What exactly is spirituality? How does it relate to religion? Are both misunderstood? And what stands beyond and behind the idea that it has all simply been commodified to be about wellness, big business and celebrity? Andrew Singleton joins Uncommon Sense to reflect on this and more, including his experience researching young people’s spiritual practices in Australia, and time spent in Papua New Guinea.
Andrew describes how what has been called the “spiritual turn” emerged through the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s and led to today’s “spiritual marketplace”. We ask whether the young people of today’s Generation Z are more open-minded than their elders – and whether, across the Global North and Global South, people are meeting a need for betterment in the “here and now” through spirituality, but also religion.
Plus: what did Marx really mean when he described religion as the “opium of the people” – and how has that quote taken on a (rather cynical) life of its own? Also, from reactions to the bestselling Eat, Pray, Love to the historical condemnation of female fortune tellers, why do our definitions and dismissals of spirituality seem to be so deeply gendered?
Guest: Andrew Singleton
Hosts: Rosie Hancock, Alexis Hieu Truong
Executive Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Music: Joe Gardner
Artwork: Erin Aniker
Find more about Uncommon Sense at The Sociological Review.
From The Sociological Review
By Andrew Singleton
Further reading and listening
Rosie Hancock 0:04
Hi, welcome back to Uncommon Sense, I'm Rosie Hancock in Sydney, Australia.
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:09
And I'm Alexis Hieu Truong in Ottawa, Canada. As ever, this comes to you from The Sociological Review, and our aim remains the same – to freeze an everyday concept or notion we tend to think we understand and to see it from a sharper angle, to see a differently, more critically and more sociologically.
Rosie Hancock 0:30
Today, it's time to talk about the idea of being spiritual. And what a powerful loaded word that is. I mean, for me – as a sociologist of religion – I am loath to jump into definitions, because we argue about it all the time. But in my personal life, I guess I associate spirituality with yoga – which I did for quite a while in a studio that was very fond of chanting and singing. Alexis, what does that word mean to you? Would you describe yourself as spiritual?
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:58
I guess I'd say so. But like, to be honest, if I'm thinking of spirituality as linked to religion, for example, like before turning 18 I think I prayed like, every single night, actually. But then my brother passed away – as I mentioned, on this show before – and I remember like stopping like completely, maybe out of anger or sadness or something like that. And since then, I've also, like felt desire to commune with something bigger – especially like in difficult situations – but I'm never quite sure what that is. And but I guess like, yeah, it's something that could be like experienced as being spiritual in some way.
Rosie Hancock 1:40
Well, our guest today is, like me, a sociologist of religion, and heads up, he is someone that I have worked with. He's Andrew Singleton, based at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia. And besides spirituality, he's interested in subjects like young people, and of course, religion. Recently, he's researched spiritualism – which I guess you could call a religious movement from the 19th century based on the idea that the dead can interact with the living. And in fact, word has it Andrew even knows his way around a Ouija board.
Alexis Hieu Truong 2:17
Hi Andrew, welcome...
Andrew Singleton 2:19
Alexis Hieu Truong 2:20
And so is that true, what Rosie just said about the Ouija boards?
Andrew Singleton 2:25
Yeah, I, in the course of doing my research on spiritualism, I've definitely engaged in some practices that spiritualists use in order to contact the dead. And so that sometimes involves a Ouija board. So you rest your hands gently on the board, and try and get the little planchette to spell out letters. It can go quite slowly and be quite chaotic. But it does work. I don't think there's a spiritual cause behind it. I think there's a kind of more material explanation. But I've also done table tipping where you rest your hands gently on a table and it sort of rocks and sways, as well guide of as if guided by the spirits. So yeah, it's been a very exciting research project to do that with, erm, my friend and colleague Matt Tomlinson at the ANU.
Rosie Hancock 3:09
That project just sounds like too much fun. I want to ask what actually brought you to the sociology of religion, which I don't know if I've ever actually asked you. I mean, I think it's often assumed that people in our field have some kind of like wild backstory, maybe like a religious upbringing or conversion or quitting a religious community, maybe, you know, fleeing some kind of cult or something.
