Journal of Religion and Health

, Volume 56, Issue 1, pp 1–20 | Cite as

Finding Spirits in Spirituality: What are We Measuring in Spirituality and Health Research?

  • Lance D. LairdEmail author
  • Cara E. Curtis
  • Jonathan R. Morgan
Original Paper


What are we asking when we ask about spirituality? When research subjects check survey boxes for “religiosity” and “spirituality” measures on health surveys, those of us who use them often assume that these responses indicate a relationship with—or reaction against—normative, conventional, Protestant-shaped religious practice and experience. We present a qualitative interview study of 13 low-income mothers with a history of depression, analyzing their descriptions of spiritual and religious coping practices. On the basis of a focused analysis of four mother’s narratives, we argue that conventional survey answers may frequently hide more than they reveal about people’s cultural, religious, and idiosyncratic experiences with ghosts, spirits, magic, and haunting presences that are relevant, sometimes integral, to illness and healing. We demonstrate that listening to participants’ narratives challenges researchers’ unconsciously normative assumptions and ought to help us reshape our understanding of the ways spirituality and religion influence health in a hyperdiverse society.


Spirituality Measurement Methodology Religion Depression Spiritual coping Narrative analysis Ghosts Magic Communication with the dead Spirits Culture and measurement bias Poverty, stress, and depression Trauma 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

All authors confirm that they have no conflict of interest

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lance D. Laird
    • 1
    Email author
  • Cara E. Curtis
    • 2
  • Jonathan R. Morgan
    • 3
  1. 1.Boston University School of MedicineBostonUSA
  2. 2.Graduate Division of Religion, Laney Graduate SchoolEmory UniversityAtlantaUSA
  3. 3.Graduate Division of Religious StudiesBoston University Graduate School of Arts and SciencesBostonUSA

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