Hartford Institute Logo
Hartford Institute Site Map Hartford Seminary

Hartford Seminary
The Web

“Morality, Mystery, Meaning, and Memory:  
Decoding Audience Perceptions of Television and New Religiosity”

A paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, San Francisco, California, 
August 14, 2004


Wendy K. Martin
Department of Classics and Religious Studies 

University of Ottawa
70 Laurier Avenue 
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5
E-Mail: wendymartin@yahoo.com

As a student of religion, over the past decade I have been intrigued by the persistent presence of television shows depicting religious, spiritual and supernatural themes.  The past popularity of television programs such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, and Joan of Arcadia, to name some obvious players, all offer examples of how non-official and non-institutional religion and spirituality are manifesting in television media culture.  In the field of religion and culture theories that postulate the interpenetrating relationship between religion and television abound. However as scholars of religion, of course we are bound to see religious and spiritual themes in popular culture. We are trained to. Our eyes and minds have been shaped in such ways that we will notice aspects of religion, even if minute. Consequently, as a researcher, feeling bombarded with religion and spirituality in popular television, the questions I began to ask were not so much what do academics see and how do we interpret and understand the phenomenon; but how do members of the broader culture respond to it? Does anyone else see the religious images? If they do, do they care? Are they meaningful? How do people relate to, interpret and understand them? What impact do they have upon people’s lives, if any?

The data and theories presented in this paper have emerged from my ongoing Ph.D. research into the ways in which television audiences interpret, understand and develop religious and spiritual beliefs in relation to their viewing habits. Based upon survey and interview data collected in Ottawa, Canada, this paper examines the degree to which television functions as a creator and carrier of religious themes. In particular, I focus on the degree to which television functions as platform through which viewers reflexively explore issues of morality, shape systems of meaning, develop concepts of ‘religion’ and construct realms of supernatural belief and disbelief. Building upon the theories of Danièle Hervieu-Léger (2000), I postulate that television functions within the realm of religious memory. In accordance with this preliminary data, I suggest that television is becoming part of a new chain of memory which both mergers with past traditions and beliefs, while at the same time presents ‘new’ traditions.

The majority of participants in this study fall into the category of spiritual seekers or those whom define themselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious.’  My research in this area primarily took its cues from Reginald Bibby’s studies of the changing religious landscape in Canada since 1975.  In particular I focus upon Bibby’s discussions of “religion a la carte” and religious fragmentation, wherein individuals increasingly mix and match ideas, beliefs and practices in order to form personal religions (Bibby 1987: 62-85).  In the Canadian context, these forms of personalized spirituality are often rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions, but are supplemented by a wide variety of beliefs, ranging from other world religions, folk traditions, New Age ideas, as well as, from aspects of secular culture.   Over the years, Bibby’s research has demonstrated that actual rates of participation in organized religion has been continuously declining from the 1960’s, until 2001, where the decline seems to have leveled off (Bibby 2002).  However, at the same time as Canadians seem to disenchanted with institutional religion, Bibby argued that indicators of “latent spirituality” and interest in religious themes remains quite high.  Such indicators include high levels of belief in God (81%)and in life after death(68%), prevalence of private prayer (74)%, and concern with existential issues (70%) (Bibby 2002: 97,119, 140, 158).  In fact in his latest book, Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (2002),  Bibby argues that Canada is on the verge of a spiritual renaissance due to the broad level of interest and demand for “religious products” by Canadians.  According to Bibby, religious and spiritual questions are at the forefront of the minds of Canadians, citing the on-going “intrigue with mystery”, “the search for meaning” and persistent “religious memory” as indicators of this trend.

Using Bibby’s “latent spiritual themes” as a starting point, I asked research participants questions related to their interest in the mysterious and unknown, their main sources of meaning and general worldviews, their relationships with and concepts of religious traditions, and added a fourth category of values and morals, as these themes repeated crop up in discussions of personal religiosity.  I then sought out whether or not there were correlations between these categories and what people watched on television.  In particular I asked viewers if they saw any relationship between their television viewing preferences and their spiritual or religious beliefs.  Although, indeed my sample at this point is small (23 indepth interviews to date), overwhelmingly the participants do see television as playing a significant role in their beliefs and systems of meaning and values.  I would now like to offer some representative examples from data I have collected demonstrating how participants reflexively understand and use television in relationship to the themes of mystery, meaning, morality and religious memory.  This involvement ranges from using television programs to learn about and develop spiritual beliefs; to using television as a teaching tool or springboard for discussing religious ideas; and to drawing on television programs as a means to reinforce particular beliefs and ideas.

