Spirituality is a buzz word, a vague term and an important trend in North American religion.

Spirituality is a buzz word in North American popular culture. To explore, visit a bookstore and peruse the spirituality section. (When there are books such as Spirituality for Dummies and A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Spirituality, then spirituality must be buzz word). Run a “Googl” search for spirituality. You will discover a panoply of resources from a prodigious variety of perspectives.

One common characteristic of these resources is a belief that spirituality is something to be distinguished from religion.  These resources realize that religion and spirituality overlap for some people, and that many people will draw from one or more religious traditions in the practice of their spirituality. Still, there is a sense that the terms religion and spirituality are not synonymous.

For example, one inspirational Web site defines spirituality as “a sense of connection to the universe and to a higher power.” It defines religion as “an organized system of worship that gives a framework to the relationship we have with the universe and with a higher power.”

Note that such definitions give priority to spirituality by making it a more basic reality than religion, which is explained as the institutional expression of spirituality.

In his book Spirituality and World Religions, comparative religion scholar George E. Saint-Laurent discusses the phenomena of spirituality and its relationship to religion. He describes three groups of people that are interested in spirituality. First, many people connect spirituality with religious affiliation. Second, others understand themselves to be non-religious but demonstrate a genuine spirituality in their lives. Third, some regard religious structures to be counterproductive to a vital spirituality.

These resources also acknowledge that the term “spirituality” is vague and hard to define. Working definitions abound in the literature of spirituality.  These definitions share a certain ambiguity that drives the scholar mad but enhances the appeal to a general audience. It is precisely the eclectic, unstructured and free-wheeling nature of the cultural fashion of spirituality that fuels its popularity.

Despite the caveat that “it is probably impossible to formulate a strict definition of spirituality,” Saint-Laurent offers the following attempt: “The word spirituality designates the inner meaning of human experience under the impact of a humane worldview.”

In a course entitled “Spirituality in the World Religions,” I defined spirituality as “a process of human transformation.” I gave students  the opportunity to formulate their own definitions. Here are some of their efforts:

–Connecting with something that is appreciated.
–The process of seeking personal wholeness.
–An inner connectedness with something that is higher than you.
–Having love and respect and tolerance for people, animals and nature …trying to make the world a better place.

Notice that the definitions of students and scholars emphasize the aesthetic, the experiential, the relational, the ecological and the transformative. These are descriptors of an important trend in North American religion: the quest for spirituality beyond the limits of traditional religion.

From this perspective, religion is considered doctrinal, rational, institutional and structured. Wikipedia notes: “In recent years, ‘spirituality’ has often carried connotations of the believer’s faith being more personal, less dogmatic, more open to new ideas and myriad influences, and more pluralistic than the faiths of established religions.”

Historian of religions Mircea Eliade advised religion scholars to interpret cultural fashions in a broader context rather than merely dismissing them. From such a reading, the spirituality trend in North America is similar to previous movements in religious history.

In 6th century BCE India, dissatisfaction with traditional Vedic religion led to new movements such as Jainism and Buddhism, along with a revitalization of Hinduism based on the Upanishads. In 16th century CE Europe, discontent with the traditional church led to the multi-faceted Reformation, along with a revitalization of Catholicism. In both cases, the new movements were more personal, experiential and dynamic.

Could the current cultural fashion of spirituality in North American be a movement toward new religious forms and revitalization of traditional religions? We are too close to the phenomenon to discern whether it is a mere melange of psychobabble, or if it contains the next Siddhartha and the new wave of postmodern Protestants.

For now, the trend tells us that many will continue to practice a spirituality based on a particular religious tradition, while others will explore a spiritual world without fixed borders.


George E. Saint-Laurent, Spirituality and World Religions (Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing, 2000).

Mircea Eliade, “Cultural Fashions and History of Religions” in Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions : Essays in Comparative Religion. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)

Wikipedia article on Spirituality

Psychology Today article on the trend of spirituality

Essay on pan-religious GenX spirituality

Poll data on spirituality and religion in the United States

Belief.net’s Spirituality Home Page

James C. Browning is assistant professor of religion at Pikeville College in Pikeville, Ky.

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