self-disciplined, goal-directed, and supportive of procreation and family life.

It is vital to see how these facets of what traditional religion provides are connected to its social benefits. Some people are sympathetic to religion because they view it as serving important societal needs, but they downplay religion's spiritual component. They imagine that religion has many social, psychological, and health benefits because it promotes strong interpersonal, familial, and community relationships. In other words, they view religion in purely sociological terms, ignoring its intrapsychic nature. But religion is more than a social institution; the spiritual dimension of religion is clearly vital to its social power. In fact, spirituality and sociality work hand in glove.

Spiritual cognition and social cognition rely on the same intuitive processes. Studies show that the more religious people are, the higher they score on measures of moral concern for others. In other words, when we experience feelings such as love, compassion, and awe, we are using the very intuitive cognitive processes that spirituality implicates. Spirituality thus acts as an invisible thread connecting individuals in ways that purely rational and empirically guided thinking cannot.

Thus spirituality, especially when it is regulated by religion, enhances social life. Indeed, studies find that prayer makes people kinder toward others and more likely to forgive relationship partners and friends. Prayer also increases relationship satisfaction among couples, and couples that pray together experience greater feelings of unity and trust. In a recent study, my team asked both theists and atheists to describe in writing what gives their lives meaning. For both groups, social relationships were the most frequently mentioned sources of meaning. Believers, however, were more likely than non-believers to emphasize relationships. Believers were also more likely to view their lives as meaningful.

This suggests that religious belief may play an important role in promoting the relational bonds that help make life feel meaningful. Religious beliefs and practices such as prayer, which enable people to feel connected to and supported by God, also help meet social needs when individuals experience social loss, loneliness, and societal marginalization. In short, faith provides social support when other sources are unavailable.


It's difficult to deny the role that faith plays in providing meaning to our lives. Yet in their search for meaning, people today are increasingly turning to beliefs that may not reliably generate or maintain meaning. This has negative ramifications for society — many of which we are now encountering.

For starters, viewing life as full of meaning is associated with a wide range of positive health outcomes in both the physical and mental senses. A team of medical researchers in the field of cardiology found that people who have a strong sense of purpose in life are at reduced risk for cardiovascular events and other life-threatening conditions. This finding has a certain logic to it: When people believe they have an important purpose in life, they are motivated to take care of their physical, mental, and social health. They are better able to manage the various challenges and stressors of life. The perception of meaning is also a protective factor against depression, anxiety, problem drinking, drug abuse, and suicide. In dark times, meaning is a light, a source of hope and inspiration for human beings grasping to make sense of their own existence.

The motivational power of meaning also has important implications beyond mental and physical health. People who view their lives as meaningful and purposeful are better positioned to pursue the types of educational and work goals that lead to financial security and upward mobility. For example, a sense of purpose in life has been found to predict future income and net worth.

More broadly, experiments conducted by my research team and other behavioral scientists find that when people's attention is focused on what gives their lives meaning, they become more optimistic, self-confident, and goal-focused. In other words, meaning promotes agency. Building on this research, in a recent study I conducted with my colleague John Bitzan under the auspices of the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth, we found a connection between meaning in life and entrepreneurship. Among Americans with aspirations to start a business, the more they believed in their ability to live a meaningful life (existential agency), the more they felt motivated to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions. More broadly, we found that greater existential agency was positively associated with greater support for economic freedom. These effects remained statistically significant and strong when controlling for a range of other variables such as political ideology, age, and income. In short, meaning in life promotes the entrepreneurial spirit that has played a vital role in making our nation flourish.

Humans are a spiritual species because we are a cognitively advanced and existentially driven species. Our pursuit of meaning and purpose has inspired us to build thriving communities and societies, cure diseases, feed and clothe the poor, create beautiful works of art, and find innovative solutions to many pressing problems. Meaning-motivated spirituality breathes life into the world. Though our spiritual nature can be twisted to cause harm and suffering, trying to deny or suppress this vital aspect of the human condition will not make the world or our lives any better. Whether people like it or not, spirituality is fundamental to the human experience.

Clay Routledge is a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, fellow at the Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth, senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, nonresident scholar at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and faculty affiliate at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.