by Kristin Aune
How do feminists in the United Kingdom view spirituality and religion? What are their religious and spiritual attitudes, beliefs, and practices? What role do spirituality and religion play in feminists’ lives? To find out, I interviewed thirty feminists in England, Scotland, and Wales, feminists I contacted because they were part of a survey project on the resurgence of feminism in Britain (here).
Feminists’ approaches to religion and spirituality display three characteristics: they are de-churched, are relational, and emphasize practice. ‘De-churched’ means disconnection from church: two-thirds of my interviewees had engaged with church during childhoods, but by adulthood none did. ‘De-churching’ doesn’t necessarily mean loss of faith, first because some remained Christian, practicing their faith through acts of kindness and praying to God but without needing to attend church, and second, because many of those who had been connected with church as childhood were only so vicariously – for instance, attending church-run schools without ever believing themselves.
Their spiritualities were relational: their spiritual choices were made with reference to significant others (family, friends or partners). They were not spiritual individualists. While quite a few who grew up in Christian families moved away from church, their religious approaches bore resemblances to their families’. For LGBTQ feminists, relationships with partners were especially significant, given religious institutions’ frequent rejection of LGBTQ people.
Practice, not belief, was central to feminists’ spiritualities. Religious practice, for feminists, involves kindness to others; as Buddhist Anglican Melanie explained, ‘it’s about every day, the details of how we treat every moment of every day and how we treat each other’. But it’s also, for the monotheists, about regular devotional practices, as Aisha, a Muslim, told me: ‘I say my prayers every night before I go to sleep. That’s just something I’ve always done’. For adherents of pagan or holistic spirituality, practices included making a sacred space at home, wearing special jewelry, and celebrating pagan festivals.
I use these findings to challenge the dichotomy that some scholars have created between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. Feminists live out what I call their ‘religio-spiritual’ lives in ways that belie any purported distinction between spirituality and religion. Drawing on Hall, Ammerman, McGuire and Orsi’s work, I advocate seeing feminist spiritualities as examples of ‘lived religion’, since they exist beyond religious institutions, are grounded in everyday practice, emotion and materiality, and often blend aspects from different faiths. For these British feminists, religion and spirituality are complex, lived phenomena. Some of them saw institutionalized spiritualities, especially Christianity, as restrictive or oppressive. Some thought holistic or pagan spirituality was more empowering. But they didn’t tell a simple story of movement from institutional religion to individualized, or holistic, spirituality. They experienced spirituality and religion in more complex ways than the religion vs. spirituality distinction allows for: religion and spirituality were embedded in their childhoods and relationship networks, even while, for the atheists especially, they were something to define themselves against or sources of family conflict. Practice was central to their spirituality. In summary, feminist spirituality is lived religion.
I believe we should see feminist religio-spiritual approaches as lived religion. While feminist scholars’ journey from critiquing religion to exploring feminist spirituality has taught us a lot about how individuals blend religious and feminist identities, neither approach takes into account the full feminist experience. The full feminist experience includes a blend of elements often categorized as either “spiritual” or “religious”; it includes religious traditions (Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist), such as the singing of Christian hymns or recitation of Islamic prayers, alongside detachment from religious institutions (in this British example, the Christian church). The feminist experience prioritizes relationships as the context for spiritual formation, while foregrounding, as alternative spiritualities do, the need to nourish the self. The full feminist experience emphasizes religio-spiritual practices, not doctrines, but this does not mean beliefs play no part.
If feminists, as the evidence suggests, represent the vanguard of new forms of femininity that later spread to the wider culture, this study shows how the forms of religio-spirituality expressed, rejected, and wrestled with by these UK feminists may become increasingly present, in European and other post-industrial societies. To understand the future of religion we must watch what feminists are doing.
Kristin Aune is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, United Kingdom. Her article, “Feminist Spirituality as Lived Religion: How UK Feminists Forge Religio-spiritual Lives” is published in the February 2015 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.