Many believe the age of religion is over, that the rising authority of science and rationality has enabled Western societies to shed their religious predilections. The truth is secularization has not brought about the demise of religion, so much as its transformation. Fundamentally, religion lives on as “spirituality” because even moderns have a deep and enduring need for meaning.
Few would deny that the religious landscape of the West has undergone tectonic shifts over the past century. While Friedrich Nietzsche may have pronounced, iconoclastically, the death of God as early as the nineteenth century, this has become a kind of taken-for-granted common sense among many in the twenty-first. And so, many generally accept unreflectively that we, in the West, live in a secular age. But what exactly does this mean?
One understanding of secularization posits that, with the shift to modernity (beginning with the Enlightenment), and the rising authority of science, religion increasingly recedes into the background, eventually dissolving without notice (1). The idea, in its popular form, is something like this: now that we have the theory of evolution, now that we rely on biology, physics, and the other natural sciences, there is no longer a need for religion. We have outgrown it.
Tied to this is a specific understanding of what it means to be “modern”: those who are rational and scientific. We see this most clearly among the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. For these thinkers, secularization is not simply a social process, it is a goal to be achieved. To be “religious,” for New Atheists, is to be backwards and unscientific, whereas to become “secular” – what we should all strive for – is to have embraced the modern world and grown up intellectually (2). Accordingly, secularization theory, in its popular form, is often used to frame religion as inherently unmodern.
But one problem with this conception of secularization is that its definition of “religion” is strikingly narrow. “Religion,” in this view, really stands in for what we might call historically influential forms of church Christianity (3). In this way, “secularization” actually means “de-Christianization” – where “Christianity” is equated with only a fraction of the religious forms that have existed throughout human history.
Yes, we have clearly seen an emptying out of pews, and a decline in church membership in the West (4). And it is undeniable that science is more respected today than it was in, for instance, the year 1500. But this is not the same as the decline of religion per se (5). For at the very same time as self-identifying as “nonreligious” has risen in prominence, so too has an interest in “spirituality” (6). In other words, the decline of church Christianity has not brought with it a dissolution of religion, but has prompted the rise of a religion of a novel kind – what we might call a widespread spiritual turn (7).
What are the basic characteristics of this religious sea change?
The shift to “spirituality,” at its most basic, signals a move away from doctrinal adherence toward a marked emphasis on individual religious experience. No longer is it sufficient to read or hear about “God,” or the transcendent – we want to experience it personally. In turn, it has become a staple of the “spiritual” quest that one must go within, giving as much, if not more, attention to one’s inner depths as to the outer world.
Additionally, for many today, “God” – however it is described (we might call it “cosmic energy,” “the Universe,” or “Nature”) – is not seen as separate from humans. On the contrary, “God” is immanent in the world, and in ourselves, flowing throughout the natural world, alive in the most mundane of circumstances (8).
So, for many “nonreligious” people today, the sacred is found while hiking in the mountains, dancing at a rave, or meditating alone. Fewer believe one needs to go to church to experience God. Being a “seeker” has become the norm (9).
Interestingly, this is increasingly true of contemporary Christianity as well. While mainstream denominations have struggled to retain their members, some forms of Christianity have flourished (10). These belong to the Charismatic movement, which stresses experiencing the Holy Spirit over and above doctrinal adherence. For Charismatics, God is accessible anywhere and everywhere.
We can best understand experiential religion by contrasting it with doctrinal religion, which gives primacy to textual authority. Ever since the Reformation, doctrinal religion has been dominant. Individual experience only mattered to the extent that it conformed to specific dogmas. Experiential religion, by contrast, places far less emphasis on doctrine, viewing it as secondary, if not insignificant. As a result, one of the peculiar characteristics of the turn to “spirituality” is that it actually aligns more with a scientific ethos than doctrinal forms of religiosity. For just as scientific discovery relies on empirical observation, so, too, does an experiential approach to religion. For many today – non-Christian and Christian alike – God or the sacred is real because they experienced it.
Tracing Historical Precursors
Though few recognize this, the shift to “spirituality” is in some ways new, and in many respects very old. It holds deep affinities to earlier experiential religious forms, like the Romanticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the New Thought of Ralph Waldo Trine. These various iconoclasts were champions of what historian Catherine Albanese calls “Metaphysical religion” (11) (a version of what I call experiential religion) and were often deemed heretics for it.
This helps us to make sense of why the contemporary period is so unprecedented: it is not that the turn to “spirituality” or experiential religion is in itself new. Rather, what is novel is its popularity. At no point has this religious tradition ever been so mainstream.
One reason for this, as I mentioned above, is that experiential religion aligns more with a scientific ethos. But the other reason is that in our superdiverse societies it is much harder to refute. As fundamentalists have found out the hard way, when you base your faith in the infallibility of a two-thousand-year-old text, modern science is going to have no problem poking holes in it. Whereas if you base the authority of your faith in personal experience, this is much harder for scientists to refute.
Seeking the spiritual in a pandemic
The present pandemic provides us with an interesting source of reflection on this very issue. For, in a sense, we can see the unique characteristics of this turn to “spirituality” in especially stark form.
On one side, there is a demand for increased reliance on scientific expertise, as public health experts and epidemiologists remind us of the importance of relying on facts, rather than feelings. Indeed, given the need for evidence-based solutions to the global health crisis, this is critical.
But at the very same time, the personal crises and emotional difficulties caused by the pandemic force many to go beyond science, and seek meaning in their suffering. Indeed, I would argue that it is the need for meaning that fuels the religious instinct – a fact that the “secular” label we apply to modern societies both denies and obscures.
While the pandemic may demand scientific expertise, expertise alone cannot help people to cope with their personal dilemmas and difficulties. It is much easier to say “there is no greater meaning” when life is going well; it is a far more difficult “truth” to swallow when in the grips of despair or suffering. In short, science is wonderful at explaining the world. It is terrible at providing us with meaning when we most need it.
While religion in a post-Christian West may not resemble what it once did, it would be mistaken to presume that it will soon go extinct – or that it should. As human beings we have a deep need for meaning, which science fails to fully satisfy. What is the larger purpose of this pandemic? How should we make sense of the suffering around us? What are our duties to those in need? And what kind of world do we want to live in? These are questions that science cannot answer – at least not alone.
Our deeply human desire for meaning in a chaotic and unpredictable world is unlikely to be extinguished, however much some might wish it so. And the turn to “spirituality” is not a passing fad. Rather, it reflects a form of religious adaptation – a truly modern religion.
- Steve, B., “Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory”. Oxford University Press, 2011
- Taylor, C., “A Secular Age“, Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 2007.
- Brown, C., “The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000”, 2009.
- Crockett, A., and Voas, D., “Generations of Decline: Religious Change in 20th-Century Britain”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2006.
- Watts, G., “The religion of the heart: ‘Spirituality’ in late modernity”. American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 2020
- Heelas, P., and Woodhead, L., “The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality“, 2005.
- Houtman, D., and Aupers, S., “The Spiritual Turn and the Decline of Tradition: The Spread of Post-Christian Spirituality in 14 Western Countries, 1981-2000”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2007.
- Watts, G., “Religion, Science, and Disenchantment in Late Modernity” Zygon, 2009.
- Drescher, E., “Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones“, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Coleman, S., “The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity“, Cambridge University Press, 2002
- Albanese, C.J., “Republic of mind and spirit”, 2008.