Television shows dealing with themes of the unknown and supernatural ranked high in the viewing habits of interview participants.   Angels, vampires, aliens, witches with supernatural powers, and God in many guises have frequented as television characters in recent years.  Not to mention the presence of ‘non-fiction’ shows dealing with themes such as ghosts and haunted places, spirit/demon possession, UFOs, psychic phenomena, near death experiences, reincarnation, and alternative healing.  I asked participants what the appealed to them about television shows with supernatural content and depictions of alternative spirituality, and if they saw any connection between such shows and their beliefs and practices.  In accordance with Bibby’s theory, the interview data suggests that the interest in such television programs among participants corresponds with their desire to seek supernatural explanations. (2002: 28-29).   

Participants tended to mention four basic ways in which shows with supernatural content are tied to their spiritual worldviews.  First, participants cite the fact that such TV shows provide them with the opportunity to explore alternative spirituality views.  Most of the participants associate organized religion with strict codes of belief and tradition, consequently they see them as somewhat limiting.  Participants opt instead to explore spirituality – that is a variety of supernatural, mystical and esoteric topics because they see it as a more open and fluid concept.  Television shows provide them with easy access to such ideas from which they can pick and choose elements that resonate with their lives and social context.  For example, Michelle, a frequent viewer of television shows depicting paranormal and unexplained phenomena claims to do so because of her desire to learn more about spirituality.  She states “on shows like the A&E specials, they give you the spiritual stuff. And I’ll just eat it up like candy. I like them because I don’t know about them. I want to learn more about them…. Shows related to the supernatural stuff are a lot more interesting because it’s not just attached to one religion. And the supernatural could always be there [with or without religion]. It is so much bigger [than religion].”

Another common trend is for participants to use elements of the supernatural as depicted on television as way to respond to questions that science cannot answer satisfactorily.  Although all of the participants adhere to a scientific worldview, most do not see science as providing adequate answers for existential questions.  The majority of interview participants believe that there is more to the world than empirical reality.  The supernaturally oriented TV shows appeal to them because they offer access to enchanted universes and provide explanations for mysterious phenomena.  This in turn engages with and even creates, their sense that there are more forces at work in the world than just natural or scientific laws. 

In a slightly different manner, other viewers assert that the God images offered on television are more accessible and plausible that the ones they believe exist in institutionalized religions.  As one respondent explains, TV shows such as “Joan of Arcadia,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “”Six Feet Under” act as reminders that God and other supernatural beings exist.  She further explains that TV depictions of God, such as shown on “Joan of Arcadia,” make God more believable and approachable.  She explains that “In that show [Joan of Arcadia] God appeals to me.   It’s really interesting because God is different every time. It could be anybody.  I think it ‘s appealing because it He makes Himself more accessible.”  According to participants, while the God of organized religion is distant and even unrealistic, the God of television is available, immanent, and sometimes even referred to as cool.

Finally, the other prominent theme raised by interview participants was the degree to which shows with supernatural themes and content offered them an opportunity to think about morality and immortality.  As one participant, Andrew explained, part of the appeal of the show “Six Feet Under” is that it depicts different forms of grieving and responses to death, as well as, offers various images of life after death.  Similarly, a student Nora, having recently experienced the death of a relative, claimed that certain television storylines, particularly “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, gave her the opportunity to think about death, the meaning of life and immortality, in order to help her work out which ideas make sense to her.  As Bibby has pointed out, 70% of Canadian raise think about the meaning of death, and raise questions about the afterlife; 68% believe in some form of life after death (2002: 140; 158).  For these participants, religious institutions are not providing or confirming such answers; rather television functions to present various ideas about death and the afterlife, both traditional as well as alternative ideas, providing them with options to think through and choose. 

This interest in God and the supernatural becomes further associated to participants’ ideas concerning the meaning and purpose of life.    Although question of meaning and purpose need not be religious or spiritual, for all of the interview participants they are.  Linking meaning and purpose to the belief in God and other supernatural entities and to concepts of a grand plan, fate, and destiny, interview participants clearly demonstrate that they meaning and purpose that they seek falls into the realm of the substantively “religious.”

