After Secularization (special double issue)   /   Spring/Summer 2006   /    Articles

Challenging Secularization Theory

Paul Heelas

Of the various meanings which have come to be associated with the term “spirituality,” one is readily identifiable. Spirituality is taken to be life itself—the “life force” or “energy” that sustains life in this world, and what lies at the heart of subjective life—the core of what it is to be truly alive. It is part and parcel with authentic ways of being—as when one hears that “spirituality is love, love is spirituality.”


“New Age” spiritualities of life—or contemporary spiritualities of life—can be distinguished from theistic spiritualities. Whereas New Age spiritualities are experienced as emanating from the depths of life within the here-and-now, the spirituality of the Holy Spirit, the spirituality of obeying the will of God, or the spirituality of experiencing the God-head itself are understood as emanating from the transcendental realm to serve life in this world. Take away the theistic God of religious tradition, and there is little left of Christianity (or theistic traditions); take away the God of theism, and New Age spiritualities of life remain virtually intact.


The key words of New Age spiritualities are “experience” and “practice.” Rather than attaching importance to the beliefs, doctrines, and ethical injunctions of theistic traditions, importance is attached to experiencing the heart of life. Practices are taken to facilitate the inner quest. Drawn from many sources, most especially the spiritual “traditions” of the East, activities range from yoga (the most popular) to spiritual massage (also popular), from reiki to spiritual forms of the Alexander Technique. Enabling spiritual seekers to make contact with their inner depths, seekers experience spirituality flowing through other aspects of their personal lives—their bodies, their emotions, their relationships. To draw on a term that has acquired wide currency, namely “mindbody-spirit,” this is therefore mind-body-spirit spirituality.

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