Spirituality vs Religion: Seekers and Dwellers At the End of the Road


Back in 2003 a paper was published that examined the effects of two different kinds of spirituality on psychosocial functioning in old age. The study, Religiousness, spirituality, and psychosocial functioning in late adulthood: Findings from a longitudinal study (link accesses the pdf), used life course data from a longitudinal research project done by the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkely.  The results reflected a few things that seem intuitively obvious, but found other things that some might find surprising.

The types of spiritual experience they measured were what they termed “dwellers” and “seekers”.  From the paper:

Religious dwellers tend to accept traditional forms of religious authority; they inhabit a space created for them by established religious institutions and relate to the sacred through prayer and communal worship.

By contrast, for spritual seekers individual autonomy takes precedence over external authority and the hold of tradition-centered religious doctrines.  Spiritual seekers are explorers who create their own space by typically borrowing elements from various religious and mythical traditions, and they frequently blend participation in institutionalized Western religion with Eastern practices.

…What differentiates dwellers and seekers is not the seriousness of effort to incorporate the sacred in their lives but their relation to religious authority and tradition.

Much is known about Dwellers.  They have better intergenerational family interactions, large supportive social networks, and are much more likely than others to engage in voluntary  community caregiving activies.

By contrast little is known about the late life psychological functioning of Seekers.  Some sociologists, and not just dweller sociologists, have hypothesized that the self-referential emphasis of spiritual seekers is evidence of “excessively narcissistic self-absorption” that may in fact undermine the community obligations promoted by institutionalized religions.

Fortunately for those of us who live in both worlds, that turned out not to be the case.  What emerged instead was something positive for both groups, something that hints at fertile ground for future research now that exploration of alternative spiritual lifestyles has become more common in Western culture.

Regarding the religiousness of Dwellers,

Empirical studies show that religiousness is relatively stable througout adulthood with the patterns established in early adulthood setting the norm for later stages.  These trends support a religious capital perspective whereby the more indivduals invest in religous activities in early adulthood, the more likely they are to participate subsequently.

This is a reasonable perspective on dwellers, but their subsequent analysis of Seekers I believe misses the mark.  They write:

Unlike religiousness, spirituality appears to be a postmidlife phenomenon.  Both Jungian and postformal theories of development see spirituality as being intertwined with the maturational processes and experiences associated with the second half of adulthood.  This is because the development of spirituality requires the kind of personal autonomy and awareness of contextual relativism that typically develops only around midlife once the individual has established a niche in society and has begun to experience physical signs of aging.

I agree with the first part, that spirituality is inextricably linked with maturational processes.  However the second sentence is a bit simplistic.  The process of spiritual maturity is (a) a lifelong process, not something that starts in middle age, and (b) as true for Dwellers as it is for Seekers.  The idea that the Seeker perspective “typically develops only around midlife” may have foundation in some developmental theories, but in practice the seeds of the Seeker outlook seem to begin sprouting in a person’s teens or twenties.

There is a lot of stereotyping between the groups, and I thought that the authors did a good job of navigating through those mutual misperceptions to arrive at a reasonably accurate operational definition of the two groups.  This is important because the two groups often see themselves in conflict with one another.  Seeker perception of Dwellers, if stereotypes about regular church-goers are to be believed, is that they have surrendered their personal spiritual growth to the control of some authority figure or institution, which they follow more or less blindly, and who place more importance on obedience that on self-reflection and inner spiritual development.

By contrast Dwellers often regard Seekers as being spiritually attracted to shiny objects such as crystals, chakra rainbows, dream catchers and the like, and more likely to believe in tarot cards and crystal balls than in the creator of their own souls.  Some in either group might regard the other as followers of old fairy tales or mystical magical silliness, whether its something from the Bible or else something from some idealized ancient culture or some Westernized version of an Eastern tradition.

The article managed to avoid all of this, and they did it by means of that clear and simple operational definition, and the specific variables that were measured.  From the paper:

We hypothesized that both religiousness and spirituality would be differentially related in late adulthood to three key domains of psychosocial functioning: (a) sources of well-being; (b) involvement in daily life tasks; and (c) generativity and wisdom, two developmental tasks of aging emphasized by Erickson.

Generativity and wisdom in (c) refers to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s eight stages of personality development throughout the life span.  Middle to late adulthoold can be characterized as a time of “generativity”, meaning being productive and finding fulfillment in the latter years of one’s life, or it can be a time of stagnation and personal disintegration if one has not found satisfaction in one’s life and work.  Likewise old age can be a time of despair, or it can be a time in which your accumulated wisdom and personal integrity makes you a valued and welcome member of family and community.

The study found a lot of overlap between the two religious styles.  The authors state:

…some spiritual individuals use techniques derived from established religions, and their journey may take place within the confines of religious institutions.  Conversely, dwellers can take an autonomous view of religious authority.

I would put myself in this “overlap” zone.  I regularly attend a fundamentalist church but my spiritual life is my own.  I do this not out of confusion, but out of respect for the work that the established churches are doing in communities around the world to feed, heal, clothe and house those who society has left behind.  Seekers may find these institutions archaic, and in some instances they can be, but the public good these institutions do should never be discounted simply because one doesn’t agree with them about some point of doctrine or social policy.

