What does it Mean to Study Spirituality?

Galen Watts
PhD Student, Cultural Studies

This is a question I keep coming back to.

More Canadians than ever before identify as “spiritual” as opposed to “religious,” and talk of “spirituality” is becoming increasingly prevalent in mainstream discourse.

In 2014 I decided to devote my time and energy to figuring out what spurred this shift in the religious and cultural landscapes, and what precisely “spirituality” means.

Up to now I’ve interviewed thirty-three Canadian millennials (aged 18-36) who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious,” some of whom I have interviewed up to three times over the course of three years.

I’ve learned a lot about the spiritual lives of these young Canadians. I’ve heard intimate stories that revolved around struggles with depression, family troubles, life changing events, and even all night raves. I’ve watched interviewees shed tears, burst out laughing, and speak with a passion so intense it was contagious.

I’ve learned that to study spirituality is not simply to study spirituality, but to study the intersections of subjectivity, society, history, politics, and economics—to study spirituality is to study the human condition.


Dr. Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Postdoctoral Fellow
Adjunct Assistant Professor
School of Religion

The term ‘religion’, as James Miller has pointed out on this blog, is inescapably tied to power. But decisions as to what counts as religion have consequences. These decisions cause some groups to become eligible for tax-exempt status (but not others) and some individuals benefit from constitutional protections of religious freedom (but not others).

Religious Studies presents itself as a neutral scientific investigation of a particular object of study: religion. Yet in grouping some individuals, practices, and institutions under the label ‘religion’ while excluding others, we scholars participate in a normative project. We adjudicate. We help determine which individuals and institutions merit the label ‘religion’ and which do not. In other words, the academic study of religion involves a process of religionization.

Religionization is perhaps unavoidable. I religionize each time I include a particular object, practice, or institutiojn in my syllabi. But I hope I have been successful in reframing the guiding question in my courses away from ‘what is religion?’ and toward ‘why does this count as religion?’ and its corollary, ‘why doesn’t this?’


What Counts as Non-Religious?

James Kwateng-Yeboah
School of Religion MA Student

What counts as non-religious or spiritual-but-not-religious? Who decides the designation of these terms? Are they self-defined representations or scholarly constructs? How useful are these terms, given their largely Western and Christian-influenced heritage?

In recent years, the number of people who answer ‘no religion’ to the question ‘what is your religion?’ has increased stupendously. I do not intend to fully problematize these categories here; nevertheless, I am of the view that the terms non-religious and/or spiritual-but-not-religious (1) evoke theoretical concerns, (2) have political implications, and (3) concern matters of societal well-being. Theoretically, are the “nones” meaningfully non-religious or simply indifferent to matters of religion? Politically, who decides the meaning of these terms? The highly trained scholar with his/her linguistic and theoretical tools? Or the ordinary people, who are in touch with their everyday experiences, the very subjects of the phenomenon? Or both? From a societal concern, how does the ethos engendered in the non-religious/spiritual-but-not-religious contribute to pro-social behaviour or societal well-being? In sum, understanding ‘religion’ is necessarily incomplete if the meaning of non-religion is neglected.

Is Secularism a Form of Christian Proselytization?

Ruth Chitiz
School of Religion MA Student

Secularism involves separating governmental institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious ones. Within a Western context, secularism works because of Christianity: the Protestant Reformation was central to the development of both the nonreligious state system and Western legal traditions. Secularism has become synonymous with modernization and progressivism and this insulates secularity from critique. This false notion of a universal secularism has caused the West to demand other parts of the world to follow suit.

The problem is that secularism does not make sense in parts of the world that were not historically Christianized. The fact that secularism is not necessarily compatible with Islam, for instance, in the same way as it is with Christianity suggest that the Middle East’s hesitance toward and occasional outright rejection of secularism has less to do with an anti-Western mentality and more to do with a rejection of Christianity. Because secularism’s ideological tenets are directly incompatible with the union of religious Islam (shari’a) and political sovereignty in the Muslim world, perhaps secularism is in fact Christian proselytization.

Defining Moments

Dr. James Miller
Professor of Chinese Religions, School of Religion
Director of Cultural Studies
Queen’s University

Everyone who takes an undergraduate class in religion quickly learns that there is no one way to define religion.

Everyone who takes a graduate class in religion quickly learns that this is because classifying activities as religious or non-religious is an inescapably political task that people use to assert certain kinds of power or authority over others.

Everyone who becomes a professor of religion is fated eventually to forget what they have learned and to offer their own definition of religion.

So here is mine.

Religion is mass cultural habit oriented towards death.

It is mass, because it forms into social movements not just private spiritualities. It is cultural, because it is expressed through movement, art, song and dance. It is a habit because it seeks to engrain itself in patterns of life and reproduce itself from one generation to the next. And it is oriented towards the death of animals, humans, and the world itself.

From these four characteristics flow everything associated with religion: beliefs, rituals, customs, gods, ancestors, worldviews, violence, and community.

On Ancient Sexuality and Modern Identity

Jacob DesRochers
School of Religion MA Student

My current research examines how ancient Near Eastern laws and narratives related to sexuality are evidence of a variety of different constructions of sexuality and masculinity in first millennium BCE Israel. By mapping the history of masculinity in the ancient Near East, I wish to examine how the terrain of modern Jewish masculinities has been shaped by the sexual mores of ancient Israel. I am interested in how we interpret masculine sexual norms within the context of the ancient Near East and in the communities of the priestly authors and how these ‘masculine norms’ become manifest in modern Jewish identities.

In particular my research will ask what boundaries are placed upon a Jewish male’s sexual identity and interactions and how do these anxieties create modern Jewish masculinities. Rather than viewing sexuality as a constituent element of gender identity, I am asking how various sexualities; such as class, racially specific, and gendered sexualities, influence our understanding of modern hegemonic and marginalized masculinities. The task is to go back to the past to engage with the present.