Diversity and Democracy

Beyond Spirituality: A New Framework for Educators

Liberal education aims to prepare students for personal and social responsibility in a diverse and interconnected world. This goal requires a focus on the whole student, including the inner development and intellectual pursuits often associated with religious practices. Yet today’s students adhere to a wide range of religious and nonbelieving perspectives. Thus educators often use an open framework of spirituality to help students find meaning and purpose in life while introducing them to diverse ways of living in the world.

As a frame of reference for discussions about religion and inner development, spirituality can appear to be all-inclusive. Yet students and faculty interpret “spirituality” in different ways. Some students see spirituality as primarily concerned with religion. For other students, spirituality invokes inner development or existential well-being. For yet a third group, spirituality is not a relevant concept at all. Without a standard definition, students, faculty, and staff will find themselves talking past each other when attempting meaningful conversations about difference.

Moreover, an “all-inclusive” definition actually conflates two separate terms: religion and psycho-social development. Because of the conflicts associated with the term “spirituality,” we believe it is time to retire the spirituality framework and address these two components separately. In doing so, we hope to provide learning opportunities that include students of all traditions and perspectives, providing these students with the tools to live in a world whose complexity is as unavoidable as the spirituality framework’s internal tensions.

Unintentional Biases

Educators often mean to be inclusive when using the spirituality framework. Yet in discussions of spirituality, they may default to religious paradigms, injecting unintended bias into the curriculum and co-curriculum.

Among the dominant religious paradigms in the United States are those centered in Christian privilege. Christian privilege appears in many forms on college campuses: in the structure of academic calendars, in the existence of physical facilities for worship, even in dining options that rarely provide the vegetarian, kosher, or halal foods required by some religions (Seifert 2007). When educators unselfconsciously interpret “spirituality” in terms of the Christian traditions, they enact Christian privilege and alienate students of other faiths and non-beliefs.

Similarly, “religious privilege” operates even on campuses critiqued for being “too secular.” Many in the United States often assume that religious individuals are morally superior (forgiving, kind, etc.). Yet five to ten percent of Americans follow no religious tradition, and these students find their values and morals questioned (Nash 2003). Religious privilege also appears in the assumption that religion is essential to everyone’s life. Even those who intend spirituality to be an inclusive term often assume that all students believe in something like religion, even if not a western “god.”

These and other biases in the spirituality framework can alienate students across the spectrum of religious and spiritual identities. The dominant spiritual development model used by student affairs professionals is grounded in cognitive development theory and may not accurately reflect the spiritual development of students of color (Watt, 2003). Many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students have had mixed or painful experiences with religion (Love, Bock, Jannarone, and Richardson 2005) (we know one student who described his experiences as “spiritual violence”). Furthermore, many students of traditional religious perspectives may feel that the spirituality framework trivializes their own religious beliefs by “hiding” religion under its inclusive umbrella. By moving beyond the spirituality framework, we reach out to these students and more fully address the range of their experiences.

Beyond Spirituality

Moving beyond the spirituality framework allows educators to create intentional and inclusive opportunities for students to find purpose and meaning in life. Students need opportunities to develop both their knowledge of diverse religious traditions and their existential well-being. By providing these opportunities, institutions of higher education will address the aims of the spirituality framework in a way that includes all students, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs.

As this issue of Diversity & Democracy demonstrates, conversations about diverse religious perspectives on campus have already begun. The Society for Values in Higher Education (2006) provides excellent arguments and recommendations for addressing religious pluralism on campus. These efforts should take place in a context where faculty, administrators, and religious personnel purposefully include voices of all religious persuasions, including nonbelief.

Yet the question remains: How can educators best encourage students’ inner development? The answer may lie in the traditions of liberal education. Liberal education encourages inclusive opportunities for students to develop holistically, fosters critical thinking, and produces robust dialogues among diverse communities as students pursue purpose, meaning, and belonging. Yet it does not exclude conversation about religious difference, which deeply informs personal and political relationships in the United States and in the global community. Student affairs educators also come from a long tradition of holistic student development focused on knowing oneself, exploring values and ethics, and developing authentic interpersonal relationships. They support the work of liberal education beyond the classroom and are likely partners for this type of work. Through the inner development framework, we can cultivate an environment that is more inclusive for all students, regardless of their religious perspectives or lack thereof.

Letting go of a spirituality framework requires open spaces for dialogue. It also requires educators to ensure that their institutions value multiple religious, nonreligious, and nonbelieving perspectives. By distinguishing between religion and inner development, we argue for inner development independent of religion, and for religious inquiry that values the many differences within and between religious traditions. This inclusive framework applies across all categories of difference and prepares our students to live in an intensely pluralistic world.


Love, P., M. Bock, A. Jannarone, and P. Richardson. 2005. Identity interaction: Exploring the spiritual experience of lesbian and gay college students. Journal of College Student Development, 46(2): 193-209.

Nash, R. J. 2003. Inviting atheists to the table: A modest proposal for higher education. Religion & Education, 30(1): 1-23.

Seifert, T. A. 2007. Understanding Christian privilege: Managing the tensions of spiritual plurality. About Campus, 12(2): 10-17.

Society for Values in Higher Education (SVHE). 2006. Wingspread declaration on religion and public life: Engaging higher education. www.svhe.org/files/Declaration%20on%20

Watt, S. K. 2003. Come to the river: Using spirituality to cope, resist, and develop identity. In Meeting the Needs of African American Women, New Directions for Student Services, ed. M.F. Howard-Hamilton, no. 104, 29-40. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kathleen Goodman is a doctoral student in student affairs administration and research and research assistant for the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education at the University of Iowa, Daniel Hiroyuki Teraguchi is the dean for diversity and academic advancement at Wesleyan University

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