With Linda Woodhead and Stefania Palmisano – Women between Religion and Spirituality, 12 December in Padova

logo_engOn Monday I spoke on ‘Spiritualities of Women Religious Peacebuilders: Mapping a Research Agenda,’ at an international workshop on ‘Women between Religion and Spirituality’, at the Human Rights Centre, University of Padova, Italy.

Giuseppe Giordan organised and moderated the event, which included papers by Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University) on ‘Religion, Spirituality and ‘No Religion’,’ and Stefania Palmisano (Università di Torino) on ‘Gender, Religion, and Spirituality in Italy.’

While the papers engaged with complementary themes, they also included diverse perspectives on the UK, Italy, and the island of Ireland – a dynamic which informed and broadened conversation.

Linda Woodhead – Religion, Spirituality and ‘No Religion’

Woodhead’s recent research on ‘nones’ – those who say they have ‘no religion’ – in the UK has revealed that there are now more people of ‘no religion’ than people who identify as Christian in Britain. She is well-known for her 2005 co-authored book with Paul Heelas, The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality, which included an in-depth study of the practice of Christianity and alternative spiritualities in Kendal, northwest England. The Spiritual Revolution predicted that ‘spirituality’, particularly ‘alternative spiritualities’ would increase, at the expense of Christianity), equaling Christianity by mid-century.

Woodhead revisited her Kendal research in light of her more recent work, noting that while it was possible to empirically measure the decline of Christianity, it was more difficult to chart an increase in ‘spirituality.’ In part, this is because spirituality is such a slippery concept, and can’t be measured with the conventional tools used by sociologists of religion, such as adherence to particular beliefs or practices, like attending services or events.

Woodhead said that in the Kendal study, the team of researchers ‘looked at spirituality like a church – an organisation you might attend. Now we know you can’t study spirituality solely in this way – it is turning up in schools, in health care, in general society – and has become mainstream. Spirituality is now so mainstream in the UK that it is hard to measure or recognise.’

As an example of the mainstreaming of spirituality, she cited a primary school in Kendal which has now begun using the language of ‘spirituality’ to describe its values, and has introduced practices such as silence and meditation in school assemblies.

In The Spiritual Revolution, Heelas and Woodhead had also noted that alternative spiritualities were primarily practiced by women, and predicted that they would only grow if men became more interested.

Woodhead explained that men have become involved in the process of the mainstreaming of spirituality, particularly through the ‘mindfulness’ movement, which seems to have appealed to men in ways that other spiritual practices like yoga do not. At the same time, men might not describe the practice of mindfulness as an ‘alternative spirituality’.

Woodhead said that the increased usage of the term the ‘the anthropocene’ by scientists and journalists to describe the current era as one in which the fate of humanity is bound up with nature and climate change is another sign of the mainstreaming of spirituality. Use of the term anthropocene echoes the way in which women in alternative spiritualities used the term ‘holistic’ to describe their perspective during the Kendal research 15 years ago. Woodhead said, ‘Anthropocene sounds ‘male’, ‘scientific,’ and seems to legitimise what was the ‘marginal’, holistic female idea and bring it into the mainstream.’

While researchers may point to such evidence and describe it as a mainstreaming of spirituality, it is still difficult to measure empirically.  Woodhead suggested to approach research in this area by looking at the ways that people ‘make meaning’ in their everyday lives. This may include identifying and analysing the practices they use to deal with illness, suffering, death and injustice.

You can watch Woodhead’s British Academy lecture on the ‘nones’ here:

Stefania Palmisano – Gender, Religion and Spirituality in Italy

Palmisano identified significant changes in the Italian religious landscape which have not been adequately analysed by sociologists – precisely because of a lack of attention to gender. While women have historically displayed higher levels of religiosity than men in Italy (and most other Christian contexts), she reported that this ‘gender gap’ is closing among young Italians (ages 18-24).

Palmisano’s data was taken from a 2015 Italian Youth Religion Survey, which also revealed that 28% of young Italians describe themselves as non-believers (in the UK for this age group, the figure is about 60%). This indicates that a type of ‘secularisation’ is occurring more rapidly among the younger generation.

20161212_145858_hdrIn a table outlining gender differences in some ‘belonging, believing, and practising indicators,’ Palmisano demonstrated how the gender gap between males and females is much smaller than among older Italians. One interpretation of this could be that females, starting from a historically ‘higher’ level of religiosity, are experiencing a steeper decline in religiosity than men. [Click on the table to enlarge]

Given women’s historic role in Italian society of socialising young people into the culture and practices of Catholicism, this could mark the beginning of a very interesting trend.