Frequently, interviewees mention using television programs as a springboard for asking ultimate questions.  Justin, a 23 year old landscaper, explained that his spirituality is intricately linked with a quest for meaning.  Both an avid television viewer and reader, Justin gravitates towards material dealing with religions, spirituality and the supernatural.  He admits that he may not find ultimate truth or meaning, rather he suggest that the meaning is found in the process of asking the questions.  When asked about the relationship between television and his spirituality, Justin replied “TV is the guide to the possibility of questions.  It allows us to ask questions…. then you can go somewhere else to find the answer. So there is definitely a connection between my spirituality and television.”  Other participants reiterated this idea, seeing television as means to ask and answer various existential questions.

Aurora Leigh, a recent university graduate, claimed that TV particularly in her childhood and teenage years provided her with the opportunity to “ask the big questions in life.”  She explained that as someone reared with little influence from organized religion, she still raised what she terms “religious” questions.  Television, she further explained responded to her need for different possibilities and answers to the “what ifs and whys of the world.”  In fact as a former fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Charmed” and “The X-Files,” she claimed to have stopped watching these shows when they began to focus more upon the personal lives of characters, rather than on the supernatural topics and the quest for meaning and answers.

In a slightly different vein, other participants saw associations between their concepts of spirituality and fulfilling their life’s purpose or destiny.  Kelly, a 35 year old psychologists, and Tanya a 39 year old social worker, each believe that their work is related to their destiny, therefore they see their jobs as part of their spirituality.  Both women see these ideas as being supported and reinforced through programs they watch on television.  Kelly explains that popular spirituality authors such as Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, and Gary Zukav, all of whom she was introduced to via “The Oprah Winfrey Show” has transformed the way in which she thinks about the meaning of life.  She explains these authors taught her that “life is about the relationships you have with others, with God and the relationship you have with yourself.”  Kelly believes that her role in life and in fact the whole meaning of her life is to help others and make a positive change in their lives.  She again cites Oprah Winfrey as a source of motivation for reminding her of her life’s spiritual purpose and meaning.

“The angel network that she brought up, that is another example of how just one person can make a significant change in just one person’s life. If you stop and think about it ‘what’s my gift?’ ‘How can I make the world a better place?’ …. When you look at it, how they talk about it on the Oprah show, you can figure out what you’re good at and use it to help even just one person…. It is definitely spiritual….So, I think that is something that I have learned from her, to listen to that force within you to help make your life better and use your life to help others.”

Such shows for Kelly and other interview participants contribute to their belief that each person has a special role to play, a destiny or specific lessons to in life.

This belief further propelled Kelly to connect her belief in God and life’s purpose to her sense of morals and values.  The category of morality, not identified by Bibby but raised repeatedly in interviews, demonstrates the degree to which participants identify morality as a key component of their spirituality.  Participants, often drawing on the “golden rule” associated morality with being “a good person,” “helping others,” “being truthful and honest,” and “knowing right from wrong.”  The ways in which they negotiate morality through televisions programs varied amongst participants. Some reported choosing only television programs that reflect a moral and value system similar to their own.  For example, Simon a student studying to be a high school teacher, claimed to watch only TV shows that depict the goodness in people and provide a sense of hope for the future.  He explained that shows such as “Boston Public,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and the many versions of “Star Trek” reflect how he wants to live his life and provide his with a sense of what it fundamentally good and true.

While others reported watching a variety of programs, including those with characters or situations that see as morally ambiguous or corrupt, using them as a way to “think through” moral and ethical questions.  Jennifer, Michelle, Nora and Andrew, all report using crime dramas, such as “Law & Order,” “CSI” and “The Practice,” as platforms for negotiating concepts of morality.  Nora explained that “I think shows like that show a lot of morality.  Different views on morality and again what would you do in that situation? When it came down to doing the easy thing or the right thing.  I think shows like that have a lot of depth to them. They have a lot of layers.”  Nora’s statement is characteristic of many of the issues raised by interview participants, claiming that even if they do not agree with the concept of morality depicted in a given show, they use it as an opportunity to reflect upon their own concepts of what constitutes moral behavior. 

Another prominent theme, raised in interviews was the degree to which participants mention using the content of TV shows to raise discussions about morality and to use it as a teaching tool – this was particularly the case for those raising children.  Pierre, a 52 year old electrical worker and father of two sons, and Tanya, the social worker and mother of a daughter and son, both mentioned trying to use the content of television programs as a way to reinforce morals and values that have already tried to impart to their children.  As an example Tanya recounted how, during her daughter’s teenage years, she sought out various programs with “realistic” and “unpreachy” storylines that dealt with teenagers practicing abstinence.  While Tanya did not believe that such programs would prevent her daughter from becoming sexually active, she did believe that alternative media images could help to promote the same moral principles she had been teaching her daughter all along. 

