[Methods Series] On the Virtues of a Meaning Systems Framework for Studying Nonreligious and Religious Worldviews in the Context of Everyday Life

Opening the new monthly issue of the [SSNB]-NSRN [methods blog series], Ann Taves explores one of the central questions in contemporary nonreligious studies – and a long-standing religious studies, too: how to understand and describe the object of study. Providing an overview of recent propositions arising from psychology, sociology and anthropology, she sets out a proposal for a meaning systems approach.taves

In this blog post, I want to take up the central challenge facing those who aim to study nonreligion or secularity and one that has long plagued scholars of religion — that of specifying an object of study.[i] Although several good suggestions have been made, I think we can do a better job of capturing the range of things we want to study by adapting the meaning systems (MS) framework,[ii] already in use in psychology, for our purposes. The MS framework, which was designed to encompass both religious and nonreligious meaning systems,[iii] allows us to conceptualize our object of study in generic terms. It offers a dynamic framework that has already generated a body of empirical research on the interaction between meaning systems (implicit and explicit) and meaning making in particular situations. Although much of this research has focused on how people cope with trauma, psychologists have extended it to other contexts, including conversion and spiritual transformation.[iv] Here I suggest we can build on the framework’s basic distinction between global meaning systems (GMS) and situational meaning (SM) by elaborating the concept of GMS in light of the literature on worldviews and the concept of SM in light of ‘situational’ elements, such as practices, networks, institutions, and ways of life, that are typically studied by scholars of religion under the rubric of ‘lived religion.’

The Problem

The new focus on ‘nonreligion’ helpfully expands our focus beyond the traditional focus on atheism or ‘nonbelief’.[v] In characterizing our object of study as nonreligion, we are indicating that we want to think about it – whatever it is — in relation to religion. In effect, we are setting up a comparison. But we lack two things: an overarching framework in which both religion and nonreligion fit and specific features that we want to compare. It is as if we set out to compare apples and oranges without realizing that they are both fruits or specifying which features of these two fruits we wanted to compare.

Proposed Solutions

Both Thomas Coleman and Lois Lee have made significant attempts to address this issue. Coleman et al. propose ‘horizontal transcendence’ as a way to characterize experiences that people view as profoundly meaningful and at the same time neither religious nor spiritual.[vi] ‘Experiences that people consider profoundly meaningful’ are an important feature that – I agree – we want to compare, but they are only one potential aspect of ‘nonreligion’. We need something more encompassing. Lee makes a case for ‘existential cultures’ as an umbrella term that captures theist, atheist, humanist, and other nonreligious subcultures and allows us to consider lived existential practices as well as more explicit existential beliefs.[vii] In applying this terminology, however, Lee struggled to conceptualize those she characterized as ‘anti-existential’ (or Schnell as existentially indifferent[viii]), that is, those who didn’t want to think about existential questions. Moreover, in defining ‘existentialism’ broadly in terms of ‘ultimate questions,’ she highlights a feature that – as she acknowledges — has long been associated with the concept of ‘worldviews’.

An Alternative

Although I appreciate these attempts, I think that ‘worldviews,’ as discussed in the philosophical literature, better captures the sense of the ‘big questions’ (BQs) that Lee associates with ‘existential philosophies.’[ix] Not only is the term ‘worldviews’ readily recognizable and in widespread popular use, it has generated an extensive academic discussion in philosophy and the social sciences since proposed by Kant.[x] Within religious studies, some have advocated studying religions as worldviews,[xi] and others a shift from studying religions to studying worldviews more generally.[xii] Within psychology, we find explicit discussion of worldviews in the context of terror management theory[xiii] and equivalents in existential theory of mind[xiv] and in the concept of a global meaning system within a meaning systems approach.[xv]

Although there are many different definitions within philosophy, the concept emerged in response to a desire to relativize religious outlooks.[xvi] The interdisciplinary ‘worldviews’ research group led by Apostel and van der Veken explicitly characterized worldviews as offering answers to six fundamental philosophical questions.[xvii]


Variations on these BQs have been used to structure world religions textbooks[xviii] and textbooks in the history and philosophy of science,[xix] where they provide a framework for comparison.

Although worldviews can be used to compare elaborate philosophical and religious systems, we do not need to conceive of worldviews as explicit or well developed. They can be implicit or explicit, taken for granted or reflected upon, and surfaced on a need-to-know basis, through interaction, formal dialogue, or active cultivation. Worldviews, nonetheless, still smack of ‘beliefs’ and don’t capture the range of practices, institutions, or everyday ways of life that we associate with religions and spiritualities, nor do they provide a framework for analyzing how implicit or explicit worldviews interact with these other aspects of life.

