Organized religion may be on the decline, with more Americans than ever identifying as atheist, agnostic or religiously unaffiliated. But spirituality’s grip is tenacious, with the search for meaning taking different paths.
A growing number of Americans identity as “spiritual but not religious,” a trend that tracks with the explosion of interest in practices like meditation and astrology that transcend traditional religion. If you are spiritually curious, podcasts make it possible to curate your own diverse radio diet.
Since long before the current podcast boom, smart, faith-minded hosts have been producing shows that explore their belief systems without reinforcing stereotypes or parroting dogma. Here are eight podcasts about spirituality and religion that should be on your radar, from Christian sermons and Muslim slice-of-life stories to skeptical undercover investigations.
With “On Being,” Krista Tippett explores what it means to be human and live well, through conversations with scientists, artists, politicians and more. The focus is not on any particular belief system or denomination, but on the abstract forces — beauty, nature, loss — that can shape an inner life. When Tippett was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2014 for her work on the show, the Obama White House praised her in a statement for “embracing complexity and inviting people of all faiths, no faith, and every background to join the conversation.” That remains the podcast’s strong suit today.
Starter episodes: “John O’Donohue — The Inner Landscape of Beauty” (Aug. 31, 2017), “Ellen Langer — Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness” (Nov. 2, 2017)
Oprah Winfrey brings her trademark empathy to weekly sit-downs with artists, leaders and entrepreneurs in a format that encourages candor and self-reflection. The podcast, a spinoff from Winfrey’s OWN show “SuperSoul Sunday,” is closely aligned with the principle of mindfulness, as Winfrey encourages listeners to “take time to be more fully present” and “more connected to the deeper world around us.” Though some episodes are overtly religious — recent guests have included evangelical Christian pastor Rob Bell and influential Franciscan friar Richard Rohr — most take a broader view of spirituality and have featured timely gems like Reese Witherspoon discussing the -MeToo revolution in Hollywood. If Religion & Spirituality isn’t your usual genre, this is a good gateway drug.
Starter episodes: “Norman Lear: Lessons on Longevity” (Dec. 27, 2017), “Marianne Williamson: The Spiritual Purpose of Relationships” (May 8, 2019)
Rob Bell, a pastor turned media personality, has built a reputation as one of the most influential and divisive Christian figures in the country, known for his progressive interpretation of the Bible, his denial of the existence of hell and his outspoken criticism of homophobic and anti-scientific views within the church. Since its debut in 2015, Bell’s podcast has offered a weekly deep dive into his reimagining of Christian faith, delivered in an affable stream-of-consciousness style that feels like a window directly into Bell’s brain. While he’s generally piloting the podcast solo, Bell is occasionally joined by a celebrity guest (Pete Holmes of HBO’s “Crashing” is a regular), and he examines Scripture in ways that are applicable to everyday life. For Christians and skeptics alike, Bell’s podcast represents a rare and valuable point of crossover.
Starter episodes: “Jesus H Christ: Part 1 — They Look Like Trees” (Sept. 17, 2018), “What Happens Every Six Months” (Aug. 20, 2016)
Though not explicitly about Islam, this new show from Southern California Public Radio exclusively features Muslim voices, and its first season was released over consecutive weekdays this year during Ramadan. Misha Euceph kicks off each episode with a brief vignette from her own life, often detailing her experience of moving to the United States from Pakistan when she was 12. What follows are interviews in which guests — who have included Tan France (the fashion expert on “Queer Eye”), comedian Ramy Youssef and G. Willow Wilson (the writer of the “Ms. Marvel” comic book) — describe the moments that defined their lives and careers. The results make for consistently hypnotic listening, and give Muslims a space to tell their own stories.
Starter episodes: Episode 9: “Sahar” (May 16, 2019), Episode 22: “Akbar” (June 4, 2019)
Bishop T.D. Jakes has become one of the most famous pastors in the country since founding the Potter’s House, a 30,000-member nondenominational megachurch in Dallas. What “The Potter’s Touch” lacks in production values, it makes up for in sheer energy and verve thanks to Jakes’ rich, sonorous baritone and knack for persuasive oratory. Most episodes are wholesale recordings of Jakes’ sermons, which often use religion as a jumping-off point for discussions about personal upheaval and even mental illness, as in a memorable installment from last year titled “When Anxiety Attacks.” Though a tough sell for anyone not predisposed to the megachurch style, the show provides a unique window into the worshipping habits of vast swaths of America.
Starter episodes: “When Anxiety Attacks” (April 8, 2018), “Bridging the Racial Divide with Miles McPherson” (Aug. 25, 2018)
Ross Blocher and Carrie Poppy are former evangelical Christians who channel their mutual fascination with belief into this weekly show, which turns skepticism into a wry, revealing art form. “Oh No, Ross and Carrie!” allows the two to conduct undercover investigations of religious groups, cults and fringe science, and then discuss their findings back in the studio. Some of their missions are wrapped up in a single episode, while others take multiple chapters. At the end of each investigation, Blocher and Poppy rate their subject in a series of categories, including creepiness, danger and pseudoscience, so the show works both as entertainment and as a kind of public service.
Starter episodes: “Ross and Carrie Audit Scientology (Part 1): Going Preclear” (Feb. 1, 2016), “Ross and Carrie Study Christian Science: The Germ Delusion” (March 1, 2015)
If you’re looking for a simple, audio-based alternative to the overwhelming number of meditation and mindfulness apps on the market, a weekly dose of Zen is available from Tara Brach, a psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher. Through a mix of guided meditations and motivational speeches, Brach explores the lofty concept of spiritual awakening alongside more concrete everyday problems like anxiety, conflict and insomnia. And most helpfully, she addresses the common stumbling blocks that make it hard to stick with a meditation practice.
Starter episodes: “Living with Courageous Presence” (Feb. 8, 2019), “Part 1 — Healing Anxiety — How Meditation Frees Us” (Nov. 28, 2018)
Joel Osteen, the prominent televangelist and megachurch leader, has attracted both a devoted following and a healthy amount of controversy for his preaching of the “prosperity gospel,” the belief that there is a link between Christian faith and financial success. The podcast, with new episodes every few days, showcases upbeat sermons from Osteen and his wife, Victoria, also a pastor at Lakewood, that tend to focus as much on cognitive patterns as they do on Scripture. In recent episodes, Osteen has emphasized the importance of gratitude and urged listeners to envision an abundant future in which they are wealthy and successful, even if they are struggling right now. While the primary audience will be Christians seeking on-demand sermons, Osteen’s unique position within his community may make the show an informative listen even for atheists.
Starter episodes: “Buried Alive” (May 12, 2019), “You Have What You Need” (Jan. 30, 2019)