Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

Living Edition
| Editors: David A. Leeming

Spiritual Struggles

  • Isabelle NothEmail author
  • Jessica Lampe
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27771-9_200232-1


Many empirical studies provide evidence of the enormous relevance of spirituality in people’s lives and deaths. While research in psychology of religion has largely focused on spirituality as a resource or coping aid and on the salutogenetic and resilience-strengthening aspects of spiritual experience, the emphasis on disease-favoring and damaging (pathological) influences of certain forms of spirituality is also increasing. It is becoming apparent that spirituality, like religiosity, is not per se either beneficial or harmful but must always be perceived in its ambivalence. Inherently, the term spiritual struggles refers to the fact that spirituality itself can be the cause of an individual’s inner conflict. The terminological clarification of the demarcation between spirituality and religiosity is essential.
  • “(…) people call themselves religious and spiritual, religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious, neither spiritual nor religious, and, very interestingly, a hair-splitting blend of religious spirituality plus nonreligion (e.g., […] ‘I am a spiritual Christian but not religious’).” (Paloutzian and Park 2005, 16)

Spiritual struggles can thus appear both within context and decidedly outside a religious institution such as the church.

State of Research

Religious and spiritual conflicts had long been neglected by psychology (Exline and Rose 2005). An expanding research interest in so-called religious/spiritual struggles is however apparent, especially in the USA. Such struggles are generally described as “expressions of conflict, question and doubt regarding matters of faith, God and religious relationships” (McConnell et al. 2006). Yet, there is a lack of coherence in the perceived meaning of religious and/or spiritual conflicts. Definitions rely on authors’ respective understandings of religion and spirituality and their conceptualization and operationalization of the constructs. One has to consider that the term “spirituality,” which accounts for existential needs that do not have to be religious in nature, is itself religious, i.e., “Christian origin” (Körtner 2006), with the spirit of God already referred to as “spiritus” in the Vulgate. This use of an explicitly Christian, and thus religious, term to signify something that is distinct from religion, particularly from Christianity, shows the complexity of the constructs used and the difficulty of defining them. It also shows the heavily criticized Christian bias in research on the psychology of religion (Morgenthaler and Noth 2011).

Exline and Rose contributed to the first and second editions of the Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (Exline and Rose 2005, 2013), showing in their revision that an enormous growth in research had been attained in 8 years (2005–2013). In the second edition, the article starts by explaining the distinction between spiritual and religious conflicts and describes conflicts in the spiritual sphere as concerning “any belief, practice, relationship, or experience associated with whatever someone deems sacred,” while religious conflicts apply to “beliefs, practices, relationships, or experiences seen as sacred” and “associated with a shared (and sometimes institutional) system” (ibid., 380). Sociality becomes the principal distinctive feature between the two. They point out that religion and spirituality “have proven notoriously difficult to define” (ibid., 380). “Religious and spiritual struggles” are described as experiences “of conflict or distress” related to religious and spiritual affairs. With the focus on the individual, four broadly conceived categories were distinguished:
  1. 1.

    “Is God to Blame?: The Challenge of Suffering”

  2. 2.

    “Perceived Attacks from the Spiritual Realm: The Challenge of Supernatural Evil”

  3. 3.

    “Sin and Self-forgiveness: The Challenge of Cultivating Virtue”

  4. 4.

    “Challenges of Religious Community”

New arrangements and shifts in emphasis on retained categories are evident. While in Exline and Rose (2005) supernatural evil was presented as a third category, it is now closer to the first category – closer to God – and has switched places with the previous second category, which now has become the third. The term “sacrifice” was removed from the new, third category heading. The move of “supernatural evil,” such as demons, devils, and evil spirits, closer to God and the divine is now virtually described as their flip side. Exline and Rose (2013) mention that this topic had attracted little attention previously. “Yet literal beliefs in supernatural evil are very much alive throughout much of the world today” (ibid., 388). The growing insight into the complexity of the topic led the authors to the conviction that interdisciplinary cooperation is essential:

To make major strides in our knowledge about specific struggles, psychologists will benefit by learning from – and collaborating with – professionals who specialize in religious and spiritual issues, such as theologians, clergy, pastoral counselors, chaplains, and spiritual directors. (ibid., 392f.)

