The Rising Culture and Worldview of Contemporary Spirituality

Spirituality as an expression and extension of the human capacity for wonder is a healthy and thought provoking activity. Beyond belief and prior to religious dogma is a reverence for being alive in a cosmic event. And any approach to social development and sustainability must recognize the deep human needs, values and resiliencies at the heart of the spiritual life.  We are in many ways spiritual animals.

From the Integral Ecology Center:
The Rising Culture and Worldview of Contemporary Spirituality: A Sociological Study of Potentials and Pitfalls for Sustainable Development

by Annick Hedlund-de Witt

Several social scientists claim that the rise of the culture of contemporary spirituality is a pivotal part of the gradual but profound change taking place in the Western worldview, both reflecting the larger cultural development, as well as giving shape and direction to it. Its emergence is therefore not to be neglected in attempts to create a more sustainable society. The aim of this study is to generate insight into the culture and worldview of contemporary spirituality and explore its potentials and pitfalls for sustainable development. An investigation of the sociological literature on the so-called “New Age” phenomenon results in a delineation and overview of these and shows that this culture is both a potentially promising force, as well as a phenomenon posing specific risks. A structural–developmental understanding is introduced in order to be able to distinguish between regressive and progressive tendencies in this culture, and comprehend the deeper logic behind the observed potentials and pitfalls. This may serve to facilitate the actualization of the culture's potentials while mitigating its pitfalls, and in that way contribute to the timely challenge of creating a more sustainable society.
Read More: Here

Annick Hedlund-de Witt is presently a PhD researcher at the Institute for Environmental Studies at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. In her work she explores the relationship between ‘worldviews’ (or: ‘philosophies of life’) and the ways these relate to goals and issues of sustainable development, including social-cultural change, individual environmental behaviour and policy attempts to influence these.


Adam said...

I second all of this. I studied with Annick for a semester when she came to CIIS. FYI: Her husband Nick is in the IE reading group.

Thanks for bringing this to peoples attention!

Hannah Free said...

I am so glad I stumbled on this blog. Thank you for posting.

michael- said...


After mythic and conventional religion what? The post-secular...

I know about Nick, some google research on Nick is what lead me to that article. They must make for quite a dynamic duo.


michael- said...


Thank you. I hope you come back and share your own thoughts sometime.


Ross Wolfe said...

All right, I just read Annick's full article on post-secular mysticism and spirituality, and its links to a generally more "organic" and "ecological" worldview. It may seem to some to be generally harmless, but for me the resurrection of the phantoms of religion and spirituality is a sign of the deepest regression. The Left must be purged of these ghostly, false apparitions and made rational once again. Reviving past paganisms and shallow appropriations of Eastern religiosity is the cheapest form of reenchanting the world that capitalism disenchanted.

In connection with this, Michael, I once again sincerely ask you to read my article on "Man and Nature," which argues that only a secular, hyperindustrialized and socialist postcapitalist society can bring an end to the alienation of humanity from nature.

michael- said...


I'm working my way through your essay now. I'm a little limited in my ability to read all the things i need to at the moment. But so far I have read sections 1 and 2 and I'm finding it quite clear and concise, and right on target. Honestly, I can't imagine a single critical remark at this point.

I have been taking notes, and I'm planning to do a three part post series here responding or, more accurately, agreeing with the major points in your analysis. The points you make are so relevant to my own work (professional or otherwise).

I think the only point we may disagree upon will be on the issue of ‘spirituality’. I’ll make my case later on, but let me just suggest that what I mean by the term spirituality is so far removed from what Marx thought of as a mass opiate.

For starters, there is, in my opinion, an important difference between experience-based religiosity and ideology-based religiosity. An ideological religiosity does in fact code certain “regressive” schema into our lives, whereas experiential (or existential) religiosity necessarily rejects, or deconstructs, or lets go of articles of faith and dogma – thereby facilitating a decidedly open cognitive orientation capable of attending to the vicissitudes of material and affective forces. In some sense, then, there are modes of being and becoming that take rationality as simply a point of departure in which to expand and intensify our animal awareness.

What I would advocate, then, is not a revivification of archaic forms of spirituality but instead the emergence of novel forms of human behavior and activity with which to explore our ontological intimacy with (or embeddedness within) “Nature” as such.

I’ll continue to go through your essay Ross, and have more to say a little later on…

Adam said...


I think your missing a central point of the article, which is that the effects of spirituality are multiple and must be engaged in terms of their multiplicity of effects, as they are each rigorously considered.

I would apply the same method to your own work, which having not read yet, at least initially seems to imply that there is a singular "path" towards overcoming alienation and that your suggestions will produce only that singular outcome. This seems to me, regardless of how I feel about your thesis in specific, ignorant of the multiplicity of effects any course of action will have.

Along similar lines, I find your collection of "the left" into a simple monolith to be problematic for many of the same reasons. I read Annick's article to be a push for a pluralism in practice and interpretation when it comes spirituality. Though my opinion is of course biased in this case.

