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Religion & Spirituality

Few dimensions are more central to the history of human culture than what - for lack of a better word - we refer to as "religion."  Most of my work is situated in the context of the academic study of religion, but over the years it has become ever clearer to me that this field of research is suffering from a severe PR problem that cannot easily be resolved. During the twentieth century, scholars of religion slowly liberated themselves from Christian theology and began building their discipline on secular foundations. In other words, studying religion for them does not mean advocating any religious belief - on the contrary, it means exactly what it says: scholars in my field are studying religion, critically and historically, not because they are trying to advocate it, but because it just happens to be an extremely important phenomenon (or family of phenomena) relevant to all human cultures.

This might seem straightforward enough at first sight, but the truth is that defining the object of research is by no means so simple as we once thought. The very word "religion" is a product of monotheist, more specifically Christian, and even more specifically Protestant culture: it has no direct equivalent in many non-Western societies and carries multiple associations and implications that are specific to the West. As a result, the project of studying "the religions of the world" can easily (some would say: will inevitably) become a form of intellectual imperialism that ends up perceiving and judging other cultures through a prism of Western superiority. To give just one example, African religions used to be seen not as "real" religions but as forms of magicanother Western term that claimed objectivity but was actually a code for what Christian theologians and modern Western scholars rejected as inferior "primitivism," "paganism," "savagery," or "irrational superstition." While most professional scholars of religion have woken up to these problems, they have been spectacularly unsuccessful in convincing the general public. When you mention "religion," most people still think you are referring to organisations somewhat similar to Christian churches or doctrinal systems somewhat similar to Christian theology; and if you tell people that you study religion, many will assume that you're doing theology and are probably religious yourself. This makes it difficult for scholars of religion to compete with theologians and other believers on the marketplace of ideas; and this problem is made much worse by the fact that although "religion" is a highly problematic category (for the reasons just given), nobody has been able to come up with a viable alternative. Although I have published my own solution to these dilemmas, I have no illusion about the fact that even if my approach might convince some of my colleagues, it is not going change the general public's perception of what "religion" is all about.

Worried as I've always been about the poor performance of "study of religion" as an academic brand, I have begun wondering about the potential of another term: spirituality. Already during the 1990s, I argued that within the general domain of "religion" we might distinguish two sub-fields: specific religions and specific spiritualities. More recently I have been impressed by the outcomes of a large-scale sociological research project that demonstrates how "spirituality" is actually understood by the great majority of people in modern Western society: it stands for individualized experience-oriented praxis. In other words, while religion is associated with organisations or collectives, spirituality is associated with individuals; and while religion is associated with doctrines you proclaim and beliefs you hold, spirituality is associated with things you do and experiences you have. At the top of this page you see a famous Romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich, "Monk at Sea" (1808-1810): it suggests precisely the idea that not just any individual, but perhaps even religious professionals might ultimately be inspired less by intellectual belief in the official doctrines of their religion than by deep experiences of awe and wonder, as they find themselves face-to-face with the mysteries of the Infinite or the Sublime. Of course, the dimension of individual experience may take many other forms too (scholars used to speak of religious experience as the mysterium tremendous ac fascinans, a famous term introduced by Rudolf Otto, but his theological approach reduces all experiences to just one single type of experience congenial to Otto's own brand of evangelical Protestantism), and in this context I have become more and more interested in the relevance of consciousness and its modifications. In my own work as a scholar, I have certainly focused most of my attention not on religions as social phenomena but on the more individualised and experience-oriented practices that are central to Western esotericism. Studying these dimensions seriously does not imply adherence to any universalist concept of the religious experience; rather, it means simply that people sometimes have impressive experiences, either or not in unusual states of consciousness, which may be more important to them than the official tenets of their religion or culture. Studying "spirituality" in this sense seems like a valuable and perhaps even necessary complement to studying "religion."