Another participant, Liz, a university student and a mother of two children, is highly critical of television as a medium, as well as many of the messages imparted through television shows, consequently she has always discussed the content of television programs with her children. Liz and her children often talk about many issues, including moral and ethical questions while watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Simpsons”.  Liz’s sense of morality is intricately woven with her concerns for human rights, social justice and environmental responsibility.  She sees such shows as concretely and metaphorically offering the opportunity to discuss issues of injustice, discrimination, greed, consumerism and unequal distribution of wealth and power.  In such instances, participants reveal how television functions as a disseminator of norms, values and morals – whether they are consistent with the viewer’s or not.  Such data demonstrates how participants accept and develop morals codes based upon their television viewing, but also use television programs as a way to engage with, rethink and rework the narratives in light of their own sense of morality.

The appeal to mystery, meaning and morality is interesting in and of itself.  But what has truly captured my attention is the way in which my research data resonates with Hervieu-Léger’s  understanding of religion as a chain of memory.  In her innovative work Religion as a Chain of Memory (2000), Danièle Hervieu-Léger focuses the social dimensions of memory as a framework through which to interpret and understand the present conditions of religion.  Offering a working definition, Hervieu-Léger suggest that we recognize religion as “an ideological, practical and symbolic system through which consciousness both individual and collective, of belonging to a particular chain of belief is constituted, maintained, developed and controlled” (Hervieu-Léger: 82).  In essence she sees religion as a specific mode of believing tied to tradition. 

However, collective memories are severely challenged in modern societies due to their fragmented nature. The differentiation of social institutions and roles, coupled with the impact of mass communication has lead to a situation in which “the collective memory of modern society is composed of bits and pieces” (129).  The loss of a cohesive collective memory gives rise to uncertainly and instability as it undermines the ability to create a shared identity or sense of society.  In turn, this creates new demands for memory.  With the destabilizing of the authority of formal religious institutions, modern societies are ripe for religious innovations emerging as an “attempt to reinvent the chain” (143).  Hervieu-Léger hypothesizes that these new and innovative forms emerging “present themselves as an interlacing of shattered memories, memories that have also been worked upon and invented constantly reshaped in response to the demands of the present” (143).

One of the things that struck me during the interview process, was how the participants appear to be using television programs to connect themselves to larger systems of belief – albeit real or imagined.  While initially it would appear that most of the people interviewed are part of the “do it yourself” style spirituality, the level of similarity among their beliefs indicates that despite the individualized, fragmented, pick and choose religiosity, they are picking and choosing many of the same options.  Moreover, participants overwhelmingly indicated the importance of have some common shared beliefs.  The content of television programs provides viewers with a sense of continuity and connection with other like-minded people. As Nora explained the popularity of shows with supernatural themes help to confirm the plausibility of belief .  “It shows that I’m not just some random crazy person out there just making this stuff up…. Other people do think like me.”   Beyond this, interview data also suggests that part of the appeal of the television programs people are choosing is the degree to which it reinforces the plausibility of beliefs by tying those beliefs and practices to an authorized belief system. Andrew explains that television shows he has watched on The Learning Channel and Discover about supernatural occurrences act as a form of proof to validate his beliefs.  Claiming that “it’s really easy to believe, because you know through personal experience through watching it on TV.”  In this instance the repetition of such supernatural narratives on television act to convey an aura of truth such claims.

In a slightly different manner, both Michelle and Aurora Leigh assert that their beliefs are confirmed by the fact that they have exited within traditional belief systems.  Michelle claims that her belief in ghosts, spirits and other worldly beings are both constituted and confirmed through watching many A&E specials depicting “real life situations.” She argues that fact that such legends and stories have existed for so long and in so many cultures acts as proof that they are valid. Similarly, Aurora Leigh claims that while see does “pick and choose what to believe” what she chooses has to be “established” in some way.  She explains that “[t]radition to me is kind of like an affirmation. This is what people have done it for hundreds and hundreds of years.” Both Michelle and Aurora Leigh cite television as playing a key role in how the construct their spiritual worldviews.  However, it is not that they simply believe everything they see TV, rather it is the consistency and continuity with other traditions of belief that renders their own self-styled spirituality plausible and meaningful.

