I’m still not sure why some atheists have such revulsion for that word. The root just means “breath,” as I live and breathe.
However, in broad terms “spirituality” stands for lifestyles and practices that embody a vision of how the human spirit can achieve its full potential. In other words, spirituality embraces an aspirational approach to the meaning and conduct of life – we are driven by goals beyond purely material success or physical satisfaction. Nowadays, spirituality is not the preserve of spiritual elites, for example in monasteries, but is presumed to be native to everyone. It is individually-tailored, democratic and eclectic, and offers an alternative source of inner-directed, personal authority in response to a decline of trust in conventional social or religious leaderships.
Spirituality can mean many things, of course, and the language of spirituality is used by traditional religious adherents as well as the religiously unaffiliated. But only the “nones” have made it into a cliché: “spiritual but not religious.”
The history of American spirituality reveals that our commonplace understanding of spirituality—as the individual, experiential dimension of human encounter with the sacred—arose from the clash of American Protestantism with the forces of modern life in the nineteenth century. While religious conservatives fought to stem the tide, giving rise to fundamentalism, religious liberals adapted their faith to modernity, often by discarding orthodoxies in favor of Darwinism, psychology, and comparative religions.
The majority of today’s religious “nones”—those who claim no religion but still embrace spirituality—are engaged in the same task of renovating their faith for a new historical moment. And typically, they draw from this same liberal religious toolkit. Today’s unaffiliated, like the liberals of previous generations, typically shun dogma and creed in favor of a faith that is practical, psychologically attuned, ecumenical—even cosmopolitan—and ethically oriented.
This liberal spirituality, as it has evolved over time, has been deeply entwined with media-oriented consumerism. Of course Americans of all religious varieties have been deeply influenced by consumerism, but media and markets have particularly shaped the religious lives of those without formal institutional or community ties. The religiously unaffiliated might not attend services, but they “do” their religion in many other ways: they watch religion on TV and listen to it on the radio; find inspiration on the web; attend retreats, seminars, workshops, and classes; buy candles and statues, bumper stickers and yoga pants; take spiritually motivated trips; and, perhaps most significantly, buy and read books.
So, perhaps we can say that “spirituality” is the perennial religious impulse, formerly an organic outgrowth of traditional community and kin, now refracted through the prism of individualistic, market-dominated, globalized consumerism. I’m not saying that like it’s good or bad; it is what it is. The times, they done a-changed. But whether you buy your beliefs via an independent bookstore or inherit them with your family name, complacency is always the danger to guard against, the cataract growing over your third eye, which is why, to answer Oliver’s excerpt with Hedstrom’s, I have such revulsion for the term: because being “spiritual” has itself become a thoughtless cliché that means everything and nothing simultaneously.