At the same time, 62% of young Italians indicated that they consider they have a spiritual life – with girls more interested in ‘spirituality’ than boys: only 20% of girls say they don’t have a spiritual life, as compared with 29% of boys. Ten percent of girls and 7% of boys indicate that their spiritual life is somehow regulated by the principles of Catholicism. But unlike in the UK and some other northern European societies, neither a significant number of girls or boys have an interest in ‘alternative’ spiritualities.

Palmisano suggested that if this 62% ‘spiritual life’ figure indicates any kind of ‘spiritual revolution’ among young Italians, it is unlikely to be of the northern European variety. Italian young people, rather, are creating spiritual ‘designer religions’, but a number among them could be described as Catholic spiritual designers.

Gladys Ganiel – Spiritualities of Women Religious Peacebuilders: Mapping a Research Agenda

My own paper on ‘The Spiritualities of Women Religious Peacebuilders’ took a different approach to ‘spiritualities’, framing them not in terms of alternative spiritualities or Catholic designer spiritualities. Rather, I framed spiritualities in terms of the everyday practices and beliefs about the divine or something beyond themselves that motivate women religious peacebuilders. Focusing on this group – women who claim that some sort of spirituality, faith or religion motivates their peacebuilding work – meant that my paper was not particularly concerned with where spiritualities might fit in with secularising landscapes. (Having said that, my paper could be seen to raise questions about how women who are motivated by faith interact with ‘secular’ peacebuilding partners.)

While Christianity and peacebuilding is one of my main areas of research, I am beginning to focus my work more explicitly on women, religion and peacebuilding, and I think spiritualities offer a promising lens of investigation in this area.

I pointed out that most studies of women religious peacebuilders focus on women’s leadership and activism in a way that is divorced from what might be called their inner spiritual life. Pointing to some hints in the literature on religious peacebuilding and my own surveys on reconciliation on the island of Ireland (2009),  I argued that many scholars have not been alert to the fact that for many Christian activists, their approaches to reconciliation are undergirded by deep spiritualities of reconciliation.

I also identified reasons why women have been under-represented in studies of religious peacebuilding: 1) because most studies have focused on leaders (primarily clergy) and institutions, which tend to be dominated by men; and 2) because studies have not conceptualised peacebuilding broadly enough to include the behind-the-scenes relationship-building and networking that women are most likely to engage in.

A particular insight from studies of women religious peacebuilders is that women often demonstrate a more encompassing or ‘holistic’ perspective on peace than men. For me, this provides a clue that the spiritualities that sustain women peacebuilders may be different than those of men.

faith-livesFran Porter’s (2013) research on women’s Christian faith experience in Northern Ireland in the latter years of the Troubles (mid 1990s) provides some indication of what insights we may be missing out on. Porter interviewed both Catholic and Protestant women, finding some whose faith empowered them to address sectarianism, and others whose faith kept them passively resigned and unengaged in public issues. [See: Porter, Fran (2013) ‘The ‘In-the-Middle’ God: Women, Community Conflict and Power in Northern Ireland,’ in Nicola Slee, Fran Porter and Anne Phillips, eds., The Faith Lives of Women and Girls: Qualitative Research Perspectives, Abingdon: Ashgate, pp. 91-102.]

The key difference between these women was their ‘view of God’ (2013: 98). Those who thought of God as ‘in control’ but somehow detached were unlikely to consciously try to address sectarianism, like the woman who told Porter: ‘My faith tells me that he is there and he’s in control, but it’s just very difficult to understand sometimes why it’s all been let happen’ (Porter 2013: 97).

Those who thought of God as in the midst of difficult and traumatic experiences – what Porter calls the ‘In-the-Middle’ God – used this image of God to motivate them to address sectarianism in whatever ways they could. This might or might not have included so-called public peace activism; rather, it could be as simple as making a conscious effort to maintain relationships with people from the ‘other’ side. Forming and maintaining such relationships takes a considerable amount of energy in a society as segregated as Northern Ireland. Many of these women had witnessed or experienced traumatic events and they spoke of God accompanying humanity in this suffering, rather than ‘letting’ it happen.

Porter doesn’t use the term spirituality. But among those woman with an ‘in-the-middle’ view of God, I see the combination of their distinct view of God and supportive networks of relationships as forming the backbone of private spiritualities that sustain them in peacebuilding activism. Given the findings from my own surveys about how women hold more encompassing and holistic conceptions of reconciliation, could such views be integral to women peacebuilders’ spiritualities as well? If these spiritualities escaped beyond their own networks of relationships and beyond Porter’s published accounts, could they constructively inform public narratives about peacebuilding and reconciliation in Northern Ireland? Can we expect to find similar private spiritualities among women in other conflicted contexts?

Due to the paucity of research in this area, this is something that needs further investigation. Mapping a research agenda is only the beginning.



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