Here I would suggest that we meld the philosophical and religious discussion of worldviews with the psychological literature on global meaning systems that researchers have used primarily to study coping in situations of trauma, loss, and bereavement. This is a generic framework that can be (and has been) linked with religious meaning systems.[xx]


Although the MS literature has been primarily concerned with ‘situations’ that stand out because they are traumatic, we can think of ‘situations’ as the generic context in which everyday or lived meaning is made. The situations or events considered could range from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary, the traumatic to the ecstatic, or the mundane to the highly significant. They would, thus, include ‘experiences that people consider profoundly meaningful,’ some of which, as Coleman et al. suggested may be considered as instances of ‘horizontal transcendence’.[xxvii] Situations and events do not need to be described in the ‘thin’ terms characteristic of psychologists, but can be richly characterized in the socio-cultural-environmental terms that characterize research in history, anthropology, and religious studies.

In characterizing situations more richly, however, humanists should not lose sight of the MS researchers’ interest in dynamic processes, e.g., the role of GMS in the appraisal of situations or events, the interactions between GMS and SM in those contexts, and the way that meaning is discovered and transformed in relation to situations or events. Based on our deeper immersion in the particulars of religious and nonreligious contexts – whether historically or ethnographically – we can seek to identify the factors that make a difference in these dynamics across worldviews and cultural contexts.

Lee’s conception of existential cultures could be assimilated with this approach. She clearly views existential cultures as constituted by the meaning making processes inherent in everyday life. As she observes,[xxviii] ‘thinking of meaning making, not as a narrow, philosophical practice but as something enacted in multiple ways, small and large, in everyday life calls into question the idea that large groups of people can be easily located outside the existential cultural field’. Within both the MS and worldview literature,[xxix] there are those that would push this point farther, claiming that all organisms – not just humans — require a GMS or worldview, rudimentary as it might be from a human perspective, in order to function. If we view meaning systems this broadly, it allows us to think about them within an evolutionary framework, asking why and under what conditions humans have sought to elaborate the explicit worldviews we think of as philosophies and religions.

Further reading

Leontiev, Dmitry A., ed. 2015. Positive psychology in search for meaning. Routledge. Originally published as a special issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology.

Markman, Keith D., Travis Proulx, and Matthew J. Lindberg, eds, 2013, The Psychology of Meaning. Washington, DC: APA Press.

Ann Taves is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara where, among other things, she is designing an introductory course on “Comparing Religions and Other Worldviews” and supervising the interdisciplinary Religion, Experience, and Mind Lab Group.  She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Fits, Trances, and Visions (Princeton, 1999) and Religious Experience Reconsidered (Princeton, 2009).  Her new book, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths, is forthcoming from Princeton in October 2016.

[i] Thanks to Tommy Coleman, Lois Lee, and Ray Paloutzian for their helpful feedback and comments.

[ii] Roy F. Baumeister, 1991, Meanings of Life. Guilford; Crystal Park and S. Folkman. 1997, ‘Meaning in the context of stress and coping,’ Review of General Psychology 1, 115-144; Crystal Park, 2010, ‘Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events,’ Psychological Bulletin 136(2), 257-301; Keith D. Markman, Travis Proulx, and Matthew J. Lindberg, eds, 2013, The Psychology of Meaning. Washington, DC: APA Press.

[iii] Crystal Park, 2005, ‘Religion and meaning’, in Paloutzian and Park, Handbook. Guilford; Crystal Park, 2013, Religion and meaning, in Paloutzian and Park, Handbook, 2nd ed. Guilford.

[iv] Raymond F. Paloutzian, 2005, ‘Religious conversion and spiritual transformation: A meaning-systems analysis’, in Paloutzian and Park, eds., Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Guilford; Raymond Paloutzian, Sebastian Murken, Heinz Streib, and Sussan Rossler-Namini, 2013, ‘Conversion, deconversion, and spiritual transformation: A multi-level interdisciplinary view’, in Paloutzian and Park (eds), The Handbook of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. Guilford.

[v] Lois Lee, 2012, ‘Talking about a revolution: Terminology for the new field of Non-religion Studies’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1), 129-139.

[vi] Thomas J. Coleman III, Christopher F. Silver, and Jenny Holcombe, 2013, ‘Focusing on horizontal transcendence: Much more than a ‘non-belief’, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism 21(2), 1-18.