Andrew Singleton 3:31
Um, if you describe the Anglican Church in the 1970s, and 80s, in Australia as a cult, then I escaped a cult – it gets much more prosaic than that. It was definitely part of my life as a teenager, and it was a really amazing sort of sense of community when I was growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne and my mum in particular, was and still is very religious. And so I was always sort of interested in academic study of religion. So when when I went to uni, I took the sociology of religion with a colleague, Gary Bouma – rest in peace, Gary – and he was an amazing pioneering sociologist of religion at Monash University where I did my undergraduate degree, and I was just so sort of taken by his sociological way of thinking about religion. I became a student of it and did my PhD in it. My PhD was looking about how Pentecostals tell stories about unusual and miraculous experiences, which I found really interesting. But then, after finishing my PhD, I started sort of doing stuff around men and housework – because that was sort of some research opportunities and teaching opportunities – which was really boring because there's only so many ways you can explain why men won't do more housework. I sort of turned back to the sociology of religion with the opportunity to do a project on youth, religion and spirituality about 20 years ago.
Alexis Hieu Truong 4:58
And you Andrew, what do you You call yourself spiritual?
Andrew Singleton 5:02
Alexis, that's a really great question because I do things that people think are spiritual, but I don't put that label on them myself. So for a sense of wellbeing and balance, I meditate every day, I get up and sit on my cushion for 30 minutes and concentrate on my breath in mindful practice – which, of course, is sort of indebted to the Buddhist tradition – and is very popular now here in the Global North. I do yoga about four times a week, which, of course comes out of the Hindu tradition, and again, is very popular – for better or worse – in the Global North. But for me, that's, I say that it's about health, wellbeing, longevity balance – those kinds of things. I don't see them as spiritual. I was lying there in yoga class the other morning, 630, it was really cold. And now we're talking about the eight limbs of yoga, and using Sanskrit names to describe that. And I thought, I'm really cold. I just got to start rocking some downward dogs – can we hurry up? Yeah. So yeah, I do stuff. But for me – in a classic kind of contemporary way – my label was not spiritual for that stuff.
Rosie Hancock 6:11
Well, I mean, I've been I've been really looking forward to this conversation, because there's loads of layers of common sense around spirituality that we can kind of hack away at today. So, you know, first up, perhaps, that it's the more individualistic, malleable, loose bedfellow, let's say, of religion, which, you know, by contrast, is seen, therefore, is kind of fixed and rigid. But second, and especially recently, I think maybe there's a there's a common sense assumption out there that spirituality is just this kind of cynical thing that's been commodified, and is now just all about, you know, wellness and celebrity and big business. And I don't know, that kind of feels like the cool intellectual, hot take on spirituality. So we're going to dig into that later, too. But, you know, let's start with the tricky thing called definitions. Andrew, you know, how has spirituality typically been defined by those sociologists who you read for your work, and how has the sociology of religion made space for talking about spirituality?
Andrew Singleton 7:17
What a great thing to talk about. I guess, the sort of the origin of spirituality lies, you know, religion is its bedfellow. And for the longest time, it was kind of seen as an element of, say, religion. So if we think of religion as being like, belief, ritual, myth, doctrine, community and organisation – they're all kinds of elements that we see in most religious traditions, whether it's the Abrahamic, religious traditions, or even religious traditions coming out of the Global South. But there's also in all of that, like a personal interior dimension to religion. So you might pray, or meditate or dance or sing in a religious context, and have a kind of experience of transcendence, a moment where you lifted out of yourself, either because you connect with the others around you, or because you connect with that deity that you're worshipping. So that that has historically been called spirituality. But increasingly, that dimension seems to be disentangled from all the other bits of religion. And, and so this sort of chasing something or searching for something interior and personal and effective, I think now is called spirituality.
Rosie Hancock 8:28
What about beyond the Global North – how have sociologists of religion kind of spoken about spirituality in those other contexts?
