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The Research Process

Our inquiry began in 2018 as we convened a group of advisors to help shape the purpose of the study and refine our research approach. We partnered with Hattaway Communications, a strategic research and communications firm, to guide the overall study, and NORC at the University of Chicago to field the survey.

The qualitative phase of the research began with focus groups and interviews to hear how people understood and saw spirituality in general and in their own lives, and how spirituality relates to civic life. We recruited people for focus groups and in-depth interviews according to their spiritual and religious self-identification, with an interest in the similarities and differences among people who self-identify with the same spiritual and religious labels. 

Focus Groups

We hosted 16 two-hour focus groups in Birmingham, Alabama; Boston, Massachusetts; Des Moines, Iowa; Phoenix, Arizona; and Seattle, Washington. Focus groups were conducted in fall 2018 and spring 2019, and facilitated by a professional moderator.

  • Spiritual and religious: 5 groups
  • Spiritual but not religious: 5 groups
  • Neither spiritual nor religious: 2 groups
  • Religious but not spiritual: 3 groups
  • Mixed spiritual and religious self-identities: 1 group

In-depth Interviews

26 one-hour life-history format interviews in fall 2018 and spring 2019, recruited through NORC’s AmeriSpeak® Panel.

  • 13 interviewees identified as spiritual and religious
  • 9 interviewees identified as spiritual but not religious
  • 4 interviewees identified as neither spiritual nor religious

Drawing on insights from the focus groups and interviews, we conducted a nationally representative survey to assess quantitatively the themes that had emerged. Question categories and phrasing reflected, as much as possible, the language and ideas that participants used in the qualitative research. Our advisors and reviewers provided valuable feedback at this stage to refine the survey fielded in early 2020. 

National Survey of Adults in the U.S.

U.S. general population age 18+ survey of 3,609 people (3,256 by web and 353 by phone) from January 16 to February 3, 2020, conducted in English. Respondents were identified through NORC’s AmeriSpeak® Panel, a nationally representative, probability-based panel of the U.S. household population. NORC conducted pre-testing interviews to test the survey design and language, and fine-tune the survey instrument. 

View the NORC Card here for a report of survey sample quality and details.


How can I access this data? The data is free to use and is available through the Association of Religion Data Archives here. As a courtesy, please contact us at and advise us of your research interests.

Who conducted the surveys, focus groups, and interviews? See above. The interviews and focus groups were conducted by Hattaway Communications and professional moderators, and were attended by Fetzer Institute staff. The survey was developed and fielded by NORC at the University of Chicago, with input from Hattaway Communications, the Fetzer Institute, and our academic reviewers.

What experts advised you on this research? We are grateful to our study advisors who helped shape the study, from the core research question to the findings in this report, and to our survey reviewers who helped shape the questionnaire and analysis in this report.


  • Ruth Braunstein, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Connecticut
  • Omar M. McRoberts, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Sociology, The University of Chicago
  • Rev. Sue Phillips Co-Founder, Sacred Design Lab
  • Tom W. Smith, Ph.D. Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Society, NORC
  • Rev. Adam Russell Taylor Executive Director, Sojourners
  • Krista Tippett, M.Div. Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
  • Lynn G. Underwood, Ph.D. Senior Research Scholar, Inamori International Center for Ethics, Case Western Reserve University
  • C. Vanessa White, D. Min. Associate Professor of Spirituality and Ministry, Catholic Theological Union


  • Nancy T. Ammerman, Ph.D. Professor of Sociology of Religion, Emerita, Boston University
  • Rev. Daniel G. Groody, CSC Vice President and Associate Provost and Associate Professor of Theology and Global Affairs, University of Notre Dame
  • Pamela Ebstyne King, Ph.D. Peter L. Benson Chair of Applied Developmental Science, Thrive Center for Human Development, School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary
  • Elizabeth Lynn, Ph.D. Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indiana University
  • Alisa Perkins, Ph.D. Anthropology Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Religion, Western Michigan University
  • Charlotte Witvliet, Ph.D. Lavern ’39 and Betty DePree ’41 VanKley Professor of Psychology, Hope College
  • Bill Vendley, Ph.D. Secretary General Emeritus of Religions for Peace International  and Senior Advisor for World Religions, Fetzer Institute
  • Roman R. Williams, Ph.D. Executive Officer, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

Supporting Ongoing Research

Fetzer has a long history of supporting the social sciences and other inquiries into the human condition. This work includes developing the Multidimensional Measurement of Religiousness/Spirituality for Use in Health Research with Dr. Lynn G. Underwood, supporting research on compassionate love and the science of forgiveness, developing relevant quality-of-life measures that included spirituality for the World Health Organization, and numerous scientific studies on the neurological, psychological, and physiological impact of meditation and other contemplative practices. 

This study contributes to a robust field of spirituality and religion research, and we are encouraging further research and analysis using our data set available at the Association of Religion Data Archives (the ARDA) here.

The Fetzer Institute is currently supporting a set of researchers who are conducting additional scholarship with the study data, ranging from a visual analysis of the focus group drawings to an inquiry into the role of spirituality and philanthropy. Dissemination of these findings will be forthcoming in 2021.