Sociology of Religion @ UTSC: Job Talk

When and Where

Thursday, March 02, 2023 9:30 am to 11:00 am
Room 240
725 Spadina Ave, Toronto ON M5S 2J4


Galen Watts


Presentation Title: The Spiritual Turn: From Civil Religion to Selfish Spirituality? 

North Americans and Western Europeans increasingly identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Secularization theorists argue that “spirituality” lacks cultural coherence, thereby signalling religious decline. In line with this, critical commentators contend the shift from “religion” to “spirituality” marks the corrosion of character and the demise of community. In this research talk, I present material from my just published book, The Spiritual Turn (Oxford University Press, 2022), which challenges these claims. Contra secularization theorists, I argue the shift from “religion” to “spirituality” reflects the rise of an enduring cultural structure in Western modernity. And against those who view “spirituality” as incapable of fostering moral commitment and community, I leverage 12-months of participant observation at an LGBTQ+ Twelve-Step group in downtown Toronto, to demonstrate why this is mistaken. More specifically, applying tools from cultural sociology, I show how the individualistic rhetoric characteristic of “spirituality” can actually conceal how communal it is in practice. I conclude with brief reflections on what this reveals about the public and political significance of “spirituality.”

Galen Watts is an FWO Junior Postdoctoral Fellow at KU Leuven's Centre for Sociological Research (CeSO). Between 2020-2022, he was a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow based jointly at CeSO and U of T's Department for the Study of Religion. He completed his PhD at Queen's University in 2020. His first book, The Spiritual Turn: The Religion of the Heart and the Making of Romantic Liberal Modernity, was published by Oxford University Press in Fall 2022. You can find out more about him and his research at

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725 Spadina Ave, Toronto ON M5S 2J4