At some point I wish to dive more into my thoughts about spiritual “maturity”, but I need to find a way to do so without making it sound like I believe that those with an unconventional view of spirituality are somehow more advanced (or “mature”) than those who thrive within more structured environments.  Often that is not the case at all.  As the study discovered, each of the two styles are different, but each is beneficial.

So what exactly did the study find?

In late adulthood, religiousness [dwellers] but not spirituality [seekers] was significantly related to well-being from positive relations with others, involvement in social and community service life tasks, and generativity.  Spirituality was significantly related to well-being from personal growth, involvement in creative and knowledge-building life tasks, and wisdom.  Neither religiousness nor spirituality was significantly related to narcissism.

So we can rule out “excessively narcissistic self-absorption” then, that’s a relief!  But what I find more interesting is what the study found regarding Erikson’s “generativity” and “wisdom”.  In Erikson’s developmental spectrum, his stage 7 of middle adulthood is conceived as a negotiation between “generativity vs stagnation”, where an individual continues building on a lifetime of work and thrives (generativity) or else counts himself a failure, sees nothing but regrets, and stagnates.  This is the stage where alcohol or drug addictions begin taking a serious toll on a life; but it is also the stage in which the kids are in college or out on their own with families of their own, and one can begin to see the fruits of one’s lifelong labor growing in the next generation. The basic virtue associated with this stage is “care” — of one’s family, of one’s business or career, of oneself.

Erikson’s stage 8, representing late adulthood/old age, is conceived as being about ego integrity vs despair.  There is nothing complicated about ego integrity, it simply means being comfortable and confident with yourself and others regardless of circumstances. You know who and what you are and what you’re about, and you’re happy to let others be who and what they are.  Despair comes when there are ego issues that mean you still want others to be like you rather than letting them be who they really are.  The basic virtue associated with this stage is “wisdom”, which is a deep, intuitive knowing or understanding of oneself and others.

The study exposes a problem with all developmental progression roadmaps, and that is that the stages are never as concrete as people generally take them to be.  When it comes to human development, there are multiple levels of maturity on multiple fronts. Growth/maturity can happen physically, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually, and each of these elements of the self can mature at different rates.  The easiest example is that puberty makes us physically mature enough to have children of our own in our early teens, but at that age we are nowhere near being intellectually and emotionally grown up enough to raise children to meet modern expectations of mature adulthood.  That whole concept is yet another future post, whole books have been written on this.  For one of my favorites, see Ken Wilber’s classic A Brief History of Everything. I’m not into everything he’s doing these days, but that book is a great foundation for the concept of transcendent development on multiple fronts at various rates.  It left me seeing the world as a much more dynamic reality than I had imagined before.

Back to the study:

The positive association in late adulthood between religiousness and deriving well-being from positive relations with others, involvement in social and community service life tasks, and generativity reflects the fact that highly religious individuals are expected to attend church, be active members of the congregation, and follow the golden rule. The importance of our study lies, in part, in showing that highly religious participants act on these principles in their daily lives outside of the religious domain.

The positive association in late adulthood between spirituality and well-being from personal growth and engagement in creative and knowledge-building life tasks befits individuals who have developed relatively novel and nontraditional ways of embracing the sacred.  The association between spirituality and wisdom means that highly spiritual individuals display a complex way of thinking and possess insight into the human condition.  According to Erikson, wisdom is the hallmark of ego integrity in old age.  It is characterized by acceptance of the inevitability of one’s life cycle and helps, similar to generativity, to instill social trust and meaning in younger generations.  Because of their interest in personal growth, creative and knowledge-building activities, and wisdom, highly spiritual older adults may be seen as providing equally valuable role models for the people around them as do highly religious individuals.

So there we have it: both spiritual styles work, both contribute to the development of the next generation, and they do so in their own ways.  One could even make the argument that having both of these styles in one’s life would be highly beneficial to the next generation, but only if the two spiritual styles start playing nicely with each other instead of holding each other in disdain.

I have a bit of a bone to pick with the study in that it ignores the elephant in the room, namely Spirit itself, and our relationship with it as an empowering force in our lives.  The authors did not address how one ends up on one path or the other, or on some combination of the two.  It wasn’t part of the study so I’m not faulting them.   However my first reading of the study left me a bit cold in that the authors examined humanity’s deep, intimate relationship with Spirit in the same way a biologist might examine the mating rituals of weasels or the migration patterns of geese.

However I cannot fault them for that either because it is at this point that both religion and spirituality run into the hard, cold demands of modern science: experimental results must be repeatable, demonstrable, and reliable.  An effect that works on one side of the world should work identically on the other.  Things fall downward at the same rate, water boils or freezes at the same temperature at the same altitude, etc. etc.

How do you measure the consequences of having Spirit in your life?  As a Christian I know the effect my spirituality has on my daily life, but my spiritual needs are different from my wife’s needs, and from my kids’ or grandkids’ needs, so their spirituality will affect their lives in a different way than mine will affect mine.  Its effect won’t be repeatable from person to person: spiritual reality is an entirely different sphere of life, power, and conscious awareness that can’t really be measured concretely in terms of this physical existence.

However we can measure its effect on human lives, and this study did so in a manner consistent with research on any other psychological phenomenon, namely through the effects of the chosen lifestyle on those who are walking those paths. By so doing, this study provided some very valuable insight on the way these different classes of spirituality benefit the lives of those who have practiced them over the course of a lifetime.

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