Discussion around spirituality and religion are more evident and public in our academic circles and in our society in general. A good thing I believe. A stroll through my Twitter feeds this morning yielded an article about a legal challenge in New York State to the tax exempt status of a pagan group presumably in part over whether they are really a religion and yet another article on this much examined group in our society called “spiritual but not religious” which utterly confused and conflated “spiritual but not religious” with “unaffiliated”. In research circles, there is ongoing debate about how we define what these concepts are that we are going to research. In the US military, there is much heated debate about whether service members should be allowed to list “humanist” as their religious affiliation.

Ken Pargament and his colleagues published an article on sorting out the definitions of “spirituality” and “religion” which was subtitled “Unfuzzying the Fuzzy”. A worthy goal for sure but one that, in this case, is not going to be easily achieved as testified to by the fact that the article was written 17 years ago and the debate seems to go on unabated. As a health care chaplain who has been privileged to discuss these issues with people trying to find the role of spirituality/religion in their lives in the midst of severe crises, I believe we have to be more transparent about the idea that this discussion has some very powerful underlying issues.

These concepts touch a part of many of us that is likely at the core of who we are as human beings. It is a core that is certainly described in many of the definitions but its power is often underappreciated. Even those of us actively engaged in the debate or the research or the discussion often underappreciate the power of these concepts in our own lives. Thus this is a discussion that very few if any of us can be dispassionate about. That is OK as long as we are honest with ourselves and others about it. Good science doesn’t require that the scientist be without bias or passion. It only requires that the bias be acknowledged.

A corollary of this centrality is that this debate is often played out as a zero sum game. That is, if your definition of spirituality “wins”, mine “loses” and, in this case, that “loss” feels like it invalidates a core part of who I am. In chaplaincy, we have long tried to teach students that accepting the beliefs of others does not invalidate your own beliefs.

Yes, there is some fuzziness that we can deal with by good research. For instance, good research on who the “unaffiliated” say they are has already discovered that, while they do not belong to an organized religious group, they often do believe in God and even define themselves with a denominational label. So this is a commentary on the perceived relevance of organized religion in our culture but not on a basic shift in how people see themselves.

I am also called back to the work of Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions on how paradigm shifts occur. Particularly, Kuhn points out that during such a shift, there is a time in where the old paradigm is acknowledged to be flawed but no new paradigm is apparent. That neither/nor is going to cause discomfort that is going to drive a search for a new paradigm. We may or may not be in what could really be called a paradigm shift with regard to our beliefs and attitudes about spirituality and religion. However, it might be helpful to think of it that way to help us normalize these tensions.

As I approach these discussions, it is helpful for me to keep a couple things in mind. First, this discussion is not just a nice intellectual exercise. It involves some concepts that I may feel challenge some very basic parts of who I am and how my view of the world is structured. That is scary and can make me defensive if I am not conscious of the issue. Second however, this discussion can and should produce a “win-win” rather than an “I win- you lose”. Therefore, I should remember to not allow others to make me feel that I am “wrong” on a spiritual/existential level and I should try hard to avoid putting others in that position. The goal for me is to separate the academic and societal discussions on these topics that we need to have from any implication that causes people to feel attacked personally.

George Handzo, BCC, CSSBB
President, Handzo Consulting
Senior Consultant, HealthCare Chaplaincy