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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Summer 2009
Vol. 36 No. 2

The Specter of “Spirituality”—On the (In)Utility of an Analytical Category

Chad M. Bauman


Spirituality in Higher Education: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose was the result of a multi-year study initiated in 2003 by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) and supported with a $1.9 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.  It involved a longitudinal study of over a hundred thousand students from more than two hundred colleges and universities.  It is certainly laudable for its scope, for the many insights it offers regarding the religious lives of American college students, and for contributing positively to the debate about the proper place of religion on American campuses.  Yet the usefulness of the study is compromised in significant ways by its incautious use of “spirituality” as an analytical category. 

In the first part of the article, I develop this criticism more fully, and argue that in the report “spirituality” is both inadequately defined and unhelpfully measured.  Then, in the second part of the paper, I argue that the HERI report’s problems are symptomatic of a broader lack of social consensus about the meaning of the word “spirituality,” and attempt to develop a typology of common definitions of the word, both in scholarly and conventional usage.  Finally, in the conclusion, I ask whether there is any hope that “spirituality” can be measured in meaningful ways, or whether the term should be abandoned entirely as a sociological category.  Spirituality is therefore a specter, as I have suggested in the title, because it is pellucid, hazy, both seen and not seen, and also because it haunts and ultimately disrupts and disturbs our ability as scholars to describe the religious lives of those we study in accurate and meaningful ways. 

Having said that, however, I would like to make it clear that nothing in this article should be taken as a comment, one way or another, on the question of whether “spirituality” deserves a place in higher education.  I consider that issue a distinct one, though no doubt in some ways related to the one I am addressing here, particularly since many of those authors who write about spirituality do so in order to argue for greater institutional and classroom attention to the spiritual lives of college students.  (For more on this topic, see Eugene Gallagher’s article in this issue.)      

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