[Research] “Of” or “For”: Studying “Spirituality” and the Problems therein…

How might “spirituality” relate to “nonreligion”? In this blog post Galen Watts reflects on this question galen-wattswith respect to the category of “spiritual but not religious.” Noting how a distinction between the study of spirituality and the study for spirituality is rarely made in the field of spirituality studies, he challenges scholars of spirituality to define their object more clearly and to declare their stakes in it.

There is a category that has recently begun to rise in popularity in those societies often deemed Western and which seems to fall—albeit somewhat uneasily—under the label “nonreligion.” I am speaking of those who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Having recently conducted research on Canadian millennials who self-identify as SBNR, it has become clear to me that SBNR spirituality, or contemporary spirituality, is a type of nonreligion that is quite distinct in form and content from, say, atheism, or even agnosticism (of course, as signifying discourses, these labels do not reflect reality, in any sense, flawlessly, but I think you get the point). We might then say the recent upsurge in the number of people in North America who self-identify as SBNR (Pew Research Center 2013) troubles any simplistic narrative one might tell about the secularization of Western states, whereby societies simply move from a “religious” standpoint to a “secular” one—“secular” understood as the decline of religious belief and practice. I am not alone in holding this view (see Fuller 2001; Heelas and Woodhead 2005; Carrette and King 2005; Gottlieb 2013; Mercadante 2014). Indeed, the rise of SBNRs has engendered an increase in the number of scholars, based in a variety of disciplines, who research “spirituality.”

In this post, I want to discuss a specific issue that continues to stifle the nascent field of what we might call “spirituality studies.” It seems to me that those of us interested in “spirituality” have not yet figured out how to adequately study this puzzling phenomenon. I believe this is in part because we have not been entirely upfront about how we approach our subject of interest, and what our underlying motivations are.

Let me explain. There are a number of scholars—usually arising out of the fields of health studies, management, or education (but not always)—who view the emergence of “spirituality” as purportedly distinct from “religion” as a positive thing, but are nevertheless reluctant to articulate how they define “spirituality” or what political commitments underpin their use of the term. For instance, Christopher Cook (2004), in offering a comprehensive overview of 265 published books and academic articles on the broad topic of “spirituality and addiction,” found what he calls “a diversity and lack of clarity of understanding of the concept of spirituality” (539). He writes: “It is therefore somewhat concerning that the authors of well over one-third of the papers studied here felt no need to attempt to define or describe the concept [of ‘spirituality’] or even to comment on the difficulty of definition” (547). This is by no means uncommon outside of the realm of “spirituality and addiction,” either. More amazing is the fact that many who remain reluctant to provide a clear explication of their use of the term nevertheless argue that “spirituality”—whatever it is—ought to be embraced and promoted, for it is universal, and therefore transcends religious and/or secular contexts.

I would argue this rests on the (implicit) view that “spirituality” is inclusive (understood positively) while “religion” is exclusive (understood negatively). Indeed, many SBNRs I spoke to seemed to endorse “spirituality” over and above “religion” on this very basis (as Joel Thiessen notes in another NSRN post, this is not uncommon). The basic assumption is something like, “religion” is exclusivistic, ideologically charged, and (in some cases) dogmatic, whereas “spirituality” is universal and inclusivistic in nature. Of course, this assumption is problematic because it is, in fact, self-contradictory. For no discourse is truly universal, most especially those discourses which claim a universal scope; in the end, a discourse that is founded on the principle of inclusivity is at least exclusive of those which are founded on the principle of exclusivity. Thus it is somewhat curious how those who herald discourses on “spirituality” in many instances are reluctant to embrace those discourses which they deem “religious.” Nevertheless, this dichotomization helps to explain why and how even a New Atheist like Sam Harris can embrace a “secular spirituality.”

Of course, there are those who propose such a vague definition of “spirituality” that it becomes truly universally applicable. Ursula King (2011) has done this in offering her open-ended definition of “spiritualities”: “[they] quite simply connote those ideas, practices and commitments that nurture, sustain and shape the fabric of human lives, whether as individual persons or communities” (21 emphasis in the original). This definition is useful in that it provides a framework with which to begin discussions about different kinds of spirituality. However, it should be noted, it offers no substantive description of any specific spiritualities. Under it, one could just as easily call Christianity, American Football or Nazism types of spirituality. And although I see nothing intrinsically wrong with these applications, such examples should lead us to recognize why we ought to be more forthright and articulate about the kinds of spirituality we wish to endorse, and the substantive moral and political commitments that underpin them.

Disciplinary boundaries clearly play a formative role here. Scholars that work in health studies, management, or education tend not to study “spirituality” in order to better understand what it is or what it signifies, but rather to find out what a specific kind of spirituality – that they usually normatively endorse (or disparage) – might do for their workplace. In other words, these scholars are motivated by a personal interest in contemporary spirituality and the positive benefits (or negative consequences) they believe it yields in practical application. This approach, I believe, is better understood as the study for spirituality. In contrast, religious studies, cultural studies, or critical theory scholars generally take a broader (perhaps less practical) approach to “spirituality,” framing it as a socio-cultural and/or discursive construct that is everywhere and always political. These scholars therefore may seek to offer a description of contemporary spirituality as it presents itself in a specific social or cultural context, and/or critique it from a normative standpoint. This approach rightly falls under the study of spirituality.

Nevertheless, this is not to suggest these two approaches cannot, or do not, overlap. One may hold a normative understanding of contemporary spirituality, while at the same time, seek to better understand it as an abstract concept or as a lived phenomenon, or, wish to criticize that which one views as an inauthentic or perhaps corrupt form of it. And conversely, one may seek to better understand how spirituality operates within certain spheres (e.g. healthcare, education, etc.) from a critical perspective, all the while hoping to promote its application in said spheres. Thus I do not wish to give the impression that these approaches are inherently at odds. What remains true, however, is that they are, in important ways, distinct endeavours; and the confusion surrounding the study of spirituality, I argue, originates in their not being recognized as such.


Carrette, Jeremy R., and Richard King. 2005. $elling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. London: Routledge.

Cook, Christopher C. H. 2004. “Addiction and Spirituality.” Society for the Study of Addiction. (99) 539-551.

Fuller, Robert C. 2001. Spiritual But Not Religious. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gottlieb, Roger S. 2013. Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Heelas, Paul, and Linda Woodhead. 2005. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

King, Ursula. 2011. “Can Spirituality Transform Our World?” Journal for the Study of Spirituality. (1) 17-34.

Mercadante, Linda A. 2014. Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual But Not Religious. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Pew Research Center. “Canada’s Changing Religious Landscape.” 2013. Pew Religion Public Life Project. Accessed June 26, 2016. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/06/27/canadas-changing-religious-landscape/.

Galen Watts is a PhD Candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Program at Queen’s University. He has a broad and diverse range of academic interests. Currently, his research could be classified as convening at the intersection of political philosophy, religious studies, and social theory. For his Masters, he sought to articulate and analyze how Canadian millennials (ages 18-34) who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” conceptualize the relationship between their “individual” spirituality and their commitments, or lack thereof, to a number of social justice issues. For his PhD, he is continuing to research the basic values, belief-systems, and practices that inform contemporary spirituality among millennials in Canada in order to discern its ideological nature, as well as its social and political implications, broadly understood.


CFP: International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society

Sixth International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society

23-24 May 2016

The Catholic University of America

Washington D.C., USA

Current Submission Deadline*:
 18 March 2015

PLEASE NOTE: The Fifth International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society is taking place at the University of California at Berkley, 16-17 April 2015. Proposals are still being accepted for a short time. Click here for more details.

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