Spirituality: Secular or Religious?

In this post Galen Watts questions whether the paradigm of secularization—exemplified by the recent work of Steve Bruce—is ultimately the most useful for studying spirituality. He contends that scholars might be better off eschewing essentialist definitions of “religion” and instead examining the various ways in which individuals operationalize the term “spirituality,” and for what purposes. Drawing from his qualitative research with Canadian millennials who self-identify as SBNR he argues that individuals who claim “spirituality” do so largely as a result of the religious imaginaries they hold. Thus investigating the nature of these imaginaries might prove far more fruitful than obsessing over whetherBio pic (1)galenwatts or notspirituality is “real religion” or not.

In an earlier post (and an article published in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality) I drew attention to what I see as a problem endemic to the nascent field of spirituality studies, that problem being how scholars rarely explicitly define what they mean by “spirituality.” In so doing, I made a conceptual distinction between the study of spirituality, referring to the study of spirituality as a social and/or cultural phenomenon in order to better understand its socio-political implications, and the study for spirituality, referring to the study of how spirituality (of a particular kind) might yield practical applications in particular fields (i.e. business, healthcare, education, etc.)

In this post, my focus is related, although different. I want to consider the oft-posed question as regards spirituality: is it secular or religious? My thinking about this topic was spurred by reading Steve Bruce’s The Secular Beats the Spiritual, published last year. According to Bruce, the increased interest in “spirituality” as distinct from “religion”—evidenced by a number of polls that show the number of North Americans and Britons who identify as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has increased over the last two decades—does not repudiate the secularization thesis, but rather confirms it. For Bruce, this shift in self-identification, from “religious” to “spiritual,” reflects a social shift from real religiosity to “spirituality lite” (2017, 73). So-called SBNRs are, Bruce contends, largely secular, in that their spirituality lacks the necessary institutional structures to ensure intergenerational transmission and is aimed predominantly at worldly ends. He writes, in his characteristic style, “as a supposed rebuttal of secularization, contemporary spirituality is a damp squib” (179).

Since 2015 I’ve been conducting qualitative research consisting of semi-structured interviews with Canadian millennials who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Although I believe there is much to commend about The Secular Beats the Spiritual, I’d like to consider the background assumptions that go into justifying this conclusion of Bruce’s. Specifically, Bruce begins the book by making clear “by religion I mean beliefs and actions predicated on the existence of some supernatural being (or, to encompass karma, some impersonal agency) with the power of moral judgement” (16). This, for Bruce, is what religion is, and since contemporary spirituality, as he sees it, lacks these characteristics, its rising popularity proves secularization. But, of course, there is no obvious reason why this is where the definitional boundary lines ought to be drawn.

Admittedly, Bruce acknowledges this objection and offers his response: “Some sociologists define it [religion] in terms of its social functions—for example, religion is that thing which unites a body of people—and this finds echoes in the popular business of asserting that this or that is ‘the new religion’. This unhelpfully muddies the waters” (17). In some ways, I concur. But only insofar as we can agree that what we, as scholars, are interested in is determining whether a particular conception of “religion” (understood in an essentialist way) remains as common today as it once was. Needless to say, this isn’t the only question one could ask—and arguably it is far from the most interesting.

In what remains, I will take up the question of whether “spirituality” is secular or religious from a quite different angle. Rather than offering a normative account, as Bruce does, I will consider the various definitions of “spirituality” I have encountered during my research with Canadian millennials, and explicate how these definitions are tied to specific understandings of “religion.” My aim is to push beyond the narrow constraints imposed by the discourse of secularization, allowing for a more expansive approach which considers the significance of distinct religious imaginaries in constructing particular conceptions of “spirituality.”

The definition of “spirituality” I hear most often from my study participants is that “spirituality” is the personal dimension of religion. This harkens back to the privatized understanding of religion outlined by William James in his The Varieties of Religious Experience. Yet, interestingly, for some this personal dimension can’t be separated from religious institutions, whereas for others, it can. This divorcing of experience from institutions is an important conceptual strategy that strikes to the core of much of the debate around spirituality. Those who assert that spirituality can be cultivated without institutional support tend to understand themselves as “spiritual,” while those who assert that spirituality must be tied to institutions generally understand themselves as “religious” (or both). A key dividing line, then, is whether or not one thinks “spirituality” has a necessary relationship with religious institutions.