Andrew Singleton 8:35
It's been a real kind of debate – particularly in anthropology in recent years – about the fact that, you know, a lot of what's understood to be religion and spirituality is kind of sort of Western definitions - and in fact, you know, this whole idea of practices that were, were part of community and life in South Asia, weren't even thought to be religion until sort of Protestant and Catholic Christians turned up and said "hey, that looks similar, or that shares similarities with what we think is religion" and, and labelling as religion for those communities that wasn't even thought of in that way. And a lot of practices that we now describe as "spiritual" here in the Global North, actually, are kind of embedded in life, and cultural practices in South Asia, such as meditation and yoga. So in a way, those kinds of understanding that stuff is spirituality and religion doesn't necessarily hold with the way those practices and things are understood in those cultures.
Alexis Hieu Truong 9:33
What you just spoke about kind of like touches on the definitions, like in academia, and theory and so on, but to echo on, on what you just said, about what happens kind of like in the real world or something. And if we turn to countries like Australia, or Canada, we've had what was called like the spiritual turn with its roots, but not necessarily its earliest roots. In the 1960s. is a counterculture movement in the US and so on – it's a culture that was kind of documented by people like Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson and the like. Can you tell me about that? The...and the place of the hippie movement in all of this and how it brought us to today?
Andrew Singleton 10:15
I guess to give the starting point to that question, I recently looked at some data about how religious Australians were in the early 1960s. And one of the things that struck me was, even if people didn't have a whole lot of, say, Christian practice – because Christianity was the predominant religion of Australia at that time – it was still kind of the kind of the touchstone for culture. It's like, you had to have a religious identity, because everyone did, you had to kind of have some nod towards going to church at least twice a year, because that's what people did in the community, it was a kind of focal point for social life. And I think that the spiritual term began in the 1960s, when the young people who were born immediately after World War One, and that so I'm sorry – World War Two – in that so-called Baby Boom, kind of became tired of that way of organising society, because they saw that it hadn't brought that much good in terms of, you know, it had led to those traditions had led to like the Vietnam War, and World War Two, and all of that stuff. And so there's an exploration for meaning and spirituality outside of what had previously existed in Western culture. And part of that was to turn first and foremost, to South Asian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism in particular. And I think that was the start of the spiritual turn in the 1960s.
Rosie Hancock 11:37
Was that kind of like the birth of what you might call the spiritual marketplace?
Andrew Singleton 11:42
Yeah. The idea when you think of the Beatles, when they went off to India, it sort of seems so innocent – as they're there and they're dressing up in that way, and sort of looking for enlightenment – but I guess capitalism comes along and kind of co–opts everything. And so the spiritual marketplace sort of enveloped a whole lot of ideas, and then started to market that to us and sell it to us as commodities that can be accessed, beginning with, I suppose, the wellness movement in the 1970s. And then the emergence of the new age, which is very much about sort of client and product. And so now the spiritual marketplaces, there's a range of options that we can engage in, and a lot of them cost some kind of money, so into the marketplace.
Alexis Hieu Truong 12:29
Okay, so expanding on that, that story of the spiritual turn, and looking even more beyond the Global North, I know you spent a lot of time in Papua New Guinea some years ago. Has the same kind of turn happened there?
Andrew Singleton 12:43
The sort of spiritual turn that's taken place in Papua New Guinea is different and yet some of the elements are quite the same in the sense that people are looking for a kind of spiritual engagement that sort of enriches their life, you know, prior to white, you know, white colonisation, in Papua New Guinea, you know, there was indigenous religions and indigenous spiritualities, which were very much connected to place and land. So I've been in the highlands of PNG and walking with nationals, and they'll say, look, there's, you know, spirits imbued in this place in this rock in this tree, etc, etc. And then, of course, Christianity kind of got imposed on the local culture, and that was, you know, either traditional mainline Protestant Christianity or Catholicism. But in recent years, the religious form that's gone gangbusters in Papua New Guinea is Pentecostalism. And it kind of presents itself as this kind of alive and energetic alternative to mainstream religion. And part of that is connecting with yourself and transforming yourself, and you can experience betterment through the Holy Spirit. And so kind of the biggest show in town now is Pentecostalism. So in the highlands of PNG – in, in the town that I lived in about 10 years ago – there's Pentecostal churches were sort of mushrooming all over town. And on a Saturday and Sunday morning, anyone with, you know, a loudspeaker seemed to be able to establish a new congregation. And it was amazing. And in a way, I think some of the energy for that kind of, that movement was the same sort of drive for a spirituality that's personal, effective and transformative here and now, and not staid. And based on old-fashioned structures.
