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Dr. Kim Knibbe: ‘Academia pays too little attention to the “popular” forms of spirituality’

17 November 2010

Spiritual literature and magazines are flourishing as never before, universities offer courses in Mindfulness and on any weekend somewhere in the Netherlands there will be a Paranormal Fair. The academic world, however, devotes little attention to this spiritual phenomenon, which is a pity, says Kim Knibbe, university lecturer in Sociology of Religion at the University of Groningen. ‘It is for many people a serious way of addressing the big questions in life.’

Much of the research on religion focuses on literature and the people who wrote the works studied. As a result a large part of the spiritual domain remains uncharted territory, according to Dr Knibbe. ‘The main emphasis is on what people say, rather than what they actually do in practice.’ And when academics express a view about someone like the controversial Dutch medium Jomanda, then it is essentially not very meaningful, she thinks. ‘The tendency is to be critical without taking the phenomenon as whole seriously.’

Spiritual gatherings

Kim Knibbe has conducted research herself on the religious shift in the south of the Netherlands, where decreasing numbers of people attend Roman Catholic church services. The decline in the influence of the Church has created room for other forms of religion. As Dr Knibbe explains, ‘in many villages in the South Netherlands you find many spiritual groups and associations which have arisen out of the spiritual tradition that was introduced into the Netherlands in the 19th century. Up until the 1980s most people did not openly speak about their interest in the paranormal, but since the 1990s such groups have rapidly multiplied and the first paranormal fairs were organized’.

A personal philosophy

‘People no longer want to go to church to be uplifted but would rather pay for a personal coaching session or a tarot reading,’ says Dr Knibbe. ‘It’s something more tangible and more tailored to the individual. People shop around to create a philosophy to suit themselves – a phenomenon which has been evident for some time now and is also mostly dismissed, even though it is entirely consistent with the rise of the consumer society.’

‘In fact, people are buying their freedom,’ Dr Knibbe believes. ‘If you buy a book from someone then the relationship you have with the author is quite different than it is with a priest or minister when you go to church. It is precisely that church community and its obligations which many people no longer want.’ An important element which makes this modern religious movement so attractive is that you are not bound by a hierarchical structure. ‘People can discover for themselves what they find interesting and if it doesn’t suit them, they can also walk away– so to speak.

Creating an identity

People can look for whatever depth they want. The suggestion of depth is the most important thing here. As Dr Knibbe explains, ‘A book by the Dalai Lama sells better than a book by a chap round the corner. It is not about satisfying an immediate need, but more about creating an identity for yourself.’ Status and class also play a large part in all of this. The readers of the ‘mindstyle magazine’ Happinez, for example, are generally in a different category than those who visit paranormal fairs.

Many people believe that such spiritual products and activities have nothing to do with religion. Dr Knibbe does not agree. ‘I do see it as a form of religion. A religion which is not institutionalized but which is definitely part of the European culture.

Curriculum Vitae

Dr Kim E. Knibbe (Kanne, Belgium) studied anthropology at the VU University Amsterdam. She has carried out ethnographic research in the south of the Netherlands among spiritual ‘consumers’ on the basic attitude towards religious authority, spirituality and power. Dr Knibbe is a university lecturer in Sociology of Religion at the University of Groningen.


In a current affairs lecture on 25 November Dr Knibbe will look more closely at the subject of spirituality and commerce. You can sign up for the lecture at faculteit.ggw To be held at: Zittingzaal, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies (GGW), Oude Boteringestraat 38, Groningen. Start time: 7.30 pm.

Press information

Further information: Dr Kim Knibbe, tel. (050) 363 45 85, e-mail: k.e.knibbe

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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