I'll look into it more when I have a moment!

Ross Wolfe said...

Wow, thank you, Michael. I'm very eager to hear what you think of the rest of it. And I'm extremely honored to know that you'll be responding to it at length. The fourth section is quite controversial, so if there's anything you object to I would suspect it would be there. I'm still waiting for you to recommend an article or two for me to read through, or perhaps even repost on my blog (with due creditation, of course).

Regarding the new spirituality, and its possible experiential/existential basis, I can only voice my kneejerk suspicion of any sort of ontologization of reality. In this, I'm really just following Adorno's work from Negative Dialectics. And the thing is that, insofar as the article points toward a post-material, metaphysical and spiritual sphere of experience, I must regard this as a departure from a solid relationship to reality, an ideological excrescence. For, as a materialist, for whom the not only the material is real but also the distorted ideational (mis)apprehensions of the material world, I cannot but recognize these latter-day spiritualities as ideological. If I were to use Hegelian terms, this would represent a sort of second-order subjectivization of the spirit, two steps removed from the objectivity of Catholic dogmatism, and a step further than the subjectivism of Protestant Christianity. The magic of these spiritualities having already been dispelled by enlightenment, a search for reenchantment in the erection of a new superstition cannot satisfy my secular Marxist instincts.

And to Adam, you are correct that I believe there are precious few paths that might lead to a disalienation of human society from nature. Surrounding these few are a plentitude of wrongheaded, ideological approaches toward this same goal. And if I hypostatize "the Left" as a singular, unitary entity, that is because in concept this is what the Left has aspired to be (see Leszek Kolakowski's excellent essay on the concept of the Left). The fact that presently the existent Left is composed of a hodgepodge of disconnected and often antithetical political commitments, strikes me simply as a failure of reality to live up to the concept and its past manifestations. For to me, the absence of a strong international Left (something along the lines of the Second International, but minus Bernstein and Kautsky) is the source for the total lack of the ability to imagine a society other than our own. I truly hope not to come off as a nostalgic, wishing for a return to the heady days of revolutionary 1917, but honestly that was the last time I believe that the concrete possibility for fundamentally transformative social change offered itself. 1968 was only a faint echo of the global upheaval that obtained in the midst of a Europe torn apart by the Great War.

And so ends my Leninist rallying cry.

footnotes2plato.com said...

@ Ross,

I don't see contemporary spirituality as necessarily "resurrecting the phantoms of religion." In an archetypal sense, the symbols and mythoi of "religion" (which is the West is code for Christianity, no?) have always been and continue to be active in the way supposedly modern, secular, rational societies are organized. As Sean Kelly (another integral philosopher who teaches at CIIS) has argued in his recently published Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era, secularization is in fact the playing out of a logic embedded in the Christian narrative. Similarly, the rise of monotheism against pagan animism seems to have been necessary (at least psychologically, if not also philosophically) before the kind of secular rationality you invoke could take root. Now that monotheism and rationalism alike have been thoroughly critiqued, perhaps it is time to overcome the forgetful, future-orientation of capitalism and look again at where humanity has been in order to more fully appreciate our complex, multiple (*nod* to Adam) origins. "Spirituality" will always be with us, because I just don't see how human beings can muster the resolve to maintain the adventure of civilization absent some sort of cosmic orientation.

BTW, I read your essay on Man and Nature and am sympathetic to your critiques of the Green movement. There are no simple answers here....


footnotes2plato.com said...

Michael, I've posted something that is partially a response to what has been said here (in your blog and in comments).


Ross Wolfe said...


I agree that secularization was the logical conclusion of the rationalizing theological/intellectual tradition of monotheism, especially in its Christian and Jewish forms (though I think Islam would have arrived at this also had it not been for some intervening historical circumstances). It is interesting to look at our spiritual origins, but I personally prefer the way that Weber and Durkheim understood primitive religiosity, in terms of a sociology of religion. Their contributions have (in my estimation) not been matched since they were made almost a century ago.

And you are perhaps correct that spirituality will always be with humankind. Yet I am hopeful that humanity can content itself with the cosmic journey of the human spirit in emancipating itself from the forces of nature and its own oppressive history. Still, as you suggest, this might not be enough. Perhaps this is why Aleksandr Bogdanov (one of the major leaders of the Bolsheviks and rival to Lenin's authority) characterized the Marxist revolutionary mission of the proletariat as one of "God-building." This was a major thesis, though Lenin condemned it, and claimed such prominent adherents as Anatolii Lunacharskii and Maksim Gorkii.

I am happy to hear you have read my piece on "Man and Nature," and were sympathetic to many of its criticisms of the contemporary "Green" movement. It is due to be published in an online SR journal run by Ben Woodard and Tim Morton, called Thinking Nature. I am definitely looking forward to Michael's thoughts on it as well.

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