April 17, 2013

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.


Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

by Professor Michael Stausberg, University of Bergen

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project interview with Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism (15 April 2013)

In this podcast Alex Norman defines a spiritual tourist as a person who is travelling for spiritual betterment. As he himself admits, this is a pretty loose term. Alex carries on by saying that the people he interviewed in his research typically decided to change themselves or to reconstruct their lives, be it because they found their basic worldview unsatisfactory or because their lives in significant aspects went out of control. This need, obviously, can arise for people from all sorts of backgrounds, be they committed Christians or atheists. Is the term spiritual betterment as a project is applicable to everybody or only to such people from the spiritual milieu? Can also religious people travel for spiritual betterment or only such persons who have severed their ties to religious communities or ideologies (if they ever had such commitments)? In the podcast, the conversation partners seem to have a mutual understanding of the kind of practices characterized as ‘spiritual’, but no clear examples are given. On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

The podcast creates the impression that the persons interviewed by Alex are characterised by hostility towards Christianity and by a worldview that assigns agency to the subject; the latter aspect is often seen as a hallmark of New Age worldview (or spirituality). When seeking to better themselves spiritually, these people visit places or take part in activities that are part of religious traditions to which the tourists do not belong. Apparently, this exposure or this participation can contribute to the project of spiritual betterment, which thereby thrives on and is to some extent dependent on places and practices maintained by established religions. Given that the research was conducted at these sites we do not learn much about the travel careers of these spiritual tourists and the long-term biographical significance of their trips. This calls for follow-up research. It would also be interesting to know how widespread a social phenomenon this kind of spiritual tourism is.

In the interview, spiritual tourism is contrasted with the way many ordinary tourists visit religious buildings “between a baguette and a croissant”. This seems to imply the idea that, from a religious studies perspective, the ordinary tourists are less genuinely important, as if this somehow were not the real thing. As I have tried to show in my book Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), when addressing tourism in the study of religion\s we should not restrict our inquiry to forms of tourism framed as religious or tourism but should cast our net wider to cover the variety of interfaces between the domains of religion and tourism—in the same way that we study the representation of religion in media instead of only focusing on religious newspaper, television channels or websites. While the Lonely Planet India may indeed, as Alex says, exhort its readers to try out different forms of religious places and practices, this volume is untypical for the series as a whole; yet, as a genre travel guidebooks are interesting because they are a kind of literature from which many travellers derive their information about religion. As I argue in my book, tourism is a major arena for religion (and spirituality) in the contemporary world, even though many intellectuals tend to despise tourism and tourists. Spiritual tourism as analysed by Alex is one such nexus.

Towards the end of the podcast, Alex seems to come close to a post-Durkheimian theory of the implicitly religious nature of holidaying. This line of thinking refers to three types of evidence: points of identification, gathering of masses that constitute society, and commitment. I don’t think that any of this will take us very far. If earlier on people identified with religion, and now they identify with traveling, does that amount to indicating a potentially religious nature of tourism (as if people would not identify with all sorts of things)? I also doubt that the very gathering of masses at beaches (an old trope in anti-tourism rhetoric!) is enough to qualify this phenomenon as ultimately resembling religion. As it proceeds, the argument seems to transport a Tillichian notion of religion, where religion is identified as what ultimately matters to us, so that people who spend much of their available money on holidays can be interpreted as expressing a ‘religious’ valuation of them. Is it necessary and theoretically compelling to turn everything of significance for people into something religious?

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Michael Stausberg is professor of religion at the University of Bergen. His book publications in English include Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism (Equinox 2008) and, as editor or co-editor, Defining Magic (Equinox, 2013, with Bernd-Christian Otto), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011, with Steven Engler), Contemporary Theories of Religion (Routledge, 2009) and Theorizing Rituals (Brill, 2006-2007; with Jens Kreinath and Jan Snoek). See Michael Stausberg’s website for a full list of publications and downloads.


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