Why Higher Education Should NOT Promote “Spirituality” or “Spiritual Development”

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Higher Education is abuzz with the notion of promoting spirituality, and lots of research and writing has come forth.  Everyone seems to think it’s a good idea.  Lots of different researchers have defined “religion,” “faith,” and “spirituality” in a number of different ways so that everyone feels like spirituality is something we should be promoting in all students.

I disagree.

When people talk about spirituality in our field, they use lots of great terms to describe it: awareness, meaning making, sense of purpose, community, equanimity, consciousness, transcendence, potential, philosophy of life, compassion, appreciation of diversity, authenticity, and the list goes on.  There’s a quite a bit involved.  Some of it, to me, sounds great.  Some of it sounds like a blatant reinforcement of faithism.

The word “spirituality,” itself, is a problem for me.  I do not identify with it.  I believe in no spirits or souls.  This is not simply a pedantic concern with a word.  Many people have defined it many ways, but I have not yet found a way that makes it inclusive of atheists and non-believers.  My concern on this matter is not one I expect to address in one blog entry, but I hope to begin today.

With some help from Richard Dawkins and other research, I am going to begin identifying inherent religious privilege within the concept of spirituality, starting with this post about a large research project simply called “Spirituality in Higher Education.”

This research project is headed up by Alexander Astin and the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, which makes it seem respectable enough.  But… surprise, surprise!  The project is financially supported by the Templeton Foundation, which Dawkins describes in The God Delusion as being fond of supporting scientists who are “prepared to say something nice about religion” (2006, p. 19).

Rather than delve into the whole study today, let us simply consider the article Astin wrote shortly into the study:  Why Spirituality Deserves a Central Place in Liberal Education (2004).  Give it a read; it’s not too long, and I’m about to cite it a lot (all bold emphases are my own).

Before explaining the assertion put forward in the title of this essay, let me first try to clarify what I mean by “spirituality.” Since the term covers a lot of territory and means different things to different people, there’s little point in trying to develop a precise definition. Instead, let me simply lay out the general territory and range of things that the word suggests to me. (Astin, 2004, p. 34)

That’s right, the Templeton Foundation gave almost $2 million dollars to support the study of something the head researcher thinks cannot be defined.  One wonders even at this point what value such a study might have.

You’ll note that in his lovely description of interiors, consciousness, and affective experiences Astin does include “our beliefs about why we are here.”  He then concludes quite ostentatiously:

Within this very broad umbrella, virtually everyone qualifies as a spiritual being, and it’s my hope that everyone—regardless of their belief systemscan find some personal value and educational relevance in the concept. (p. 34)

In other words, “Whether you like it or not, this is what we’re calling it, so deal with it.”  He presumes to tell me that I am a spiritual being, because he knows how I make meaning in my life.  Well, I’m not a spiritual being and he doesn’t.  And then here’s the blatant faithism: he defines “everyone” as people with belief systems.  I do not have a belief system; I have a worldview that includes no beliefs.  In one sweeping statement, he has forced an inaccurate identity upon me and excluded me from the norm.  You can already see that the concept of spirituality is not going to be very inclusive of nonbelievers.

Now, as I prefaced, there are a lot of concepts within this “spirituality umbrella” that I think are great things we should be promoting.  Here’s a full paragraph that I think is just wonderful stuff for us to be considering as educators:

Putting more emphasis on students’ interior development has enormous implications for how we approach student learning and development.  In most institutions today the primary focus is on what students do: how well they perform on classroom exercises and examinations, whether they follow the rules and regulations, how many credits they receive, and so on. And while we invest a good deal of our pedagogical effort in developing the student’s cognitive, technical, and job skills, we pay little if any attention to the development of “affective” skills such as empathy, cooperation, leadership, interpersonal understanding, and self-understanding. The reality of human consciousness, of course, is not simply that we can think and reason; on the contrary, the essence of being a sentient human being is that we can feel, that we can experience joy and contentment, frustration and excitement, curiosity and love. (p. 36)

Rock on.  That’s great stuff.  None of it has anything to do with spirituality.  It can, but that does not mean it should.

