Secularization theorists argue that “spirituality” lacks institutional support and a shared tradition, thereby evincing religious decline. Meanwhile, critical commentators contend that the spiritual turn embodies all of the ills of post-1960s liberal democracies—be it, the ascent of irrationality and subjectivism, the triumph of narcissism and the weakening of community, the imperialism of the market, the corrosion of civic membership, and the emergence of novel forms of social control. The Spiritual Turn challenges these popular misconceptions. Combining cultural sociology with intellectual history and political philosophy, and drawing from first-hand interview and fieldwork data, along with discourse analysis of best-selling books, the book shows that rather than reflecting religious decline, the spiritual turn marks the rise of an enduring cultural structure in Western modernity—the religion of the heart.
Tracing the rise of the religion of the heart to the 1960s, the book illuminates its elective affinities with the romantic liberal social imaginary that crystallized in popular consciousness during this era, and transformed the institutional spheres of Western liberal democracies, eventually giving birth to a new social order—which I call romantic liberal modernity. Then, inspired by the Durkheimian tradition, it presents case studies of three sites where the religion of the heart is institutionalized in a specific discursive form—a Twelve Step group, a neo-Pentecostal church, and a Toastmasters public speaking club.
The Spiritual Turn concludes that while critics may have reason to disparage both “spirituality” and romantic liberal modernity more generally, the reality is far more complex than their criticisms suggest—and more importantly, far less hopeless.
Awards and Honours:
- Winner of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s 2023 Distinguished Book Award
- Awarded Honorary Mention for the 2023 Best Book Award from the American Sociological Association’s Section on Altruism, Morality and Social Solidarity
"This is a very important book. Watts challenges ideas of modernity as dismal and alienating, illuminates the deep traction of Romanticism, and argues that the 1960s triggered a fundamental shift in contemporary social life. Rooted in cultural sociology, this work is deeply historical and replete with richly empirical case studies. It is a decisive intervention into the argument about what life is like today."
Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology at Yale University, and Co-Director of Yale’s Center for Cultural Sociology
"There is still a lot we need to understand about our modern 'secular' age, and about the cultural changes which became manifest in the 1960s. Galen Watts’ insightful and deeply researched book, with his key concept of 'romantic liberalism', sheds a great deal of light on all this."
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at McGill University and author of A Secular Age
"Evidence for the decline of religion in a secular age proves straightforward in drawing a straight and narrow storyline of subtraction, measured by more individuals in each generation reporting they no longer believe in biblical literalism, attend weekly worship, belong to a congregation, or identify with a denomination. What are they feeling, thinking, and doing instead? What moral visions and virtues are they seeking to live out? Here is a broader and deeper account to weigh these questions by exploring the spread of romantic liberalism in step with self-expressive spiritual belief, practice, and communion in and beyond the pews. It tells a story still in the making we need to heed. "
Steven M. Tipton,
C. H. Chandler Professor Emeritus of Sociology of Religion at Emory University, and
coauthor of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society.