Yet, there exist other dividing lines as well. Some think of “spirituality” as a catchall term for anything that involves finding your purpose, meaning making and feeling fulfilled. This conception is common in business culture (as well as various professional fields, as Parkes, in another post, remarks). “Spirituality,” in this popular idiom, refers to a dimension of human experience that enables individuals to “find peace” and organizations to “reach their full potential” (and vice versa). As might be expected, “spirituality,” in this sense, is mostly understood as “secular” in order to make it digestible for the secular spheres of business, healthcare, and education. Similarly, to be “spiritual,” I am often told, means to be a person of depth and erudition, who does not judge others (the Dalai Lama is often given as an exemplar). Those who hold this view generally suggest “spirituality” is not “religious” because they view “religion” as exclusive, as not allowing people to “be who they are.” This conception is pervasive in popular culture—Russell Brand and Gwyneth Paltrow being only two of many celebrities who champion a spirituality of this kind. (Of course, in taking a more critical lens, we might view claiming to be “spiritual” as the mere pursuit of cultural capital, where to be “spiritual” is to claim a culturally desirable identity).

In contrast, some contend that “spirituality” refers not to meaning-making per se, but to a specific kind of cultural critique—one that has its roots in the Romantic movement, and which found resonance with the New Left in the sixties. For this group, “spirituality” entails a comprehensive evaluation of modern societies, which frames modern life as alienating, corrupting of our true natures, and entirely at odds with human flourishing (think Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man). This conception of “spirituality” is also deeply bound up with the New Age movement, which, interestingly, was generally understood as vehemently anti-religion. Of course, “religion” was rejected largely because it was equated with Christianity (or monotheism, more generally).

Furthermore, there are those who reject “religion” because they view it as inherently patriarchal and sexist. This is particularly true of individuals who identify as feminists. I have found, among this crowd, “religion” is a deeply polluted category, to be avoided at all costs. “Spirituality,” in contrast, has more positive associations. Similarly, a number of my study participants reject “religion” and embrace “spirituality” either because of their environmentalist leanings or their ethical views as regards nonhuman animals. These individuals understand “religion” as legitimating human domination of the natural world and/or Western society’s inherent anthropocentrism. In these cases, “spirituality” is understood as anticipating a project of emancipation of some kind or another.

Lastly, there are those who seek to reconcile their commitment to the scientific method with their interest in the supernatural (or at least dimensions of human experience that science cannot yet account for), and therefore adopt the term “spirituality” over “religion” because they believe it allows for this. At the same time, I have spoken to others who absolutely reject “spirituality” because they view it as irrational and anti-scientific (not unlike Bruce). Among this group, “spirituality” is simply another form of “religion”—primitive, backwards, and to be rejected by any self-respecting intellectual.[1]

Based on my research findings it would seem that individuals who claim “spirituality” (as well as those who reject it) do so largely as a result of the religious imaginary they hold. Like Bruce, my study participants hold their own conceptions of “religion” which inform how they define “spirituality.” Drawing attention to these varying religious imaginaries, I argue, is important, because they illuminate how individuals operationalize the “spiritual but not religious” discourse in distinct ways and for different (sometimes competing) purposes. Bruce’s substantive definition of “religion” is helpful in answering a particular kind of question, but it fails in aiding us to capture the richness of and diversity of the religious (and spiritual) imaginaries alive in Western society today. In turn, we must not stop at the question: Is spirituality secular or religious? but also ask: Who is asking?, Who is answering? and What are the reasons they are giving?

[1] I do not wish to give the impression that these characterizations are necessarily separate; there may be many (there likely are) who identify with the term “spiritual” for more than one of the reasons listed here (and others not listed).


Bruce, Steve. 2017. The Secular Beats the Spiritual: The Westernization of the Easternization of the West. Oxford University Press.

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.


One thought on “Spirituality: Secular or Religious?

  1. I would be interested in how you would define the the term “Spirit” (Spirituality) in a secular rather than in a religious sense. Thank you for your well-reasoned article.

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