Spirituality may prove valuable in achieving climate goals, and new research from the United States is focused on how tapping into specific cultural shifts in spirituality might drive climate action.
In-depth interviews conducted by Dr. Jessica Eise of the University of Texas at San Antonio establish a sense of being connected to the natural world among those who view themselves as spiritual but not religious people. A common thread found in the interviews, all completed with individuals living in two Midwestern U.S. cities, was a shared priority placed on nature and the environment regardless of how different their individual belief systems were.
With 27% of American adults now identifying as spiritual apart from a specific religious identity, Eise believes that exploring these spiritual dimensions may help to promote climate action. And since it’s such a departure from the 1940s and 1950s, when only 2% to 3% of Americans were without a religious affiliation (primarily Christian), she also thinks it’s important to understand the collective social trend that emphasizes specific values despite the individual spiritual identities.
For example, strikingly diverse people chose similar words to describe these values. “If there’s a God, I should live my life with love, compassion, understanding, tolerance,” said one of the 28 participants. “And if there isn’t a God, I should live my life with love, compassion, tolerance. So, it just doesn’t matter.”
The strong bond with nature, the Earth and other people is described in Eise’s academic paper as “a pervasive emphasis and certainty in their belief in the interconnection of living things.” The work, completed with Meghana Rawat of the Utah Valley University, was published this month in the journal Public Relations Review.
More than 85% of those interviewed said that spiritual beliefs influenced their lives and behavior, how they see the world, and the political candidates and positions they support. All of the participants said spirituality shapes their identity.
“My job, my relationships with other people, my interactions with bees, animals, plants, my garden. My garden … is like my church,” said one participant. “It’s my worship place.”
A growing population of spiritual but not necessarily religious people may be a key demographic in terms of driving climate action. “Communication and public relations practitioners have struggled to motivate sufficient action around climate change and the environment, and this may be a space with potential to promote and encourage change and action,” the paper said.
At the same time, many of these people said they feel largely ignored or misunderstood by media and others who view them as outside of the discourse.
“Rich ties between spirituality and environmentalism have existed for millennium and still do in many cultures and groups around the world,” says Eise. “But mainstream Western narratives have generally – and rather severely – divorced spirituality, ethics and morals from ‘scientific’ issues such as climate change and environmentalism.”
More research is needed, she said, to better understand the spirituality trend in different geographic regions and cultures. She’ll be broadening her own data with expanded study on spirituality, ethics and climate change attitudes.
“We need to reframe our messages to an ‘everyone’ problem that we can solve and for which we have reasons to hope,” Eise says. “Spiritual and ethical messaging that emphasizes connection to one another and the environment has a lot of potential in this light.”