Feature Article.

Religious and spiritual struggles: New research frontiers

A look at the myriad manifestations religious struggle can take.

By Joshua Grubbs, Steffany J. Homolka, and Alex W. Uzdavines

For millennia philosophers, theologians and religious leaders have expounded upon the difficulties that people encounter in their religious and spiritual lives. Even so, it has only been recently that religious and spiritual struggles have received sustained empirical attention. This new body of research suggests that many people experience struggles as part of their religious and spiritual lives. For example, some individuals have negative thoughts and emotions focused on the divine (a God or gods). Some individuals feel as if they are being oppressed or attacked by demonic or other dark supernatural forces. Many people struggle to follow their moral or religious principles and experience guilt or shame when they fail. Still others may report feeling doubts about their religious beliefs and some feel troubled because they do not see their lives as having an ultimate sense of meaning. Interpersonal conflicts around religion are also common, as are negative feelings in response to the actions of religious individuals or groups. Collectively, these diverse experiences all represent what are now known as religious and spiritual (R/S) struggles.

R/S struggles are not only common; many studies have shown that they are associated with poor psychological and physical health. Although most studies are cross-sectional, several longitudinal examinations have found that R/S struggles predict negative shifts in emotional and physical health outcomes. Given the prevalence and clinical relevance of R/S struggles, the topic is becoming an area of growing interest among researchers, clinicians, and religious professionals. At this time, there is a need to build a research base to understand the factors that predict the onset of R/S struggles or that might affect the intensity, course, or resolution of such struggles.

In response to this need, members of Dr. Julie Exline's research lab at Case Western Reserve University are now engaged in a variety of research projects seeking to explore and better understand various aspects of R/S struggles. Supported by a grant (#36094) from the John Templeton Foundation, many of these studies seek to illuminate the sources of R/S struggles, the relationships between R/S struggles, factors that might predispose individuals to the experience of R/S struggles, and factors that may insulate people from experiencing R/S struggles. Although Dr. Exline serves as Principal Investigator of the grant and oversees the projects, many of the individual projects are led by graduate students and post-doctoral scholars in Dr. Exline's lab.

In a recent symposium at the Div. 36 Midyear Conference in La Mirada, California, several of these student-led research projects were featured. The symposium entitled “Religious and Spiritual Struggles: New Research Frontiers,” featured work by Steffany Homolka, a third-year student in Dr. Exline's lab, a Div. 36 student representative, Alex Uzdavines, a first-year graduate student and Joshua Grubbs, a fourth-year graduate student.

Steffany Homolka's presentation, co-authored by Dr. Exline, focused on the current state of research related to spiritual struggle in childhood and adolescence. To date, is a relative absence of research focusing on R/S struggles among youth. Even so, a systematic review of the literature, particularly including qualitative studies, indicates that youth do experience such struggles. Reports from children facing terminal illness, coping with loss, or facing substantial life changes all include indicators of struggles such as anger at God, religiously based fear and guilt, or questions regarding the ultimate meaning of events. Even so, the systematic, empirical study of R/S struggle during childhood and adolescence is relatively new to the field of the psychology of religion and spirituality. As such, there is still a great need for studies examining the presence and nature of R/S struggle in youth, the antecedents of such struggle, the psychological and physical health outcomes associated with such struggles, and factors that predict the adaptive resolution of such struggles.

Alex Uzdavines's presentation, co-authored by Dr. Exline and David Bradley, a second-year graduate student in Exline's lab, focused on the presence of spiritual struggle among those who identify as religious “nones,” or non-believers. Prior research indicates that certainty of belief among religious individuals is indicative of lower levels of R/S struggle. Religious individuals who express confidence in the veracity of their beliefs often report having lower levels of difficulties in their spiritual lives. Using a web-based sample of adults, Uzdavines demonstrated that greater certainty of non-belief also predicts lower levels of struggle. Nonbelievers who identified their beliefs as more “closed” (e.g., “there is no God, and I am absolutely sure of it”) tended to report experiencing less R/S struggle than those who identified their beliefs as more “open” (ie., “I don't know if there is a God, and I don't know if there is a way to find out. These findings indicate that certainty of belief may play a key role in the experience of R/S struggle. The presentation also highlighted the idea that both atheists and agnostics can be either “open” or “closed” in their beliefs.

The talk by Joshua Grubbs, co-authored by Dr. Exline, Dr. Kenneth Pargament, Dr. Keith Campbell, Dr. Jean Twenge, and Dr. Todd Hall, focused on examining how narcissistic traits might be predictors of R/S struggle. Past work has demonstrated robust positive links between psychological entitlement and certain R/S struggles. Characterized by pervasive attitudes of unmerited deservingness and demandingness, entitlement predicts generalized anger toward God, anger toward God in response to suffering, and perceptions of God as cruel and punishing. Building on this past research, Grubbs used two web-based samples of undergraduates from three universities across the U.S. to explore the notion of spiritual entitlement—a domain-specific manifestation of entitlement more broadly. Results from these samples indicated that many individuals do experience feelings of entitlement in their spiritual lives. Individuals may feel as if their relationship with the divine entitles them to happiness or material success, may believe that deity owes them, or may report feeling as if they deserve more spiritual blessings. Such feelings of spiritual entitlement were strongly associated with entitlement more broadly. However, they were also predictive of R/S struggles—particularly those R/S struggles focused on the divine. In sum, these findings further illustrate the relationship between narcissistic traits and spiritual struggle.

Collectively, these studies represent a portion of the research currently being conducted in Dr. Exline's lab at Case Western Reserve University. More importantly, these studies demonstrate a fraction of the current body of research around R/S struggles and illustrate the need for continued research in this domain.