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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Volume 33 Number 2
Spring 2006

The Dynamics of Spirituality and the Religious Experience1

Liesa Stamm 

Religion is the conceptual framework and the recognized institution within which a societyís deep moral values and the rules governing what is defined as correct behavior for individuals are generally associated. Religion is the term most frequently used by Americans and in the popular media as well as in scholarly analyses to encompass the complexity of beliefs and practices delineated by established denominational institutions and framed through defined doctrines, theology, and historical narratives or myths accounting for the establishment of these doctrines and practices. In the past fifty years a major transformation has occurred in the definitions and practices of religion among the American population. No longer comfortable with the constraints associated with organized religion, many Americans are now focused on a more personal experience of religious faith and practice and prefer to define their experiences as spiritual rather than religious.

Although religion has most frequently been defined in terms of established institutional beliefs and practices, the experience of religion and spirituality is ultimately personal and varies in relation to an individualís cognitive, social, and emotional characteristics, as well as his or her personal narrative. Beginning in the early twentieth century with William Jamesís groundbreaking work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, a range of scholars and scholarly disciplines has developed a variety of theories and models to better understand the religious experience of individuals as one of the basic elements of human existence.

The growing concern to promote campus environments that support examining individual values, meaning, and purpose as an essential component of the educational mission rests on our recognition that the college experience can have a major impact in shaping studentsí lives. Late adolescence is "a time of great potentiality and vulnerability in development, when concerns about individual purposes, meaning, and commitment interact with forces of cognitive development, maturation, and social expectations."2 As campuses around the country begin to explore ways to support studentsí spiritual growth in conjunction with their intellectual advancement, it is important to understand the complexity and great variety of individual religious and spiritual experiences and the functions that religion and spirituality serve in peoplesí lives.

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