Repackaging Humanism as ‘Spirituality’: Religion’s New Wedge Strategy for Higher Ed

Barry Kosmin, Ryan Cragun

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a widespread intentional and strenuous effort to compartmentalize organized religion on college campuses.1 That effort was largely successful. The modern academy has been widely regarded as a secular sphere; it allows religion as a private activity but does not advocate religiosity among its students. This is now changing. There is a major effort among scholars and college staff to push religion and spirituality back into public higher education—one that demands a strategic response from the humanist/nontheist community.

At last year’s twentieth annual Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values at Florida State University in Tallahassee, a noted speaker was heard by one of the authors of this article to whisper conspiratorially to a large auditorium of people: “Twenty years ago when this Institute was founded, the s word was a dirty word in higher education. No one would use it, and no one wanted to hear it. But now we can say it with pride: spirituality is on its way into higher education!” To hide their aims, the participants at the conference used euphemisms to describe religion such as character, values, leadership, purpose, and, yes, spirituality.

The most heavily hyped participants were keynote speakers Alexander and Helen Astin. The Astins, professors emeriti at University of California, Los Angeles, are most famous for their work at the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). In 2002, the Astins (and Jennifer Lindholm) received a $2.1 million dollar grant from the John Templeton Foundation to fund a multiyear study of spirituality in higher education.2 The results of that study comprise their book, Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives (Jossey-Bass, 2010). Their conference presentation was a teaser for this book.

The excitement in the room as the Astins presented some of their initial findings was palpable; clearly, many conference participants saw this work as the culmination of years of shared effort. What, then, is the agenda of these scholars studying spirituality in higher education, as typified by the work of the Astins?

In the first chapter of Cultivating the Spirit, the authors make the case for why spirituality matters. The crux of their argument is that colleges do not attend to the “inner” self; they offer students insufficient opportunities to develop self-awareness (p. 2). Strangely, that this is one of the key aims of the humanities in the liberal arts curriculum is not mentioned. Instead, it is implied that in order to develop “self-awareness,” students need religion (7). The second chapter outlines the methodology. Chapters 3 through 7 look at ten measures of religiosity and spirituality and see how they correspond to success in college. Chapters 8 and 9 summarize the findings and make recommendations, primarily encouraging college faculty and administration to incorporate spirituality in higher education (157).

Though their purpose is advocacy, the authors end up presenting findings that are problematic for their own cause when it comes to student religiosity. To begin with, while they find that about one-fourth of students are “religiously committed” during college (a figure that doesn’t seem to change with the level of study of the student), religious engagement and religious conservatism both decline in college (on average). Thus, the college experience seems to reduce religiosity. Additionally, for those who do experience increases in religiosity, doing so is not correlated with positive changes in other aspects of their lives. Students who score high on the religiosity measures do not do any better academically; in other areas of life, higher levels of religiosity do not bode well. For instance, an increase in religious engagement during college is negatively correlated with students’ aspirations to go on to graduate school (120) and with racial understanding (126). While causality cannot be assumed here, the implication is that more religious students are less interested in advanced study and are more prejudiced, which falls in line with prior work.3 Generally, however, the authors find that religiosity in college does not seem to be all that important. Thus their session title, “Cultivating Spirituality,” as this is the aspect they argue is important to encourage in students.

How do the Astins measure spirituality? Their criteria include spiritual quest, equanimity, ethic of caring, charitable involvement, and ecumenical worldview (see the table accompanying this article). Their measures—and the questions used to create them—reveal that there is nothing particularly spiritual in most of the definitions. “Spiritual quest” means seeking for purpose and meaning in life. “Equanimity” is being able to handle challenges well and feeling content. “Ethic of caring” means wanting a better world for everyone. “Charitable involvement” is, well, doing charitable work. And “ecumenical worldview” is essentially multiculturalism. Where is the spirit in this spirituality?

It quickly becomes apparent that these definitions were not actually measuring spirituality in its widely understood sense as “having a supernatural connection to others” or “having a sense of connectedness to something supernatural or otherworldly, like a spirit.”4 No—what the Astins are describing is basically humanism. If we take Humanist Manifesto III as a typical expression, supporters of humanism have been advocating pretty much all of these qualities for decades (as shown in the table). Granted, the wording of the questions is biased and designed to push more traditionally religious individuals to respond more positively to these statements (e.g., “Being thankful for all that has happened to me” or “We are all spiritual beings”), but the broader idea behind each of these measures is really not that far removed from humanism.

