Overview:

The thousands of hours, thousands of dollars, and many additional resources that have been spent trying to measure and assess spiritual fitness has culminated in an admission by scholars working for the US military that there is no meaningful concept of spiritual fitness

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In September 2011, then Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen issued an instruction called the “Chairman’s Total Force Fitness Framework” or TFF. The stated aim of the TFF was noble: Military personnel are the most valuable asset in the military, and ensuring their health so they are ready to accomplish their missions is a top priority. Notably, health is understood here holistically, including physical health, social health, and psychological health.

Also included in the TFF was a domain called “spiritual fitness,” defined as follows: “Spiritual fitness refers to the ability to adhere to beliefs, principles, or values needed to persevere and prevail in accomplishing missions.”

At some level, then, in order for someone to be considered spiritually fit, they must have beliefs or values that lead them to persevere. What those beliefs or values are, or from where they might derive, is never suggested.

The TFF was introduced after a prior measure was developed, the Global Assessment Tool (GAT) of the US Army. The GAT also included spiritual fitness as a component of overall fitness.

Some colleagues and I were approached around the time the TFF was announced to evaluate the GAT to determine whether it was a valid measure for nonbelievers and nonreligious individuals. The GAT included a number of questions with theistic implications, like “My life has lasting meaning,” and “I believe there is a purpose for my life.” Ultimately, we concluded that the GAT, as worded, was not a valid measure for nonbelievers and nonreligious individuals and offered suggestions for ways to improve the measure.

Our findings do appear to have influenced subsequent research in this area. Yet the bigger implication of our research on measuring spiritual fitness—that spiritual fitness does not seem to be relevant to many non-believers and many nonreligious individuals—appears to have been lost.

Research to develop a valid measure of spiritual fitness has continued, culminating in the recently published SOCOM Spiritual Fitness Scale (SSFS). Having developed and evaluated scale measures, I recognize the challenges involved. By no means am I suggesting that the researchers involved in the development of this scale have done anything unethical or untoward. On the contrary, I think it may be the case that these individuals were given a Sisyphean task. Finding a way to measure spiritual fitness for every person in the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is simply impossible.

The researchers who developed the SOCOM Spiritual Fitness Scale basically admitted that they failed at developing a universal measure of spiritual fitness. The scale they developed has three subscales, one that measures a personal connection to a higher power, one that measures service and sacrifice for the greater good, and one that measures pursuing meaning, purpose, and value. Given the aims of the TFF, these subscales seem well-situated to capture spiritual fitness.

These individuals were given a Sisyphean task. Finding a way to measure spiritual fitness for every person in the Special Operations Command is simply impossible.

However, when describing the personal connection to a higher power subscale, the authors note that “The seven items assess a person’s feeling of closeness and unity with God or Higher Power, along with related beliefs and experiences. Each of the seven items presuppose a theistic worldview…” They go on to indicate that the subscale should not be administered to atheists. In other words, one of the three dimensions of spiritual fitness simply does not apply to nonbelievers; atheists lack that dimension of spiritual fitness entirely.

Additionally, the authors note a problem with the other two subscales—service and sacrifice for the greater good, and pursuing meaning, purpose, and value. Atheists score substantially lower on these than theists.

As I indicated above, I respect the work these scholars have done. I respect even more that they are admitting that there is no way to universally measure spiritual fitness that works for both nonbelievers and theists alike.

Reading the scholars’ conclusions carefully also suggests something even more important about this quixotic task: scores on the three subscales are largely meaningless. To quote the scholars directly, “In general, the classification of respondents as ‘high’ or ‘low’ on the scale scores is not advised, as such classifications are frequently arbitrary for non-clinical traits that exist along a continuum. The respondent scores are also not meant to be classified as “good/bad,” ‘strong/weak,’ or ‘fit/unfit.'” To translate this even further, the scholars who developed this measure are stating as plainly as possible that spiritual fitness is not a dimension of fitness that can be measured in any meaningful way such that it will influence other domains of fitness, like physical, mental, or social health.

The thousands of hours, thousands of dollars, and many additional resources that have been spent trying to measure and assess spiritual fitness has culminated in an admission by scholars working for the US military that there is no meaningful concept of spiritual fitness.

Dr. Ryan T. Cragun is a husband, father, and sociologist of worldviews (in order of importance). The focus of his scholarship is Mormonism and nonreligion. His research has been published in a variety...