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The religion of the heart: “Spirituality” in late modernity

Abstract

In this article I delineate the cultural structure underlying much (if not most) of what goes by “spirituality” in the popular discourse of twenty-first century liberal democracies—which I call the religion of the heart. I begin by reviewing the disparate academic literatures relating to the shift from “religion” to “spirituality,” explicating why the study of spirituality remains both marginalized within the sociology of religion and deeply fragmented. I then lay out the theoretical foundations of a cultural sociological approach to the study of religion, which I use to synthesize the existing sociological and historical literature on “spirituality.” I supplement this synthesis with data from my own empirical research in order to offer a systematic representation of the religion of the heart’s ten core tenets and how they relate to one another. I then conclude with a reflection on the implications my analysis holds for the sociology of contemporary religion.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For an extended explanation of why I call this cultural structure “the religion of the heart” see Watts (2019).

  2. 2.

    I draw primarily from Anglo-American scholarship.

  3. 3.

    For more on the nature of my empirical research see the Note on Research Process and Methodology below.

  4. 4.

    Just a few examples: “self-religion,” “self-spirituality,” “subjective-life spirituality,” “mind–body-spirit spirituality,” “alternative spirituality,” “holistic spirituality,” “post-Christian spirituality,” “contemporary spirituality,” “expressive individualism,” “religious individualism,” “the invisible religion,” “the American religion,” “Marginal Christian spirituality,” “liberal gnosticism,” “spiritualities of life,” “new spirituality,” “panentheism,” and “popular spirituality”.

  5. 5.

    For an extended explication of this paradigm as it relates to the sociology of religion see Houtman and Aupers (2010).

  6. 6.

    This distinction closely mirrors that made by Christina Simko and Jeffrey Olick (2020) between “implicit-discursive culture” and “explicit-discursive culture”.

  7. 7.

    Peter Berger (1967, p. 45) defines a “plausibility structure” thus: “each world requires a social ‘base’ for its continuing existence as a world that is real to actual human beings. This ‘base’ may be calls it plausibility structure”.

  8. 8.

    Indeed, I would argue that any discourse or life narrative which emerges out of the religion of the heart relies fundamentally upon experiences such as these being interpreted as supportive of its basic premises. What I mean by this is that because personal experience is given pride of place, how individuals interpret their experiences is a critical factor in giving credibility to the religion of the heart, and the discourses it makes possible.

  9. 9.

    I have always been struck by how little reference is made within neo-Pentecostal churches to hell or the afterlife.

  10. 10.

    Paul Heelas (2002, p. 370) has noted that the “Higher Self” in New Age discourse, and the “Holy Spirit” in Charismatic discourse operate as functional equivalents—which he calls the “HS factor.”.

  11. 11.

    It is for this reason that reflexivity is such a central dimension of today’s religion of the heart (see Roof 1999).

  12. 12.

    On the distinction between negative and positive freedom see Carter (2019).

  13. 13.

    This is not true of Charismatics; but in their case the Christianity they espouse is dramatically different from the Christianity traditionally preached in mainstream denominations.

  14. 14.

    I address all of the above questions in Watts (2020).

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Acknowledgements

Versions of this article were presented at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network conference held at King’s College London on July 16, 2018, a research seminar held at the Centre for Sociological Research at KU Leuven on February 4, 2019, a research seminar hosted by the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, U.K. on March 7, 2018, and a keynote lecture given at the Religion, Faith and Society Workshop hosted by the Centre for the Study of Islam in the U.K. at Cardiff University on March 20, 2019. I would like to thank all those who participated in these events. I would also like to thank Dick Houtman and Paul Tromp for their invaluable feedback on earlier drafts. Finally, I am grateful to Jeffrey Alexander and the AJCS anonymous referees for their acute and helpful comments, which did much to improve this article.

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Watts, G. The religion of the heart: “Spirituality” in late modernity. Am J Cult Sociol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-020-00106-x

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Keywords

  • Spirituality
  • Religion
  • Sociology of religion
  • Late modernity
  • Self-help