As noted, the real message of the Astins’ book is that students who experience growth in spirituality, as they have poorly redefined it, also experience very positive college outcomes. They do better in college, have higher educational aspirations, are more satisfied with college, have a higher self-esteem, are psychologically healthier, make better leaders, and are less prejudiced. Frankly, this is not at all surprising, partly because, at least with some of these positive-outcome measures, the outcome is reflected in the measure itself: for example, ecumenical worldview and ethic of caring are both closely related to tolerance and lack of prejudice.

But it is also not surprising because these characteristics are widely recognized by society as simply being good characteristics to have—so much so that secular humanists have been advocating them for decades. If you take “good,” positive characteristics, define them as “spiritual,” and then discover that having these good, positive characteristics means you’ll have other good, positive characteristics, then you have, in essence, established that “spirituality is good.” And that is precisely what the Astins have achieved in their book.

Despite our serious professional reservations toward what they have done, we cannot help but recognize both their bravado and their brilliance. The Astins have stolen the most popular characteristics of humanism and repackaged them for young people under the label ‘spirituality.’ They then make connections to traditional religiosity, add a couple elements of superna
turalism, and finally claim these characteristics for religion. Just as explorers from Western Europe traveled around the world claiming foreign lands as the property of their respective monarchies with scant regard for the people already living there, the authors of this book have sailed to the shores of secular humanism, planted a very large flag with the word spirituality on it in the soil, and claimed it for liberal Protestantism and the Templeton Foundation. They have co-opted humanism by claiming it as their own.

Humanists should, rightfully, be outraged by this. But there are two reasons we believe that humanists should channel their outrage into different paths. First, despite the many problems with this study, if it shows anything, it shows that holding humanistic values and behaving in humanistic ways are correlated with other positive, healthy behaviors, at least in college students. In a sense, then, this is validation of secular humanism (though we do think a separate, well-funded study by humanists using better methodology and a humanist focus is really warranted to validate secular values).

Second, this should not be a call to outrage but a call to action. The “college student character” movement has not only conferences and books but also its own journal: The Journal of College and Character ( And it is making inroads into colleges by selling the Astins’ brand of spirituality as something beneficial to college students. Advocates are doing this despite having stolen the values they are selling. Humanists need to decry this fraud but also to move ahead in offering their own products such as books, textbooks, manuals, research, peer-reviewed articles, etc. Some universities have developed courses in “leadership studies” and in “character development.” The readings and materials for those courses are being produced by people like the Astins, not by secular humanists. Thus, students are being taught that spirituality is what the Astins claim it is and that it will make you a better person. If humanists are okay with this, so be it. But humanists should be aware that their values have been repackaged as a supernatural good that is being sold by peddlers of supernatural goods. And this will continue unless and until humanists offer their own source materials that are not only of better quality but also rooted in well-funded research. At present, those peddling spirituality have a veritable monopoly on values, character, and meaning in higher education.

A similar strategy is being employed in the military with the new Spiritual Fitness Test.5 Much of the material for this “test” of fitness is humanist in orientation, but elements of supernaturalism and religion are also being incorporated into it. The religious are claiming territory that should belong to humanists, but as of yet there appears to be no response to these efforts. If humanists are okay with spirituality being redefined as a largely secular phenomenon (in the “human spirit” sense), then this may be an acceptable turn of events. But if humanists would rather see a less-loaded term used to describe the search for meaning, the development of morality, and an ethic of caring, it is time for them to take action.

When an atheist feels awe when contemplating the majesty of nature, just one term is generally available to describe it; it is therefore dubbed a spiritual experience. That term is owned by the religious. Humanists need new terminology (perhaps, a human experience?) to describe phenomena like this—which are, after all, secular in nature—else they will cede this ground to the religious.

What’s more, what these peddlers of spirituality are doing is, in a sense, a new version of the intelligent design “wedge” strategy.6 The authors don’t just repackage humanist values; they repackage them with values that advocate both the embrace of supernatural phenomena and participation in and respect for organized religion (29). Cracking the door open with a spiritual wedge means there is a new place for religion in higher education.

We hope this article will be received by secular humanists and freethinkers as a call for action. Keep in mind, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people working to see belief and faith once again integrated into public higher education. They are doing this by cleverly appropriating core humanist ideas and values and repackaging them as spirituality—the new “religion lite.” This is a large, powerful, well-funded, and growing movement. Secular humanists, how will you respond?


