What does “spirituality” mean in America today, and how can social scientists best investigate it? This paper identifies new approaches to the study of American spirituality and emergent horizons for interdisciplinary scholarship. In contrast to the longstanding sociological practice that identifies spirituality in distinction or comparison to religion, we begin by inquiring into the processes through which contemporary uses of the categories religion and spirituality have taken on their current values, how they align with different types of political, cultural, and social action, and how they are articulated within public settings. In so doing, we draw upon and extend a growing body of research that offers alternatives to predominant social scientific understandings of spirituality in the United States, which, we believe, are better suited to investigating its social, cultural, and political implications. Taken together, they evaluate a more expansive range of religious and spiritual identities and actions, and, by placing spirituality and religion, as well as the secular, in new configurations, ought to reset scholars’ guiding questions on the subject of the spiritual.

This paper also highlights methods and orientations that we believe are germane to the concerns and questions that motivated our recent project on spirituality, public life, and politics in America, but that also extend beyond them. It draws into relief the space that has been opened up by recent analyses of spirituality and identifies the new questions and problems that are taking shape as a result. These novel directions in scholarship offer challenging and potentially powerful new ways of understanding the role of both spirituality and religion in shaping American civic and political life. The methods highlighted below do not treat either spirituality or religion as core or stable identities or qualities, nor do they assume that “spirituality” is in some way to be contrasted or opposed to “religion” (as in the formula “spiritual-not-religious”). Indeed, they do not operate on the presumption that “spirituality” necessarily holds any particular categorical relation whatsoever to “religion” (cf. Bender 2007; Taves and Bender 2012; Ammerman 2011). Instead, we propose a robust investigation of the historical and contextual specificities of those relations, such as they are enacted in scholarship and in the world. What these methods provide, accordingly, are ways of illuminating the relationships that develop—within particular political, civic, and other settings—between “religious” and “spiritual” identities, discourses, and concepts.

But why, first of all, is this subject a significant one? And why does it appear especially pertinent at precisely the present moment? To begin with, growing numbers of “religious nones,” that is, people who have limited or no religious affiliation yet still claim to believe in some kind of divinity, signal an unprecedented shift in the American religious landscape (Hout and Fischer 2002), and many scholars who have sought to understand this phenomenon have indicated that something like “spirituality” might capture an important aspect of their outlook, if not their “identity” (Vargas 2012; Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam 2012; Baker and Smith 2009). We, for our part, certainly agree that this is a socially significant shift. Yet we also note that much of the interpretation and ensuing discussion about the “religious nones” draws upon and continues to assert uninvestigated understandings of religion and spirituality, where we would argue that the shifts underway should elicit some reconsideration of the terms that are deployed to analyze and interpret this allegedly “new” phenomenon.

Social scientists frequently juxtapose spirituality to religion and identify the former by way of what it lacks in comparison to the latter. In particular, spirituality would appear to lack institutions, authority structures, community, and even history—all of which are considered integral to religion, such as it is widely understood today. Congregational identity, membership, and attendance are key markers for studies of Americans’ religious convictions, and the congregation, therefore, is taken to be an especially important, if not the definitive, site for the political and social mobilization of religious Americans. Against this backdrop, the rising number of “religious nones” (as well as shifts in congregational styles [see Chaves 2009]) emerge not only as new empirical facts but, insofar as their presence is measured against a norm of voluntary participation, also appear to engender a certain anxiety on the part of the scholars who study them (e.g., Olson 2010; Putnam and Campbell 2010). Though “religious nones” may be believers, they appear to lack the kinds of social connectivity that are recognizable to scholars, and that the latter have deemed essential to voluntary political participation. Insofar as spirituality emerges as a term associated with such individuals—and one that seems to sound the alarms about the problems of individualism—it appears as either the weak cousin or the crazy uncle of the norm that continues (or that should continue) to endure (see, e.g., Bellah et al. 1985), or as the spark of regeneration and the movement toward a “new” social order (e.g., York 1995).