Astin goes on to describe what he calls “spiritual” questions that need to be considered.  I like the questions, but I do not think there is anything spiritual about them:

  • How do we achieve a greater sense of community and shared purpose in higher education?
  • How can we provide greater opportunities for individual and institutional renewal?
  • What are the causes of the division and fragmentation that so many academics experience in their institutional and personal lives?
  • What does it mean to be authentic, both in the classroom and in our dealings with colleagues?
  • What are some of the practices and traditions that make it difficult for us to be authentic in an academic setting?
  • What are some of the disconnections that higher education is experiencing in relation to the larger society? How might we better serve the public good?
  • How can we help our students achieve a greater sense of purpose in their academic and personal lives? (p. 37-38)

Astin then claims that “such questions make it clear that ‘spiritual’ issues cover a wide range of questions, and that each person will view his or her [hir] spirituality in a unique way” (p. 38).  Astin sure is stating his view, and he is trying to impose the word “spirituality” to encompass certain aspects of identity development that require no spirituality at all.

Take a look at the sidebar with the preliminary study of student spirituality.  Here are quantitative measures using the word that no one can define, so what do these numbers mean?

…more than two-thirds report that they have had a spiritual experience. (p. 38)

How were they defining those experiences?  What does that mean?  Do “spiritual experiences” that happen under the influence of drugs count?

Here’s the part that really chaps my hide:

Significant numbers of students are experiencing challenges and struggles in their spiritual and religious development.

  • Two-thirds (65 percent) report that they question their religious/spiritual beliefs at least occasionally (18 percent frequently), and a similar number (68 percent) say that they are “feeling unsettled about spiritual and religious matters” at least “to some extent.”
  • Three-fourths (76 percent) of the students have “struggled to understand evil, suffering, and death” at least occasionally (21 percent frequently) and nearly half (46 percent) have at least occasionally “felt angry with God” (6 percent frequently).
  • One-third (38 percent) of the students report feeling “disillusioned with my religious upbringing,” at least “to some extent.” (p. 38)

The context of these statistics is that they are a concern.  We need to help students because they are struggling.  They are angry at God!  They are disillusioned!  We need to help them!

What if helping them is actually helping them cast off their beliefs entirely?

You know there’s a problem when Astin starts invoking Einstein as a reason to support exploring the “mystical” aspects of human experience (p. 39).  Dawkins takes plenty of time to demonstrate that Einstein was an atheist and that his ideas of anything supernatural were merely poetic.  Dawkins also points out, when discussing the “Worship of Gaps,” that “Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious.  Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: it gives them something to do” (2006, p. 125-126).  As we shall see, Astin seems to portray himself as the former.

Astin falls into another of Dawkins’ pitfalls: the “Argument from Beauty.”  He dreadfully asserts that creativity is closely linked to “the mystical and the spiritual.”  Perhaps he is so blinded by his spirituality that he leaves no room for natural explanations for creativity, or perhaps he hasn’t read any of the research on creativity, such as that done by Sternberg (2001).  Sternberg, perhaps without irony, cites Charles Darwin as one example of creativity, but unlike Astin, Sternberg needs nothing mystical to make sense of creativity.  Quite to the contrary, creativity can be explained as a decided application of intelligence in the context of a system.  This actually makes me wonder if Astin is suggesting that spiritual development is so important, it is, in fact, worth compromising cognitive development to promote.

For my readers who have not read Dawkins, here is a bit of what he says about the “Argument from Beauty”:

Obviously Beethoven’s late quartets are sublime.  So are Shakespeare’s sonnets. They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t. They do not prove the existence of God; they prove the existence of Beethoven and of Shakespeare. A great conductor is credited with saying: ‘If you have Mozart to listen to, why would you need God?’ (p. 86)


If there is a logical argument linking the existence of great art to the existence of God, it is not spelled out by its proponents.  It is simply assumed to be self-evident, which it most certainly is not. Maybe it is to be seen as yet another version of the argument from design: Schubert’s musical brain is a wonder of improbability, even more so than the vertebrate’s eye. Or, more ignobly, perhaps it’s a sort of jealousy of genius. How dare another human being make such beautiful music/poetry/art, when I can’t? It must be God that did it. (p. 87)

Point in fact, Astin is not at all concerned with rationality. He invents a new word to suggest that he is, but he’s really still just harping on mysticism and the Argument from Beauty:

While some academics may be inclined to view the mystical and the spiritual as “irrational,” the processes of intuition and creativity are, in fact, more transrational than irrational. The point here is that the mystical or spiritual aspects of our conscious experience are by no means contrary to, or otherwise opposed to, rationality; rather, they transcend rationality. (p. 40)

Really? “Inclined?”  How insulting is that to atheists, skeptics, and academics in general?  Seriously, he just disregarded every point of view that doesn’t fit in with his touchy-feely, self-serving, belief-biased, subjective generalizations.  Furthermore, I’m pretty insulted as a student affairs professional! Are we not academics? Is the standard lower for us? He goes on to say that “inspiration… is a trans- or nonrational process.”  It doesn’t really make any kind of sense, but apparently that’s that.

