A Discussion on Spirituality and Religion

Academic, Anthropology, Religious Studies

The notion of spirituality as being distinct from institutionalized religions is highlighted in both Talal Asad’s Reading a Modern Classic: W. C. Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion and in Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals, Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination.  The distinction between religious life and spirituality represents a modern-day aversion to the institutional distortion of the individual’s uniquely transcendental experience. Further, the hope that spirituality should reside within the walls of a religious setting must be forgotten by those who desire a truly individual awakening without the coercive dogmas unnecessarily tied to religion’s doors. While spirituality and religion are thought to work in tandem, the clear divide, and yet unmistakable relationship, between the two presented by Asad and Bender epitomizes the underlying strife of both to seek that which can never fully be understood—the connection with the divine.

In reviewing Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion, Asad gives him praise for the unique idea that religion has no essence or unifying reality that remains the same throughout history. Smith asserts the problem with religion is such that it does not refer to any one particular thing and further, that it does not exist “because in the realm of human affairs it is only persons who really exist” (Asad, 2001, 206). It was people who wanted this thing called religion to exist, to exemplify personal-piety, or the internal, individual relationship with divinity. Religion grew into a structural, institutional form with hierarchies of power made to represent individual faith, but only represented a game dominated by corruption and detached from true revelation. In desiring the notion of religion to exist in this collectivist understanding outside of individual minds and spirituality, humanity made the reifying mistake of assuming a word to be a thing. Thus, moments of divine understanding were transformed to encourage blind followers and worldly apparatuses ensuring taxation and political domination.

Although Smith rejects the cumulative tradition as all external forms of religion, he accepts the idea of faith as “transcendentally personal” (Asad, 2001, 214). Smith’s conception of religion as the worldly expression of faith does not exist because it cannot be reduced to individual people; individual people do not possess religion, they possess faith. Therefore, religion is the product of the worldly distortion of individual faith, which is the true essence of ‘religious’ experience. The distinction between different faiths arises in the external forms of religion (e.g. Christianity, Hinduism, Islam), but remains indistinguishable at the level of individual life. With a similar mindset, Bender explores mystical, metaphysical practices that are all centered on the idea of individual spiritual experiences.

Despite the emphasis on individuality, however, the practices Bender follows, such as yoga, acupuncture, and homeopathy, are all products of the American institutional intersection of science, health, and metaphysics. Thus, while they are each individually critiquing institutionalized religion, they are all their own formal institutions. Bender begins her discussion by claiming the incommunicability of religious experience such that its reduction through explanatory means never quite reaches the heart of the experience. A language is needed, therefore, to communicate the incommunicable knowledge of feeling the divine; explanations of religious experiences are designed to connect to individuals and evoke similar understandings.

Furthermore, this notion of spirituality is unique from religion in that it is unmediated, or created without the help of an institutionalized form, and that the domains of modern Western society remain distinguished from one another. To elaborate, there exist multiple spheres of society (e.g. politics, economics, health, religion, etc.) that are “increasingly organized according to nonoverlapping lines of discourse, rationality, and purpose” (Bender, 2010, 45). The secularization of modern Western society resulted in the relegation of religion to its own sphere. The presence of spirituality outside of the realm of religion is therefore not a product of the institution of religion but of the individuals in the other realm.

Bender goes on to articulate spirituality as the way in which we interpret the religious in the nonreligious domains, within secular institutions. With this understanding that religiosity, or spirituality, is produced and experienced independently within various domains of secular life, Bender pursues the idea that spirituality is neither wholly individual nor divorced from the mainstream. Instead, the notion of spirituality is uniquely entangled within numerous fields and institutions and cannot be understood as “a perennial product of disconnected individuals” (Bender, 2010, 46). Thus, spirituality is understood to be the connection of the individual to a transcendental religious experience while unquestioningly entangled with institutions of secular life, but irreducible to neither the individual nor any one particular field.


Works Cited

Asad, Talal. 2001. Reading a modern classic: W. C. Smith’s the meaning and end of religion. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Bender, Courtney. 2010. The new metaphysicals, spirituality and the American religious imagination. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.


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