[vii] Lois Lee, 2015, Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Lois Lee and Stephen Bullivant, in press, The Dictionary of Atheism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[viii] Tatjana Schnell, 2010, ‘Existential indifference: Another quality of meaning in life’, Journal of Humanistic Psychology 50, 351-373.

[ix] Markman et al. (Psychology of Meaning, 1) acknowledge the key role that existential philosophy and psychology played in reflecting on the BQs in a nonreligious context, but indicate that, while ‘once the province of existential philosophy, existential psychology, and the related clinical literature, meaning is a word that appears with greater frequency within the social, cognitive, and cognitive neuroscience literatures’. The shift from ‘existential’ to ‘meaning’ highlights the issue of central concern for existentialists without appropriating their distinctive self-descriptions, and, at the same time, allows to us to shift our focus to processes of meaning or sense making across a wide range of disciplines, contexts, and even organisms.

[x] David K. Naugle, 2002, Worldview: The History of a Concept, Eerdmans.

[xi] Ninian Smart, 2000, Worldview: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs, 3rd ed. Prentice Hall; Mark Juergensmeyer, 2010, ‘2009 Presidential Address: Beyond war and words: The global future of religion’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78(4), 882-895.

[xii] Christa Anbeek, Hans Alma, and Saskia van Goelst Meijer, under review, ‘Contrast experiences and social imaginaries as spaces for truth-seeking’, in Guido Vanheeswijck and Hans Alma, eds. Social Imaginaries in a Globalizing World, DeGruyter; Andre F. Droogers, and Anton van Harskamp, 2014, Methods for the Study of Religious Change: From Religious Studies to Worldview Studies, London: Equinox.

[xiii] Melissa Landau, Mark J. Soenke, and Jeff Greenberg, 2013, Sacred armor: Religion’s role as a buffer against the anxieties of life and the fear of death, in Kenneth I. Pargament (ed), APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, vol. 1: 105-122.

[xiv] Jesse Bering, 2002, ‘The Existential Theory of Mind’, Review of General Psychology 6 (1): 3–24; Thomas J. Coleman III, and Ralph W. Hood, Jr, 2015, Reconsidering everything: From folk categories to existential theory of mind, Religion and Society: Advances in Research 6 (2015): 18-22.

[xv] Park, ‘Making sense’; Raymond F. Paloutzian, 2017, Invitation to the Psychology of Religion, 3rd ed. Guilford.

[xvi] Naugle, Worldview.

[xvii] Vidal, C. 2008,‘Wat is een wereldbeeld? (What is a worldview?)’ in Van Belle, H. & Van der Veken, J., eds, Nieuwheid denken. De wetenschappen en het creatieve aspect van de werkelijkheid, Acco, Leuven, 4.

[xviii] Stephen Prothero, 2010, God is Not One. Harper One; Brodd, Jeffrey, et al. 2016. Invitation to World Religions, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.

[xix] Richard DeWitt, 2010, Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, 2nd edition, Wiley-Blackwell.

[xx] Park, ‘Religion and meaning’.  [It should have been Park 2013; I am citing the two version of her ‘Religion and meaning’ chapters in the 1st and 2nd editions of the handbooks 2005, 2013.]

[xxi] Park, ‘Making sense’, 258

[xxii] Johannes Quack and Cora Schuh, eds, forthcoming, Religious Indifferences: Between and Beyond Religion and Nonreligion, New York: Springer.

[xxiii] Schnell, ‘Existential indifference’.

[xxiv] Roxane Cohen Silver and John Updegraff, 2013, ‘Searching for and finding meaning following personal and collective traumas’, in Markman, Proulz, and Lindbergh, eds. Psychology of Meaning, APA Press.

[xxv] Dmitry A. Leontiev, 2013, Personal meaning: A challenge for psychology, Journal of Positive Psychology 8 (6), 459-470; Crystal Park and Login S. George, 2013, Assessing meaning and meaning making in the context of stressful life events: Measurement tools and approaches, Journal of Positive Psychology 8(6), 483-504.

[xxvi] Samantha J. Heintzelman and Laura A. King, 2013, On knowing more than we can tell: Intuitive processes and the experience of meaning, Journal of Positive Psychology 8 (6), 471–482.

[xxvii] Coleman et al., ‘Horizontal transcendence’.

[xxviii] Lee, Recognizing the Non-religious, 172.

