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Keywords:

  • spirituality;
  • modern religion;
  • religious discourse;
  • definition of religion;
  • individualism

“Spirituality” often has been framed in social science research as an alternative to organized “religion,” implicitly or explicitly extending theoretical arguments about the privatization of religion. This article uses in-depth qualitative data from a religiously diverse U.S. sample to argue that this either/or distinction not only fails to capture the empirical reality of American religion, it does no justice to the complexity of spirituality. An inductive discursive analysis reveals four primary cultural “packages,” or ways in which people construct the meaning of spirituality in conversation: a Theistic Package tying spirituality to personal deities, an Extra-Theistic Package locating spirituality in various naturalistic forms of transcendence, an Ethical Spirituality focusing on everyday compassion, and a contested Belief and Belonging Spirituality tied to cultural notions of religiosity. Spirituality, then, is neither a diffuse individualized phenomenon nor a single cultural alternative to “religion.” Analysis of the contested evaluations of Belief and Belonging Spirituality allows a window on the “moral boundary work” being done through identifying as “spiritual but not religious.” The empirical boundary between spirituality and religion is far more orous than is the moral and political one.