Table 1. Contrasting Astin, Astin, and Lindholm’s ‘Spirituality’ Measures and Humanism

Cultivating the Spirit: Alexander and Helen Astin and Jennifer Lindholm Humanist Manifesto III
Spiritual Quest
Spiritual Quest reflects the degree to which the student is actively searching for meaning and purpose in life to become a more self-aware and enlightened person and to find answers to life’s mysteries and big questions. Each of the individual items that make up this scale includes words such as finding, attaining, seeking, developing, searching, or becoming.
Searching for meaning/purpose in life. Having discussions about the meaning of life with my friends.
Finding answers to the mysteries of life.
Attaining inner harmony.
Attaining wisdom.
Seeking beauty in my life.
Developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Becoming a more loving person.
Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death.
Equanimity may well be the prototypic defining quality of a spiritual person. It measures the extent to which the student is able to find meaning in times of hardship, feels at peace or is centered, sees each day as a gift, and feels good about the direction of his or her life.
Being able to find meaning in times of hardship.
Feeling at peace/centered.
Feeling good about the direction in which my life is headed.
Being thankful for all that has happened to me.
Self-description: Seeing each day, good or bad, as a gift.
Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the life stance of humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.
Ethic of Caring
Ethic of Caring reflects our sense of caring and concern about the welfare of others and the world around us. These feelings are expressed in wanting to help those who are troubled and to alleviate suffering. It includes a concern about social-justice issues and an interest in the welfare of one’s community and the environment, as well as a commitment to social and political activism.
Trying to change things that are unfair in the world.
Helping others who are in difficulty.
Reducing pain and suffering in the world.
Helping to promote racial understanding.
Becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment.
Becoming a community leader.
Influencing social values.
Influencing the political structure.
Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignit
y and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.
Charitable Involvement
Charitable Involvement is a behavioral measure that includes activities such as participating in community service, donating money to charity, and helping friends with personal problems. All three of these activities are associated with positive college outcomes.
Participating in community food or clothing drives.
Performing volunteer work.
Donating money to charity.
Performing community service as part of a class.
Helping friends with personal problems.
Participating in a community action program.
Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.
Ecumenical Worldview
Ecumenical Worldview reflects a global worldview that transcends ethnocentrism and egocentrism. It indicates the extent to which the student is interested in different religious traditions, seeks to understand other countries and cultures, feels a strong connection to all humanity, believes in the goodness of all people, accepts others as they are, and believes that all life is interconnected and that love is at the root of all the great religions.
Having an interest in different religious traditions.
Believing in the goodness of all people.
Feeling a strong connection to all humanity.
Understanding of others.
Accepting others as they are.
Improving my understanding of other countries and cultures.
Improving the human condition.
All life is interconnected.
Love is at the root of all the great religions.
Nonreligious people can lead lives that are just as moral as those of religious believers.
We are all spiritual beings.
Most people can grow spiritually without being religious.
Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.



  1. George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 1996).
  2. Available at
  3. See A. Darnell and D.E. Sherkat, “The Impact of Protestant Fundamentalism on Educational Attainment.” American Sociological Review 62 (1997): 306–15; Bob Altemeyer, “Why Do Religious Fundamentalists Tend to be Prejudiced?” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 13 (2003): 17–28.
  4. See Brian J. Zinnbauer et al. “Religion and Spirituality: Unfuzzying the Fuzzy.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36 (1997): 549–64.
  5. Kenneth I. Pargament and Patrick J. Sweeney, “Building Spiritual Fitness in the Army: An Innovative Approach to a Vital Aspect of Human Development.” The American Psychologist 66 (2011): 58–64.
  6. Available at

Barry Kosmin

Barry Kosmin is Research Professor of Public Policy and Law and the director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Connecticut. He has been principal investigator of the American Religious Indentification Survey since 1990. His books include Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non- Religious Americans (with Ariela Keysar, Paramount Market Publishers, 2006).

Ryan Cragun

Ryan T. Cragun is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. His research interests include Mormonism and the nonreligious.

He is the author of more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles, including several for Free Inquiry, and half-dozen book chapters. His research is regularly featured in national media.

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a widespread intentional and strenuous effort to compartmentalize organized religion on college campuses.1 That effort was largely successful. The modern academy has been widely regarded as a secular sphere; it allows religion as a private activity but does not advocate religiosity among its students. This is now changing. …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.