Rosie Hancock 14:25
It's interesting because we're, that's, I feel like Pentecostalism and kind of charismatic Christianity is such a big thing globally. It's in Africa and Latin America as well, like in the it's huge. And it's doing these things that in the Global North – we seem to be turning to these kinds of spiritual, non-religious things – but this is Christianity doing it in these other contexts. Do you have any reflection on why it's appealing to people in those places?
Andrew Singleton 14:53
I guess the promise of religion in mediaeval times was a great afterlife because life in the here and now was so miserable if you're a peasant or a serf – the afterlife was the great promise. But now we're looking for lives that are fulfilled, engaged and meaningful. And Pentecostalism – in a way – it's kind of a very vibrant sort of spirituality because it, it focuses in on an effective relationship with the Holy Spirit that transforms you here and now. And I think a lot of the themes of contemporary spirituality in the Global North is to say, we're not waiting for the great hereafter, we're engaged now for betterment, prosperity, wellness, health.
Alexis Hieu Truong 15:38
Moving forward, it kind of seems from your work that the spiritual turn we talked about just now has certainly been powerful in Australia – like you've done research on young people and belief. And many people would think that there was rising secularisation in many Western societies. And in some ways, that's kind of true. But your research also found that many young people actually aren't as nihilistic as their elders might assume, and they do believe in something atually, they're kind of like, I think you said like – seekers or spiritual – but not religious. Can you explain those terms and kind of give us a picture of who such young people might be?
Andrew Singleton 16:18
I guess, rising secularism now and broadly in sociology of religion, we might think of, like, rising is splintering in the sense that there's a strong current of secular thinking and secular approaches to life being non-religious. In countries like Canada, the United States, Australia, and other parts of the Global North – but at the same time, enduring thread of interest in spirituality and also great cultural diversity. And now people from all across the world with religious and spiritual practices living in multicultural societies, so that that study of young people was some project I did with some colleagues from ANU and Monash and Deakin University. And we're fortunate enough to be able to do, about four or five years ago, a national study of teenagers and religion and diversity, we call it "Australia's Generation Z project". And really lucky and fortunate to be able to serve a representative sample of teenagers and we came up with a formula for kind of sorting people into different categories. It's kind of fancy pants statistics called 'latent class analysis' – which is kind of my spirituality. And we discovered about six different kind of worldviews or approaches to life. And there was traditionally religious young people – whether they, uh, follow, you know, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism or Hinduism – then a group of young people who blend the sort of eclectic spiritual practices with religious practices – we call them seekers. So there might be say, someone who's raised Buddhist, however, they were interested in things like astrology and other practices that are not necessarily kind of within the Buddhist remit. Then a group who were interested in spirituality but not religion – so everything to do with traditional faith, they they rejected – but they were interested in astrology, horoscopes, belief and possibility of contacting the dead, reincarnation and so on – we call those young people spiritual but not religious – because in our survey, they sort of said – yes, not only do I believe in these things, by the way, I identify with that label that you've given me 'spiritual, but not religious'. They represented about one in five teenagers in Australia, so and then the rest are all on different levels of kind of like, secular, super secular, atheist and so on.
Rosie Hancock 18:52
I mean, I find it you know, thinking about this term 'spiritual, but not religious' that, that sort of came up is one of your categories. I don't know, I feel like I'm Generation Y, and I was talking about this with our producer Alice – who I think is also a Generation Y – and we were talking about the fact that when we were kids, you know, teenagers or even in university, saying that you're religious, kind of like, I don't know, the – I would say it was some assumptions about who you were, maybe wasn't the coolest thing to say. And but calling someone spiritual didn't necessarily, you know, someone who was spiritual was someone who was interested in like, astrology or whatever like that, that was fine. That's, that's benign, right? There's, there's nothing to it. So are our prejudices, you know, still there in the Gen Z folk that you came across? Or are they more open-minded than we were?
