Religion and Spirituality in Society

The Religion and Spirituality in Society Research Network sets out in its conference, journal, book series, and online community, to describe, analyze, and interpret the role of religion in society. The network's intellectual project is neutral with respect to the agendas of particular religions or explicit counterpoints to religion such as agnosticism or atheism.

Not that religion and spirituality can, in their very nature, ever be neutral subjects of discussion. In fact, religion is one of the most interest-laden of all discussions; religion supplies meanings in the world. Spirituality is an ultimate source of interest. Religion provides an account of human origins, responsibilities, and destinies. It sets out to explain the nature of being and it creates a framework for interpreting human action according to principles of good and evil.

Religion’s stance is not only interest-intensive. It is also transcendental. Religion strives to reach beyond the lifeworld, grasping deeper meanings that may not always be self-evident in the ordinariness of everyday experience. This much can be said of religion in general. As for religions in particular, the range is as wide as the cultural experiences of human beings.

“First nations” or indigenous peoples practiced a broad range of immanentist religions, including variants of totemism, animism, nature worship, shamanism, and ancestor worship—perhaps, in one perspective, for as long as the one hundred thousand years or more of our existence as a species. Religion, then, was less a separate institutional, spatial, and temporal space than it became in subsequent moments of human history. Religious meanings were deeply and integrally layered into the material and social worlds, thus representing a belief in the pervasive immanence of spiritual powers in natural circumstances and human affairs.

From about five thousand years ago, religious modes took a radically new textual-narrative form in conjunction with parallel revolutions in agriculture, the domestication of animals, village or city dwelling, the invention of writing, and institutionalized economic class inequality. The new religions are rarely unequivocally monotheistic (monotheistic systems of deity mostly have multiple personalities and deified prophets or saints). Nor are they simply polytheistic (polytheistic systems of deity mostly have hierarchies of major and lesser deity). Their key features are the progressive solidification of religious expression into sacred texts, sanctified buildings, and the institutional formation of a class of priestly interpreters and intermediaries. The common modes of meaning of these second-phase religions are even signified at times to the extent of sharing historic origins or exemplary persons and narratives.

Religious meanings took a third paradigmatic turn with the arrival of modernity. Or, more to the point, a new mode of spirituality emerges in a parallel universe of meaning alongside the persistence of the first two. For the first time in human history, modernity provides an alternative meaning system which is areligious—based on mixes of the epistemes of science, civic law, economic progress, vernacular materialism, and human reason. At the same time, atheism and agnosticism emerge as engaged counterpoints to religion.

Religion, nevertheless, powerfully persists in forms characteristic of all three of these world-historic moments of meaning-ascription. Modern, liberal reinterpretations of second-phase world religions recast sacred cosmologies as metaphorical and are not incompatible with science. They perform re-readings of sacred narratives in the light of modernity’s ethical aspirations such as for gender equality, human biomastery, non-violence, and material wellbeing for all. The shift is so profound that these modes of religiously might be characterized as third phase.

Meanwhile, others insist on holding to the truths of second-phase religiosity. In practice, they do this by means of textual literalism, religious fundamentalism, and didactic religious education. The chasm between liberal and fundamentalist religiosity in modernity at times seems as great as that between religionists and anti-religionists. And, to add an original layer to our contemporary complexity, first nation religions persist, and at times thrive, while revivals of immanentist religion are found in “new age” and other such spiritualities.

Today, the search for meaning-grounds can only be described as a scene of unprecedented pluralism. To this, we can react in several ways. We can adopt pluralism as a modern value and strive for shared meanings and harmony in difference on earth. Or, we can regard pluralism as a force undermining the integrity of religion and, with it, the communal distinctiveness of specific religious ways of life—in this frame of reference pluralism is an aspect of modernity that should be resisted.

The scope of this conference, journal, book series, and online Research Network is as broad as possible in the field of religious studies. Together, these forums seek to create a space for the representation of any and all perspectives on the role of religion and spirituality in society. We also welcome a wide variety of disciplinary practices. The perspectives captured in these spaces range from committed within-religion views, to comparative or pan-religious views, to areligious empirical or theoretical readings of the role of religion and spirituality in society. Above all, they provide spaces for open dialogue on the sources of foundational or essential meaning.