The Slipperiness of Spirituality

This quotation sums up some of the difficulties with the term ‘spirituality’… one of my most hated terms:

“It is not always easy to say what ‘spiritual’ means; the label is used to flatter anything from earnest introspection to beauty treatments, martial arts to support groups, complementary medicine to palm reading. Moreover the descriptions of spirituality given by respondents seem to have little to do with the supernatural or even the sacred; it appears to be a code word for good feelings, the emotional rather than the material. Not even a quarter of those from a sample in Kendal, England defined their core beliefs about spirituality in terms that were either vaguely esoteric (‘being in touch with subtle energies’) or religious (‘obeying God’s will’). The rest said that it was love, being a decent and caring person, or something similarly terrestrial (Heelas and Woodhead 2005). A proportion even described it as ‘living life to the full’, on which basis some pop stars might qualify as spiritual masters.”

From Voas, David. 2010. Quantitative Methods. In Religion and Youth, ed. Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, 202-207. Surrey: Ashgate, p. 206.


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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

3 responses to “The Slipperiness of Spirituality”

  1. Gemma says :

    Aww, I kind of like the vagueness of the term. Why shouldn’t spirituality be defined by the person however they like? I imagine that if I were conducting a study in which it was used I wouldn’t like it so much though.

    I do find it interesting that Voas’ tone is not only disparaging of the vagueness, but the fact that it refuses to fit into the spheres he has described (religious, esoteric, supernatural) perhaps giving weight to Fitzgerald’s critique of scholars creating and defining ‘religion’ in their own terms?

    • religionandmore says :

      Hey Gemma,

      Just like I am finding with ‘atheism’ and ‘agnosticism’ etc, everyone has their own interpretations of what this means… but I guess they are all centered around something approaching an academic definition. But with spirituality it does just seem to encapsulate ‘everything’ in a way that defies academic usefulness. HOWEVER, what is academically very useful is the fact that people use the term at all, what it means to them, why it fits their needs better than ‘traditional’ religiosity :)

      Mostly it just pisses me off. I am sure it must actually be useful and not as wishy-washy as I feel it is… just one of those things that gets under my skin :P

  2. Ragini says :

    Very nice article.. more about Spiritualist and Materialist person can be found here

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