An increased awareness of overtly theological and religious terms becomes apparent in the second publication. It was also stated for the first time that the research reflected “a clear monotheism bias” (ibid., 388). Furthermore, the scholarly questioning was progressively opened up to theology.


In 2014, “The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale” (RSS) was published by Exline, Grubbs, Pargament, and Yali. In this paper, spirituality was defined as a “search for the sacred” and for “elements of life that are seen as manifestations of the divine, transcendent or ultimate, either inside or outside a specific religious context” (Exline et al. 2014). Religion, on the other hand, was defined as taking place “in the larger context of established spirituality and structures that aim to facilitate spirituality” (ibid.). The authors stated that for a long time religiosity and spirituality had only been researched as potential resources, overlooking the fact that they can also be a source of conflict and difficulty affecting mental health and well-being. Exline et al. (2014) called for methods of measurement with which the various facets of religious/spiritual conflicts can be determined. They presented an attempt to develop a new method of assessing religious/spiritual conflicts on the basis of a self-report procedure, with the following six subscales: (1) “divine struggle,” (2) “demonic struggle,” (3) “interpersonal struggle,” (4) “moral struggle,” (5) “doubt-related struggle,” and (6) “struggle around ultimate meaning” (ibid., 209). The development of the 26-item RSS was built on previous attempts to empirically assess religious/spiritual conflicts, particularly with the “Brief RCOPE” (Pargament et al. 1998), which had proven to be the most widely used method so far. However, five of the seven items in the Brief RCOPE focus on “divine struggles” and do not consider the broader range of possible conflicts. The aim of developing the new RSS scale was to empirically assess “supernatural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal struggles” (ibid., 209). To this end, it had to meet several requirements: The “self-report measure” should focus on recording the subjective experience of conflicts. Thus, it should be possible to better distinguish between different conflicts and attempts to overcome them, i.e., between “struggles” and “coping.” Furthermore, the measuring instrument should be flexible and be able to cover both single events and certain time periods. It should accommodate both religious/spiritual individuals and those not identifying as such. The instrument should linguistically be formulated so that it does not give preference to a single theistic tradition. Thus, words such as church, sin, etc. should be avoided to prevent the bias of a Christian perspective in the research.

Reliability and validity of the 26-item RSS were confirmed by two studies, the model with six subscales achieving a very good fit via confirmatory factor analysis (ibid., 219). The scale has contributed to the empirical investigation of inner religious and spiritual conflicts. The RSS has since additionally been validated with Jewish and Muslim samples in Israel (Abu-Raiya et al. 2015a, 2016b). The measurement of religious and spiritual struggles has also gained interest in research regarding, e.g., suicide risk and spiritual transformation in veterans (Raines et al. 2017; Wilt et al. 2018), and atheists appear to experience some of these struggles as well (Sedlar et al. 2018), as they display similar levels of interpersonal and ultimate-meaning-related struggles. Exline et al. (2017b) for the first time also documented divine struggle in the form of anger toward god(s) in a polytheistic sample among undergraduates in India. Interest and research in this topic are swiftly expanding. Furthermore, the link between religious/spiritual struggles and many factors, such as well-being/happiness, psychological distress/depression, stressful life events, life satisfaction, religious commitment, religious support, religious hope, and personal growth, has been explored (Abu-Raiya et al. 2015, 2016; Stauner et al. 2016, 2018; Exline et al. 2017). In a Polish sample, a positive correlation between the RSS and anxiety and a negative correlation with satisfaction with life were also found (Zarzycka and Zietek 2018). Satisfaction with life increased with the propensity to find meaning in religious doubt. Clearly, many facets relating to religious and spiritual struggles are relevant, and many individuals may benefit from a deeper understanding of them. The growth of interest in research on the subject and its many intertwined dimensions is evident, as is the need to further disentangle and elucidate them.

See Also


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Theology, Institute of Practical Theology, Department of Spiritual Care, Psychology of Religion and Religious EducationUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland