Characterizing Post-Christian Spirituality
In most of the sociological literature, the concept of spirituality—or “New Age,” to the extent this label is still applied today—is used to refer to an apparently incoherent collection of ideas and practices. Most participants in the spiritual milieu, it is generally argued, draw upon multiple traditions, styles, and ideas simultaneously, combining them into idiosyncratic packages. Spirituality is thus referred to as “do-it-yourself religion” (Baerveldt 1996), “pick-and-mix religion” (Hamilton 2000), a “spiritual supermarket” (Lyon 2000), or “religious consumption à la carte” (Possamai 2003). Possamai (2003:40) even states that we are dealing with an “eclectic—if not kleptomaniac—process … with no clear reference to an external or ‘deeper’ reality.”
Notwithstanding their further differences of opinion, defenders of secularization theory and New Age apologetics also agree on the fragmented character of contemporary spirituality. The former typically deny its social significance by invoking the image of a veritable implosion of religion and consumption, suggesting that contemporary spirituality differs dramatically from traditional types of religion in this respect. Steve Bruce (2002:105) writes, for instance:1
The New Age is eclectic to an unprecedented degree and … is … dominated by the principle that the sovereign consumer will decide what to believe … . I cannot see how a shared faith can be created from a low-salience world of pick-and-mix religion.
New Age apologetics for their part tend to emphasize the spiritual supermarket's unlimited diversity so as to underscore the spiritual milieu's openness to diversity, stressing its seemingly unprecedented opportunities for individual choice and liberty, and characterizing the Christian churches as dogmatic and authoritarian in the process. Illustrative in this respect is the following remark by a trainer in a New Age center:2
New Age is like a religious supermarket. All aspects of religion … are put together on a heap and people can choose what is best for them at that moment in time. And that's the good thing about the New Age world—that nobody claims to have a monopoly on wisdom. Whereas the old religions say “We possess the absolute truth” and “This is the only way to God”, we argue: “There are ten thousand ways” and “There are as many ways as there are people.”
Although, to be sure, neither of those two positions is completely mistaken, both overestimate the fragmented character of post-Christian spirituality. True, today's spiritual consumers sample their personal diets from the well-packed shelves of the late-modern spiritual supermarket, but underneath this diversity lies a commonly held belief that has all too often been neglected. This shared doctrine not only provides a substantial explanation for the bewildering diversity of the spiritual milieu, but also contradicts the alleged “authenticity” or “individualism” of New Agers. As it happens: “The great refrain, running throughout the New Age, is that we malfunction because we have been indoctrinated … by mainstream society and culture” (Heelas 1996:18). The latter are thus conceived of as basically alienating forces, held to estrange one from one's “authentic,”“natural,” or “real” self—from who one “really” or “at deepest” is:
Perfection can be found only by moving beyond the socialized self—widely known as the “ego” but also as the “lower self”, “intellect” or the “mind”—thereby encountering a new realm of being. It is what we are by nature. Indeed, the most pervasive and significant aspect of the lingua franca of the New Age is that the person is, in essence, spiritual. To experience the “Self” itself is to experience …“inner spirituality”. … The inner realm, and the inner realm alone, is held to serve as the source of authentic vitality, creativity, love, tranquility, wisdom, power, authority and all those other qualities that are held to comprise the perfect life. (Heelas 1996:19, italics in original)
This, then, is the main tenet of post-Christian spirituality: the belief that in the deepest layers of the self the “divine spark”—to borrow a term from ancient Gnosticism—is still smoldering, waiting to be stirred up, and succeed the socialized self. Getting in touch with this “true,”“deeper,” or “divine” self is not considered a “quick fix,” but rather understood as a long-term process: “‘Personal growth,’” Hanegraaff rightly notes, “can be understood as the shape ‘religious salvation’ takes in the New Age Movement” (1996:46). Reestablishing the contact with the divine self is held to enable one to reconnect to a sacred realm that holistically connects “everything” and to thus overcome one's state of alienation. True spiritual evolution even transcends the boundaries of this life because New Agers generally believe in reincarnation (e.g., Hanegraaff 1996; Heelas 1996; Rose 2005). Paradoxically, then, New Agers believe that working on the self raises consciousness about the true, divine nature of the world as a whole—it leads to the acknowledgment that “[a]ll life—all existence—is the manifestation of Spirit” (Bloom, quoted in Rose 2005:31).
Post-Christian spirituality, in short, constitutes a basically romanticist conception of the self that is intrinsically connected to an immanent conception of the sacred. It “lays central stress on unseen, even sacred forces that dwell within the person, forces that give life and relationships their significance” (Gergen 1991:19). This conviction differs considerably from the traditional Christian belief that “[t]he truth is ‘out there’ rather than within,” that “the divine is transcendent rather than immanent” (Heelas et al. 2005:22). Post-Christian spirituality rejects, at the same time, the premise of secular rationalism that “truth—if attainable at all—can only be discovered by making use of the human rational faculties” (Hanegraaff 1996:519). As such, post-Christian spirituality entails an epistemological third way of “gnosis,” rejecting both religious faith and scientific reason as vehicles of truth. Rather, it is held that one should be faithful to one's “inner voice” and trust one's “intuition”:
According to [gnosis] truth can only be found by personal, inner revelation, insight, or “enlightenment.” Truth can only be personally experienced: in contrast with the knowledge of reason or faith, it is in principle not generally accessible. This “inner knowing” cannot be transmitted by discursive language (this would reduce it to rational knowledge). Nor can it be the subject of faith… because there is in the last resort no other authority than personal, inner experience. (Hanegraaff 1996:519, italics in original)
As an heir of the long-standing esoterical tradition, post-Christian spirituality can thus be understood as an alternative “third option” in Western culture, informed by culture criticism (Hanegraaff 1996:517–18). Those involved do not pursue meaning and identity from “pregiven” authoritative sources, located outside the self (e.g., the answers offered by science and the Christian churches), but want to rely on an “internal” source, located in the self's deeper layers. It is this “dogma of self spirituality” that not only accounts for the much emphasized diversity at the surface of the spiritual milieu—an inevitable outcome when people feel that they need to follow their personal paths and explore what works for them personally—but that simultaneously provides it with unity at a deeper level.3 Post-Christian spirituality can be characterized, in short, by the idea that the self is divine and by the immanent conception of the sacred that goes along with this.
Explaining the Spiritual Turn
No such thing as “the” theory of secularization exists (Tschannen 1991). Casanova (1994:7) distinguishes three different propositions, conceiving of secularization as differentiation, privatization, and religious decline, respectively, with “the thesis of the differentiation of the religious and the secular spheres [as] the still defensible core of the theory of secularization.” And, indeed, notwithstanding their further disagreements, defenders of secularization theory like Wilson (1976, 1982) and critics like Luckmann (1967, 2003) agree that a process of institutional differentiation has taken place in that social functions have increasingly come to be dealt with by specialized institutions. Medieval art, for instance, was basically religious art; during the Renaissance science and religion were still inextricably intertwined; and today's division of state and church in Western countries constitutes the outcome of a long and painful historical process (e.g., Wilson 1982; Luckmann 2003).
With the institutional separation of the economy, the family, the state, science, art, etc., these realms increasingly came to be governed by their own particular institutional logics (compare Bell 1976). Examples are the principles of caring and nurturing in the family, of maximization of utility in the economy, of pursuing truth in science, and beauty in art. As a consequence, religion lost its ability to morally overarch all of society as a sort of “sacred canopy” (Berger 1967) and the religious domain became one among many, significantly affecting its impact on politics, the economy, art, and science. Due to this disintegration of the sacred canopy, people came to find themselves confronted with a value pluralism that erodes the unquestioned legitimacy of the traditional moral values bound up with the Christian tradition.
The resulting process of “detraditionalization” (Heelas 1995) or “individualization” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002) is not simply the aggregated result of individual desires or choices for more liberty—“Individualization is a fate, not a choice,” as Bauman (2002: xvi) aptly remarks. As external and authoritative sources of meaning and identity lose their grip on individuals, the range of biographical and life-styles choices nevertheless widens considerably:
It is …[the] level of preconscious “collective habitualizations,” of matters taken for granted, that is breaking down into a cloud of possibilities to be thought about and negotiated. The deep layer of foreclosed decisions is being forced up into the level of decision making. (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002:6)
Although the foregoing is by and large agreed upon, radically different theoretical positions can be distinguished as far as the implications for individual religiosity are concerned. First, the “decline of religion thesis, often misinterpreted as “the” secularization theory (Casanova 1994:25–35), assumes that Christian religiosity and traditional moral values give way to a rationalist worldview. Bryan Wilson, for instance, writes:
In contemporary society, the young come to regard morality—any system of ethical norms—as somewhat old-fashioned. For many young people, problems of any kind have technical and rational solutions. (Wilson 1982:136; see also Dobbelaere 1993:15)
There are embarrassingly few studies that systematically map the worldviews of the unchurched, however, and research even suggests that the assumption that secularization and detraditionalization give rise to a rationalist worldview may simply be mistaken:
A diminishing faith in rationality and a diminishing confidence that science and technology will help solve humanity's problems … has advanced farthest in the economically and technologically most advanced societies. (Inglehart 1997:79)
Be this as it may, our ambition in this article is to explain a spiritual rather than a rationalist turn. At this point an alternative theoretical logic comes in, which agrees that the erosion of traditional moral values loosens the grip of external and authoritative sources of meaning and identity, but assumes this to stimulate a spiritual rather than a rationalist turn. The spread of “elective biographies,”“reflexive biographies,” or “do-it-yourself biographies” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002:3) entails “precarious freedoms” (2002:16), after all. In dealing with their newly acquired liberty, late-modern individuals are thrown back upon themselves (Heelas 1995:2) and easily experience this as a burden.
Robbed of the protective cloak of “pregiven” or “self-evident” meaning and identity, the late-modern condition conjures up nagging questions that haunt the late-modern self: “What is it that I really want?”“Is this really the sort of life I want to live?”“What sort of person am I, really?” Because only one's personal feelings, emotions, intuitions, and experiences remain as touchstones for meaning and identity, one embarks on a voyage of discovery to the deeper layers of the self to dig for “real” meaning and “real” identity there. And as we have seen above, this is precisely the key tenet of post-Christian spirituality: the conviction that meaning and identity can only be derived from an “internal” source, located in the deeper layers of the self. We suggest, in short, that post-Christian spirituality becomes more widespread if traditional moral values decline, with those individuals who reject these values most strongly being most receptive to post-Christian spirituality.
The theory of detraditionalization outlined above suggests that post-Christian spirituality becomes more widespread if adherence to traditional moral values declines. Because it is hardly contested in the literature that such a process of detraditionalization has actually taken place—it has in fact been demonstrated by Inglehart (1997)—we expect that post-Christian spirituality has become more widespread during the last few decades (Hypothesis 1). Our theory of detraditionalization further suggests that this spread is driven by a process of cohort replacement—the gradual replacement of less spiritually inclined older birth cohorts with more spiritually inclined younger ones (Hypothesis 2). If the latter hypothesis is confirmed, the well-known circumstance that New Agers tend to be younger than the population at large (e.g., Stark and Bainbridge 1985; Becker et al. 1997; Houtman and Mascini 2002) is not simply a consequence of their relative youth (a “life-cycle effect”), but rather of their having been born later (a “cohort effect”), hence pointing out a process of historical change.
Obviously, our theory also predicts that in particular “posttraditionalists,” i.e., those who reject traditional moral values, are likely to sacralize their selves (Hypothesis 3). This hypothesis is consistent with the well-established finding that post-Christian spirituality is not only typical of the young, but of the well educated, too (e.g., Stark and Bainbridge 1985; Becker et al. 1997; Houtman and Mascini 2002), because precisely these two demographic categories stand out as the least traditional ones as far as their moral values are concerned.4 Our theory of detraditionalization also suggests, in short, that the younger age cohorts and the well educated display highest levels of post-Christian spirituality because of their high levels of posttraditionalism (Hypothesis 4 and Hypothesis 5, respectively).5
Given our reliance on survey data, there is of course no way to prove that “posttraditionalism”—referred to as “moral individualism” in an earlier article (Houtman and Mascini 2002)—is actually the “cause” of post-Christian spirituality. The relationship may in fact be reverse (or, more likely, working in both directions). Although we treat post-Christian spirituality as the dependent and posttraditionalism as an independent variable in our statistical analyses, we hence have no intention of making bold causal claims.6 The principal idea we want to test is simply whether detraditionalization and the spiritual turn are indeed two intimately connected processes. To convey our causal modesty to the reader, we have tried to prevent overly “mechanistic” and “causal” language as much as possible.