Rather than take sides in the debate over the political possibilities of spirituality, we have decided to take a closer look at the way in which it has been framed and mobilized. We observe, for example, that social scientific definitions of religion have been and remain tightly interwoven with ideals of civic participation, putative and legally enforced distinctions between private and public life, the historical development of voluntarism, and discourses of individual and collective rights. “Spirituality,” in this respect, is often used to mark religious forms that do not ostensibly align with these norms. In other words, it is used to designate what are perceived to be extra-social or anti-social modes of religion, which in turn reinforces norms of both sociality and political mobilization. It is fair to note that this use of “spirituality” also carries some positive associations, however: some of those who take on a spiritual identity, it is said, are actively choosing to opt-out of political and institutional-religious interactions, in favor of something that they imagine to be more real, more personal, or more authentic than what they understand by religion—or, for that matter, by politics.

By focusing our attention on the emergence of various uses of “spirituality” and the intersections between its scholarly and public acceptations, we are orienting our investigation toward the relational work that religion and spirituality do in shaping our perception of individual, religious, and political possibilities. We might then ask, for example, how the continued preponderance of an academic discourse on American religion that enshrines voluntarism, religious freedom, and civic participation as essential (and essentially American) virtues determines our view of the spectrum of possibilities for political action. If as a result of closer attention to the phenomenon of spirituality scholars are able to view “religion” and its intersections with American politics in more complex ways than those sustained by the conventional lore centered on congregational life and voluntarism, the payoff would be significant..

Spirituality, we also note, is challenging to study, not so much because it lacks definition (or a relational counterpart, like “religion,” to make it meaningful), but because it suffers from an excess of definitions, each of which shapes a particular set of discourses and empirical investigations into various social phenomena. Scholars and journalists, religious and secular people, clergy and laymen, and even politicians invoke spirituality in numerous ways. For example, some identify it as a component of religion (whence people can be both “spiritual and religious”), which implies a contrast between the two, though it may also suggest that the former is an underlying, universal element that religious communities or individuals draw upon or are inspired by (e.g., Berger 1979). Closely related are descriptive uses that frame “spirituality” in terms either of emotions or of an ethically developed habitus that may operate both within and outside of formal institutional frameworks (Stanczak 2006; Roof 1993, 1999). Spirituality is also a term that some philosophers have used to gesture toward an unarticulated “more” (e.g., C. Taylor 2007; Connolly 2005a), and in such cases it takes on the connotation of something relatively inchoate or undefined, yet present and powerful in human life. Others have defined it in a less favorable fashion, conceiving of it as a post-religious and narcissistic drive to self-improvement, in contradistinction to religion, which (unlike spirituality) is able to intervene significantly in matters of the commons (Carrette and King 2004; Ehrenreich 2009; see Mitchell 2010 for a critique). Spirituality’s apparent ubiquity and its multiple meanings, but also its oft supposed “self-evidence,” make it difficult to employ with precision either as a descriptive term or as the index of a particular type of subject. Sometimes this fuzziness makes spirituality seem weak and limited in its effects, while at other times this same fuzziness lends it a sheen of pervasive and untapped power. Even those who appear to endorse or embrace this or that articulation of spirituality give vent to such concerns (e.g., E. McAlister 2010; van der Veer 2009; Connolly 2010). In short, the efflorescence of spirituality—its multiple concurrent uses and interpretations—makes it difficult to identify what spirituality is or to classify the people who identify themselves through it, let alone to understand its effects.

Much of the “problem” of analyzing spirituality in the social sciences emerges from and reflects the perpetually unresolved business of defining and understanding religion. But the question of whether spirituality is categorically distinct from, somehow connected to, or merely a weak mirror of “religion” bespeaks, above all, the sclerotic scholarly and “religious” framing and boundary-marking that, whether for strategic or analytical purposes, distinguishes the category of religion from some things while associating it with others—in ways often belied by empirical observation (Bender 2012a). We do not believe that investigations of spirituality will settle the definitional issues that continue to shape social scientific discourse about it, and we do not plan in this paper to offer a definition of what spirituality “is” or what it “does.” Rather, having observed that recent work on spirituality has paid very little attention to its history (either as a term of scholarly investigation or as a set of experiences in the world), to the relationships that it connotes (between itself and religion, as well as other things to which it is or may be compared), or to the broader landscape in which the arguments about spirituality and politics take on relevance and force, we advance an approach that demands that these problems be placed front and center in any analysis, in such a way that new studies of spirituality (and religion) maintain the critical and analytical depth that is called for in this moment of apparent religious change.

Read the full SSRC Working Paper “Mapping a Field: Why and How to Study Spirituality” (pdf).