Kelly, Andrew and Simon, viewers of The Oprah Winfrey Show both admire Oprah and her former frequent guest star Dr. Phil, seeing them as voices of spiritual and moral authority.  Along with other interview participants they see both of these television personalities as offering “fundamental truth” and “spiritual wisdom.”  Both enjoy watching the Oprah Winfrey show because they feel that it offers a positive vision of the future, as well as, provides them with practical tools to improve their lives and the world around them.  More that that, they both consider Oprah as a leader of a spiritual movement, engendering transformation in the lives of viewers, inspiring them to help other people, to work for change, healing and reinforcing positive values in the world.  Kelly asserts that “I think Oprah is a spiritual leader”…both because “she enacts change on a global level [through her charity and advocacy work]” and because she teaches millions of viewers about “the importance of belief,” “of trusting ones intuition” and “following ones spiritual life path.”  From this perspective, it is not simply that Oprah is telling people about her spirituality, rather she is developing a community of belief and action.  Such beliefs connect once again to Hervieu-Léger’s theory of memory, as we can see how viewers are perceiving themselves as part of a wider spiritual community and linking this belief with an imagined future.  

Within the content of television programs, I suggest that participants are tapping into preexisting notions of the sacred, religion, morality and meaning.  The television shows and beliefs that they are choose resonate both personally and culturally with their notions of what constitutes religion – belief in God, the supernatural and life after death; a sense of divine purpose, fate and destiny; and a golden rule style sense of morality.  I suggest that part of the reason they choose to watch the television shows that they do is because they appeal to a sense of memory and tradition – albeit fragmented.   For these viewers, television functions as what Leonard Primiano’s  terms an electronic tradition bearer.  In his article “Oprah, Phil, Geraldo, Barbara and Things that Go Bump in the Night” (2001: 47-63).  Primiano argues that depictions of the supernatural on television programs offer ways through which viewers negotiate and explore aspects of vernacular religion of America. Borrowing from the work of folklorist Linda Dégh, Primino suggests that television plays a key role in creating and transmitting non-official folk religion. He claims that “These shows [such as television talk shows, newsmagazine shows, situation comedies and dramas] exemplify... a religiosity brimming with interpretation and negotiation of ultimate questions of the supernatural, of alternative belief systems, and of creative expressions of belief and practice” (Primiano: 48-9).  From this perspective television helps to reinforce and perpetuate cultural scripts about religion. The data offered by the interview participants appear to confirm Primiano’s theory.  Using TV as a resource for all types of meaning, including spiritual ones, the participants engage with the messages and content of television programs.  For the participants, television offers a hierophany of meanings, symbols and beliefs.  From this medium they learn about various traditions, have their own beliefs challenged and reinforced and are offered frameworks for asking ultimate questions and creating spiritual worldviews.      

The participants in these interviews, I suggest, are using televisions depictions of religion and spirituality as a medium to construct a specific mode of belief and tradition. The concerns with mystery, meaning and morality are all integral parts of how participants construct their spiritual lives.  Although there is some variety in their beliefs the underlying themes and convictions of participants are quite consistent.  These spiritual seekers maintain a system of belief imbedded with faith in God and other supernatural entities and faith in some sort of life after death.  Such beliefs, further propel them to see life as being guided by some sort of divine plan, fate or destiny.  Furthermore, their sense of ultimate meaning tend to be connected with the concepts of morality.  The morality that they construct includes such themes as honesty, integrity, helping others and having a positive impact on the world.  While the spirituality presented by interview participants are not tied to any specific organized religious system, they do seek continuity and affirmation through constructing new traditions out of preexisting myths, beliefs and practices.  Beyond this, they are seeking ways to establish the plausibility of their beliefs through connecting them both with the ideas and people presented on television, and with the community of others viewers.  In short, the spiritual ideas that come into contact with through television connect participants to belief, tradition and community.  While the links in the chain of memory are still quite tenuous at the moment, it does appear to me to warrant further investigation and analysis as I pursue my research into the relationship between non-institutional religiosity and television.  


Bibby, Reginald W.  1987.  Fragmented Gods: The Poverty and Potential of Religious Growth in Canada.  Toronto: Irwin.

————————.  1993.  Unknown Gods: The Ongoing Story of Religion in CanadaToronto: Stoddard.

————————.  2002.  Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada. Toronto: Stoddart.

Primiano, Leonard. (2001). “Oprah, Phil, Geraldo, Barbara and Things that Go Bump in the Night: Negotiating the Supernatural on Television.”  In M. Mazur and K. McCarthy (eds.) God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture.  New York and London: Routledge. Pp. 47 – 64.



Hartford Seminary
77 Sherman Street
Hartford, CT 06105
© 2000 - 2006 Hartford Seminary, Hartford Institute for Religion Research