Andrew Singleton 19:49
One of the beautiful things we discovered about teenagers is that they're very open-minded about whatever thing that you've got going like that's cool for you, but by the way, do not put that on me. Yeah, I still think that the religious young people that we talked to and interview definitely talked about, you know, feeling awkward, kind of keeping that part of themselves quiet. And in a lot of situations actually go to schools that encourage that, like, you know, Pentecostal schools or Christian schools, or Islamic schools. So they do encounter other young people in like a school kind of way who like them but outside of that, no, it's something that they keep very quiet. Whereas I totally agree that, that sort of looking down on things like astrology or whatever, that just is not sort of subject to the same kind of ridicule, and that, that religious teenagers describe experiencing here.
Alexis Hieu Truong 20:45
Listening to this as someone who isn't from Australia, right? I'm kind of wondering, from your perspective, Andrew, do you feel that there's something here that's specific about Australia, in terms of young people being at ease with spirituality or something like that?
Andrew Singleton 20:59
The research on places like Canada and the United Kingdom shows similar sort of tendencies. The United States is its own kind of thing when it comes to religion, because there's pockets where it's extremely religious and pockets where it's not. And one of the really unfortunate things in this sort of sociological study of spirituality and religion and young people, is a complete sort of absence of really kind of strong studies of places in the, in the Global South. So getting a really strong sense of say what it's like to be a teenager, in relation to religion and spirituality in Papua New Guinea, you know, we just have to rely on small qualitative research that, you know, that kind of broader national picture of research does not yet exist – it does amongst adults, and there's organisations like the international social science programme that looks at all these kinds of practices across the globe – I still think with a kind of an, you know, very Western-centric, understanding what constitutes religion and spirituality, but teenagers globally, it's still a great mystery.
Alexis Hieu Truong 22:04
It's gonna be interesting. I'm like, I haven't really thought about that, but as someone that works on the Ontario side, and that lives on the Quebec side, I know that like, religion has kind of had a bit of a different history or evolved differently in in Quebec, and I'd say, broadly elsewhere in Canada. So I'm kind of wondering also how that might have might be still like, affecting, I guess, young people's experience of belief, spirituality, and so on.
Andrew Singleton 22:31
With the research that I've seen around Canadian teens as they sort of pocket off Quebec because of the strong Catholic influence, which has been, you know, strongly tied to aspects of cultural life. And, and the more Anglo parts are kind of seen as sort of more, you know, the similar patterns that you might see amongst, you know, Australian teens or, or English teens and things like that.
Rosie Hancock 22:55
Thanks Andrew, we're going to come back to you in a minute. But right now, it's time for a word from our producer Alice.
Alice Bloch 23:04
Hi, thanks for listening to Uncommon Sense where we're talking to Andrew Singleton, about spirituality. This is the penultimate episode of season two, where we've looked at things ranging from taste to performance, anxiety to success, you can find every episode we've ever made in the app you're using to hear this, where you can also please rate and review us all by heading to thesociologicalreview.org. There, you'll also find reading notes for all of our shows. And you can search for the belief edition of the Sociological Review magazine from May last year full of pieces that speak to our conversation today. For now, back to Alexis.
Alexis Hieu Truong 23:46
Okay, we mentioned at the start that some misunderstandings around spirituality might also be linked to certain preconceptions around religion, right? So we wanted to dig into that here. And to do that, by thinking around this powerful and often misunderstood quote from Marx, that religion is or was the opium of the people. Just take us back there to the 19th century, a bit and tell us what he meant.
