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.
What people are saying:
"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.
"Efforts to salvage religion as a form of personal spirituality have been recurrent since the nineteenth century, and Watts brings keen cultural, sociological, and ethnographic analysis to those sundry projects of self-realization and experiential insight, especially as they have found expression since the 1960s. He artfully balances empathy and critique in his pursuit of those spiritual inquirers who tune themselves—both creatively and predictably—to the discursive norms of romantic, liberal modernity. "
Leigh Eric Schmidt,
Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality
"A nuanced look at the modern 'turn' to individual-centered spiritualities. Watts draws on new empirical research to challenge conventional wisdom about modern spirituality fostering self-absorption and eroding communal bonds. This even-handed sociological analysis reveals that although these unchurched spiritualities are sometimes guilty as charged, they can also be as morally demanding and as much a source of social solidarity as their institution-centered counterparts."
Robert C. Fuller,
Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at Bradley University and author of Spiritual, But Not Religious and Spirituality in the Flesh
"This deeply thoughtful and important work draws on classical sociological theory and a range of empirical data to offer a unique insight into the nature and significance of `the spiritual turn’ in modern Western democracies. It should be of great interest, not just to sociologists of religion, but to all sociologists of culture."
Emeritus Professor of Sociology at University of York and author of The Easternization of the West
"Galen Watts covers an immense amount of intellectual and ethnographic ground with great clarity, intelligence, and passion. In doing so, he challenges received ideas about liberalism, spirituality, and the individual; but he also presents a positive ethical vision in critical yet constructive dialogue with such figures as Émile Durkheim, Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor. The Spiritual Turn is an indispensable read for anybody interested in the moral underpinnings of contemporary liberal democracies. "
Chancellor Jackman Professor, University of Toronto and author of The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity
"Written by one of the rising stars in the field of cultural sociology, Galen Watts brings readers on a fascinating theoretical and empirical journey to tease out the social realities and roots of current-day spiritualities. The author takes a bold leap in expanding our definition of religion and to light the way for the next 20 years of work in the field that will be sure to generate much discussion and debate. Combining political and philosophical thought with grounded social scientific research, the author convincingly demonstrates how today’s spiritualities, focused on personal experience and authenticity, are in fact grounded in the social conditions and cultural framework of modern romantic liberal Western societies. The author undertakes a deep analysis into how spiritualities and the religion of the heart are both a product of expressive individuality as well as milieus to curb its excesses in our society today."
Associate Professor, Sociology and Legal Studies, University of Waterloo