Galen Watts

Galen Watts


On the Lived Nature of Contemporary Spirituality

In the last quarter century, a steadily increasing number of North Americans, when asked their religious affiliation, have self-identified as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR). This designation, despite its being everyday parlance, has spawned heated debate among scholars. Polarized and tendentious theories, which seek to elucidate the essential meaning of the SBNR moniker, have been offered, often leading to culturally and politically fraught results. For example, some scholars have suggested ‘spirituality’, as distinct from ‘religion’ is essentially progressive, apolitical and universal in nature (Gottlieb 2013), while others have argued it essentially denotes the co-option of religious traditions in order to accommodate late-capitalism and a Western worldview (Martin 2014). I argue such accounts, although valid, reflect a fundamental error in the dominant approaches to the study of contemporary spirituality—that is, they ignore the ‘lived’ aspect of spirituality in contemporary society. Courtney Bender and Omar McRoberts (2012) argue that a new methodology, which takes into account the genealogy and historicity of spirituality and the social and political contexts in which articulations of the ‘spiritual’ arise, is needed in order to study spirituality. Extending this view, I argue contemporary scholars should investigate spirituality as it is experienced and practiced by actual individuals, consequently taking into account the above factors as well as each individual’s positionality and biography. When individuals define themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’, as well as when scholars offer definitions of ‘spirituality’ as essentially distinct from ‘religion’, they are making implicit normative claims about what ‘religion’ is. Such assertions always reflect a hidden agenda. Thus, in this presentation, I shall seek to endorse the ‘new paradigm,’ as proffered by Bender and McRoberts, on the basis that it eschews the charge of essentialism, and critically examines the lived—and thereby political—aspects of the SBNR designation in contemporary society.


Galen Watts is currently in the 1st year of his Masters in the Cultural Studies Graduate Program at Queen’s University. He completed his BAH at Queen’s in Philosophy and Drama (2013) and is now working under the supervision of Dr. James Miller (Religious Studies). Galen has a broad and diverse range of academic interests. Currently, his research could be classified as an intersection of political philosophy, religious studies, social justice education, and cultural theory. For his Masters, he will seek to investigate the nature of contemporary spirituality as well as its social and political implications. Specifically, he hopes to articulate and analyze how Canadian millennials (ages 18-34) who self-identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’ conceptualize the relationship between their individual spirituality and their commitments, or lack thereof, to social justice issues, such as economic and social inequality, gender and racial equity, political engagement, and non-human animal and environmental concerns.


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