Andrew Singleton 24:11
Um, it's a really interesting question. I wrote a sociology of religion textbook about 10 years ago. And, you know, you have to talk about the kind of the, the old white dudes and of course, Karl Marx, and then you've got to talk about the opium of the masses quote – and then you realise that's not what he said. And then when you say the whole, quote, understanding the context and the quote, The full quote is, he says "religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people". I've actually read that through a few times this afternoon, where it's quite poetic, you know, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions – it's like is implying some sort of social benefit from religion and I think he sort of he understood that, you know, the enormous importance of religion in the society of which he was coming from. And he was kind of part of an intellectual project that was rejecting religion for more secular and humanist,, humanist ways of thinking. But I mean, my understanding of the way he meant that was that because he was talking about the need for workers to rise up, the need to challenge systems of oppression, and those particular systems of oppression were capitalism. And he would wonder to himself, you know, why isn't there more revolutionary zeal? And one of his critiques was religion is one of the things that zaps people's revolutionary zeal because of the promise of like, the afterlife. Workers, that kind of content with their conditions, now, knowing that the great beyond will be more rewarding. And in a sense, because of that, religion is like an opiate – as in soporific –it kind of robs us of what might, you know, advance us and cause us to sort of react and be revolutionary. So I think that's the way he meant it.
Rosie Hancock 24:11
Yeah. So there's, there's a sentence that comes before that starts before the quote that you read, which is "religious suffering is at one in the same time, the expression of real suffering, and a protest against real suffering". And then what you read comes straight after that. And I mean, I find that, you know, fascinating, because, to me, it's, it's, it's like he's saying this is it, this is a legitimate, this is a reaction of people to being oppressed. Like it's in a way, it's a form of resistance, but it's not leading them to political action, right? It's yeah, so, so it's not achieving what he wants. And then, of course, today – the way that that's taken on meaning today – it's used by those who are very cynical about religion and people of faith, to suggest that it's like a sticking plaster or a distraction and things.
Alexis Hieu Truong 26:57
But, like, this is one way in which spirituality gets seen to right – like as though it's just a cover for capitalist harm, giving a kind of false comfort, a way to cope with precarity, isolation, perhaps loneliness, alienation, and so on. Do you get that sense from your own work?
Andrew Singleton 27:17
One of the books that inspired me, that sort of looked at that sort of the dark side of spirituality and how it's sort of co-opted by capitalist interests is Carrette and King's "Selling Spirituality" –which is kind of incendiary book, written about 15 years ago, just critiquing sort of the corporatisation of spiritual practices. And in a way, you know, what incenses me, like when we have workplace change at my university – which seems to be quite common, you know, then they, they'll say, well come to a mindful class. And I think that just, you're gonna wash over these structural problems that are stuffing at universities by I'm just going to sit in my cushion, and concentrate on my breathing. I think in that way, it just becomes this wishy-washy, corporate sort of, you know, whitewash that doesn't empower or change.
Rosie Hancock 28:08
Yeah, it's this like, that gives us that type of kind of narrative around or kind of analysis around spirituality, you know, it makes it seem very kind of apolitical, or just kind of flat-out commercial, I guess. But there's a tag that you can draw from the thought of someone like Foucault, which is to say that it's actually highly political – spirituality – insofar as it's a disciplining practice, like it's a tool that we use to make ourselves into the good capitalist citizen. And am I add, you know, productive ones, when you look at – as you've just said, right – meditation gets taken up across all kinds of different sectors. And, and that kind of, that is a very political project in and of itself – you know, it might not be the one we want – but it is nonetheless this kind of political project. Can you reflect on that for us?
Andrew Singleton 29:00
One of the interesting things in Andrea Jane's recent work around yoga is that for all of the transformation that people declare, that comes from it, there does not seem to be a lot of sort of consequential political transformation. Like there hasn't sort of been a social justice movement to emerge out of the appropriated yoga movement in in the Global North. And I think that it's a stronge critique, but I think it's quite valid. Like I see some kinds of community around my yoga centre, but I don't then see great practices of social justice, that doesn't seem to connect with that – but they're not articulating a narrative of, of equality and social justice at all, I think, I think they're really valid critiques. Maybe because spirituality is so self-formed, unlike say religious movements, which have a kind of strong ethical basis – we collectively agree upon this, and that motivates us to action. Spirituality because you form it yourself, you decide on what it is. It's kind of like it doesn't necessarily then spring into political action, maybe Rosie, you're much more expertise, an expert on that particular thing, but would you say it's more religious communities and an ethical sort of springboard to that?