[xxix] Jordan B. Peterson, 2013, ‘Three forms of meaning and the management of complexity’, in Markman, Keith D., Travis Proulx, and Matthew J. Lindberg, eds, The Psychology of Meaning, APA Press; Raymond Paloutzian and Katelyn Mukai, 2017, ‘Believing, remembering, and imagining: The roots and fruits of meanings made and remade’, in Angel, H.-F., Oviedo, L. Paloutzian, R. F., Runihov, A. L. C., & Seitz, R. J., Process of Believing: The Acquisition, Maintenance, and Change in Creditions. Heidelberg: Springer; Vidal, ‘Wat is een wereldbeeld? (What is a worldview?)’



5 thoughts on “[Methods Series] On the Virtues of a Meaning Systems Framework for Studying Nonreligious and Religious Worldviews in the Context of Everyday Life

  1. I love the discussion that is taking place here. I also like that our approach to defining the object of study is beginning to look a little like throwing pasta on a wall and seeing which type sticks best. Are we studying “meaning systems” (i.e., rigatoni), “existential cultures” (i.e., fusilli), “horizontal transcendence” (i.e., cavatelli), or “nonreligion” (i.e., plain old spaghetti)?

    On the “meaning systems” approach, I think it has a lot of merit. However, it seems like there might be two minor issues here.

    First, what about those people who see no inherent meaning in, well, anything? Plenty of nonreligious people – in my experience, mostly atheists – reject the idea that there is any meaning in the universe. As nihilists, they reject the idea that any of this means anything. Can we consider nihilism a “meaning system”? Or is nihilism similar to atheism vis-a-vis belief in god? Just as bald isn’t a color of hair and atheism is not a type of belief in a god, perhaps nihilism isn’t a meaning system. If nihilism wasn’t somewhat widespread among the group of interest to this community of scholars, I don’t think this would be a problem. But I think it might be fairly widespread.

    Second, it seems like the “meaning systems” approach is coming out of the coping literature and, as noted in the post, often derives from traumatic events. What about less traumatic events? What about daily life? Is there meaning in eating or watching TV or using the toilet? How is my meaning system reflected in those events? Or am I missing something regarding “meaning systems” in that they are really only geared toward addressing the Big Questions noted in the post?

  2. Ryan, thanks for comment and the issues you raise. I agree that if we extend the situations we consider to encompass everyday life, we are going to be focusing on situations where people are most likely not reflecting on the big questions. I also take your point about the nihilists. Both point to the issue that I allude to in the last paragraph of the blog post, the question of whether all organisms need a rudimentary “worldview” or “meaning system” to function and what it would mean to think about “meaning” in an evolutionary perspective.

    In thinking about this in another context, I took inspiration from the humanist philosopher, Richard Norman’s piece “Life without meaning?” (In Andrew Copson and A.C. Grayling, eds. The Wiley Backwell Handbook of Humanism. 2015) in which he suggests that for humanists the fundamental question is not “what is the meaning of life,” but “what makes life meaningful?” He suggests four things: being connected to the natural world and other living things, being rooted in a human community with an ongoing history in which we share, our more intimate emotional relations and attachments, and being at home in a universe which dwarfs our mundane concerns.” So my hunch would be that if the nihilists you are interviewing are happily going about their everyday lives that some or all of these things that make life meaningful for people are in place for them. You could explore that in an interview using Norman’s shift in wording.

    Norman’s shift in wording points, I think, to the larger evolutionary picture. Except for being at home in a universe that dwarfs our mundane concerns, which requires conscious reflection, his other three sources of meaningfulness are all things that many other animals experience without thinking about it. My hunch is that, from an evolutionary perspective, what we think of as meaning making is rooted in goal directed action. We can infer an organism’s implicit purpose from its goal directed actions. We can refer to the meaning of its actions in light of this implicit purpose without suggesting that the organism feels a sense of purpose or meaning apart from the action itself. If a sense of purpose is rooted in goal directed action, it would mean that we would generally experience life as meaningful without reflecting on the fact or trying to express why we feel it to be so. It is only when this sense of purpose or direction crumbles — when we feel uncertain, lose our sense of direction, or feel there is no point in going on — that life feels meaningless. This sense of confusion, pointlessness, or lack of purpose is a feeling, not a thought or belief. Conscious, reflective meaning making – the search for meaning — is typically a response to this feeling.

    • Ann,

      Thanks for the clarification. I’m going to have to read the chapter you cited and give this some more thought. But my initial response is that this makes a lot of sense.

      Excellent post!

  3. Two thoughts occur to me, though I’m not sure how they fit with your thesis: Frankle’s “Man’s search for meaning”, and Goldstein’s “mattering maps”. Both seem attempts at defining how we humans make meaning in the world, And they encompass both religious and non-religious ideas.

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