If by this point in this short article you are still convinced that the pursuit of spiritual development is an objective, inclusive consideration, Astin doesn’t let us down.  He thinks the academy itself should be more spiritual.  He speaks about reformation through great things I can agree with like “communities” and “connectedness” and then says:

The people involved in these movements are natural allies for those of us who would like to see spiritual issues given a more central place in our institutions. (p. 40)

Is Astin a creationist?  That might be too harsh, but his argument sounds a lot like Intelligent Design, because he offers a conclusion first.  Let’s promote spiritual development and then do research to find out how!

Much as creationists limit their understanding to one possibility, so too have those in favor of spiritual development developed tunnel vision.

Perhaps atheists aren’t worth our attention.  Perhaps atheists have no sense of meaning-making at all.  Perhaps we should only focus on spirituality and what that already means to the student, because that’s the ideal touchy-feely student affairs way.  Perhaps atheists have no sense of development themselves because they’ve obviously just given up on spirituality, which is clearly the ideal!

I am all about making students feel supported and respected, but encouraging them to merely pursue the path they were already on seems to me a horrible approach.  It’s all support and no challenge.

That explains why everybody seems ready to jump on the spirituality bandwagon: because we refuse to challenge beliefs or recognize the religious privilege that protects them.

That’s not good enough for this student affairs professional.

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There are 3 Comments to "Why Higher Education Should NOT Promote “Spirituality” or “Spiritual Development”"

  • Shamelessly Atheist says:

    I remember when my wife-to-be and I were taking a marriage class offered by the city and we were split into two groups, men and women. One of the other prospective brides immediately chirped up “Is anyone else here spiritual?” My wife’s first thought was “Where’s my husband?” In my book , spiritual person = flake. Here I’m speaking of the colloquial use of the word. I have my own definition and it does not include leaving my critical thinking skills at the door and going all granola on everybody’s ass. Just about anything the Templeton Foundation funds makes me nauseous. It’s sad to see good money thrown at flaky nonsense.

  • JPR says:

    Hi — I know this page is out of date, but I wanted to make a quick post anyway. I teach a freshman comp course at a Big 10 university, and I’m considering using the text that came out of this project (text has the same name, I believe). One of the approaches we would take with it (though certainly not the only approach) would be a critical one, along the lines you’ve so clearly articulated here. Like you I’m largely sympathetic to the book’s stated goals, though skeptical about some of its means. (I am a religious person, but quite mindful about keeping the border between the religious and the secular clear, especially in the realm of public education) .

    My main goal in using the book, of course, is to give students interesting fodder for critical reading, thinking, and writing, regardless of where they come down on particular “spiritual” issues.

    Anyway, just wanted to say “thanks” for this post, which has helped me coalesce some of my own thinking about how I might use this text.


  • cait says:

    dear Zack ford,
    what you follow is what you follow and while i dont mean to preach or push beliefs on you i personally agree with spirituality in schools and for higher education choices if you do not believe in or follow these teachings then dont take the class or worry about others who do we all have our thoughts and beliefs this is what makes life and the people around us interesting, i was glad to find your blog it let me see that you have a strong opinion just as i but almost opposite of mine. I follow no religion but have a strong spirituality. Part of my spirituality is based on the thought that we all and everything is one , now i could say its by the soul and spirit that we are connected as one but i dont know for sure these things are real. What makes me trust so much in what i believe is that you and i have something in common and it is the strong opinion and drive for what we believe and want and these are qualities that unit the living beings in this world. So why not let those who believe in spirituality learn about it and instead of thinking there shouldnt be schools for an education of this kind , and work to help those who believe as you do to earn an education of your kind. just a suggestion 🙂 We all should have the option to earn in education in the fields we please.
    i mean no offense by anything said above and hope it may change your view even if its a common understanding of what i say .
    thanks for reading! – luna

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