Rosie Hancock 30:19
Oh, I don't, I don't know if they're more or not. Because I think that there's definitely, there are definitely pretty clear examples of spirituality leading or being or being kind of factored, certainly being factors in movements for social change. And, you know, environmental activism is kind of the classic example. There are so many spiritual practices that are bound up with that. And, you know, you can have debates about cultural appropriation in those contexts, a lot of the time, it's sort of indigenous spiritual practices that get kind of syncretised into different environmental groups. But it's really, it's, it's really key. And I mean, there's also I guess, there's also what's, what's really interesting, the sort of anti–politics of "(con)spirituality" – which I know you've been part of looking at this as well, Andrew, and that's like – I guess that's the flip side of the stuff that I look at that's that's people who are in, who kind of have these spiritual beliefs, but they're being drawn into these sort of conspiracy networks – anti-Vax, Q-Anon – and they get involved in politics too, like they had, they have big... they protest, they try and enforce they try and kind of when legislative change – like overturning vaccine mandates and that kind of thing, like you can't call that not political. I mean, do you think it's kind of worth talking a bit more about (con)spirituality and maybe some of the work that you've done on it here, Andrew?
Andrew Singleton 31:44
Yeah, my colleague Anna Halafoff led to a really amazing project on (con)spirituality in Australia, in the past couple of years, which kind of dovetailed nicely with the Covid epidemic, I guess, (con)spirituality is this sort of this very interesting concept, like a blend of conspiracy theories which exist and have existed for the longest time, that are associated with people who inhabit sort of wellness communities, spiritual communities, New Age communities, and then they, those communities that are promoting conspiratorial beliefs, but also with this kind of metaphysical element. And I guess the classic example of Covid is on one hand sort of misinformation about its actual cause and origin. So the conspiracy that it was, you know, part of a global cabal of elites or wasn't, you know, its source isn't what you think it is, and if you do your own research, you can understand our secret knowledge – secret knowledge is very much that kind of spiritual thing – and by the way, the antidote to this kind of global conspiracy to make you unwell is the health and wellbeing practices that we've got – not vaccination, but, you know, my activated almonds or whatever, will address the conspiracy that is already stuffing up your life. So very, very interesting social movement. Is it a social movement? I don't know. I guess I don't want to stray into your area... is it too diffuse to be a social movement? I think maybe Q-Anon might be perhaps, I'm not sure?
Rosie Hancock 33:20
Sure. I think Q-Anon probably would be definitely I mean, I mean, you know, we're... sociologists of religion debate what spirituality is and social movement theorists debate what constitutes a social movement. That's, that's a, that's a whole other episode.
Alexis Hieu Truong 33:36
Hear, hearing you both talk, and like this, and it kind of loosely relates to this element of misinformation, but also to what you said earlier about the university employers and kind of like the practices of mindfulness that they hope that we kind of get engaged in and so on, right, I think that it relates, I guess, to mental health also. So there are like, all of these practices around, that can be seen as spiritual, right? And are being used by, I guess, employers or life coaches and stuff like that, to kind of bring us to manage our emotions more and kind of like, work on ourselves more for things that are probably collective problems – problem with the structure of work, and so on, right, and that basically just serve to individualise psychologise, right, the, the experiences of difficulties that people are experiencing, right. And I guess that also takes the political out of it, the collective out of it, but anyways...
Andrew Singleton 34:38
That's a great point, though. It's really very astute. I really agree.
Alexis Hieu Truong 34:42
Just to wind back a bit, I'd like to ask you again about like cynicism around spirituality. Some of our discussion just now pointed to some of its limitations and certain practices do seem subjected to a degree of mockery, but there are positive things associated with it too, yes, like young people being interested in yoga, astrology or whatever, I wonder if you could elaborate on those kinds of like positive aspects – and like the gains perhaps – particularly for young people.
Andrew Singleton 35:12
That's really interesting in terms of gain. A lot of the time when you talk to young people who might really be into, like, Tarot or astrology, they often talk about it, almost like a form of light entertainment, but just like to bring some intrigue and mystery and wonder into their everyday lives. But I did a project in 2005 on teenagers and spirituality in Australia with some colleagues at the Australian Catholic University, which was a kind of forerunner our earlier study on spirituality – I mean our latest study on spirituality – one of the things we looked at was how much young people gave their time in volunteering and so on. And some of the young people who are really into, the most into new age practices were as equally likely as the most religious young people to be engaged in sort of actions towards social justice. That may also be gendered because young, young women tend to be more attracted to spiritual practices and beliefs than young men, so maybe they care more generally. Or maybe it's something about their spiritual practice that, you know, that generates that. I'm not sure – is it gender or a spiritual practice, or a combination of both? I'm not sure. But yeah, it's not just, it's not wasn't simply apolitical – it did involve some kind of work towards the common good.
Rosie Hancock 36:35
I mean, like, you kind of mentioned gender there, Andrew, like, do you think spirituality is gendered, sort of, in the way it functions in society?
Andrew Singleton 36:44
Oh, totally. So the people who are more likely to practice, yoga, meditation, astrology, tarot are more likely to be women than men, young women than young men. And sometimes I wonder if some of that ridicule that is often directed towards spirituality in, you know, like "Eat, Pray, Love" and so on. It's kind of like it's a bit gendered. I've just done a whole bunch of research about women mediums, spirit mediums in Australia in the early 20th century – and following a couple of really amazing women historians – Alex Radzinsky and Alana Piper who looked at sort of how fortune tellers they were prosecuted by the police. And so also spirit mediums – women – were prosecuted by the police. And, and it was, like, because these were women who were empowered earning an income, and having a voice of authority in the case of women spirit mediums – because they were hearing voices of spirit and communicating and something... they were detested and reviled and prosecuted, and dozens of spirit mediums across Australia in the 1920s were fined by magistrates, who disapproved of this practice. And so this kind of putting down of women's spiritual practices, I think it's an old story. I mean, it's a very old story. And I think that some of that continues in the present day.
Rosie Hancock 38:09
Well, you've mentioned "Eat, Pray, Love" and that's a very good segue into the pop culture section of the show. So this is the bit where we grab a recommendation for something that you've read, seen, listened to maybe, you know, potentially immersed yourself in – a sound bath, you know, whatever it might be – that you feel speaks to something we've been talking about today, we're going to hold back on our tips and give the floor to you. So you know what thing or maybe a couple of things would you point us to to immerse ourselves in spirituality a little bit more?
Andrew Singleton 38:41
So I mean, I'm a Generation X male, so I'm a sucker for podcasts. And I like to listen to ones that are about all kinds of wacky and weird things. What I really enjoyed is a podcast called "The Dream "by an American podcaster called Jane Marie and she did a really great, she's done a few seasons of The Dream, but the second season of The Dream is about the wellness industry in the United States – and I guess how that bleeds into women's interests and about empowerment, and about capitalism and spirituality. Highly recommend it – "The Dream" – Season #1, #2 and #3, but in particular, Season #2.
Rosie Hancock 39:18
Great, thank you very much, Andrew, we've really enjoyed talking to you today. Thank you so much for joining us. It has been a pleasure.
Andrew Singleton 39:26
Thank you so much. Thanks, Alexis. Thanks, Rosie.
Alexis Hieu Truong 39:33
And that's it for this month. We're back in January when our guests will be the sociolegal scholar Swethaa Ballakrishnen.
Rosie Hancock 39:40
Until then, please share us far and wide with students, friends, family, and remember to check out everything else the Sociological Review has to offer – from our other podcasts, including "Spatial Delight" – inspired by the geographer Doreen Massey – to our magazine, – each edition on a different theme. You'll find all that and more over at thesociologicalreview.org
Alexis Hieu Truong 40:03
Thanks to our producer Alice Bloch and our sound engineer David Crackles see you soon, bye.
Rosie Hancock 40:08