THE "spiritual but not religious" are the largest group of
individuals in the UK, the think tank Theos says in a recent report
on "belief in post-religious Britain". Its recent poll, which
shaped the inaugural discussion on the new Things Unseen podcast
(www.thingsunseen.co.uk), found that only 13 per cent of those
questioned agreed that human beings are purely material, with no
spiritual element (
News, 25 October). That much may be unsurprising to members of
the Church of England who routinely work at the interface of
regular and irregular churchgoers.
What does seem to be a new phenomenon, however, is that avowedly
secular groups are seeking to explore a spiritual dimension - and
not just privately, but through meetings and action. One example of
this is the Sunday Assembly, also called the "atheist church",
although its founders are keen to emphasise that Dawkins-like
rallies are not its raison d'être. In only a few months,
it has drawn hundreds of people and led to several "church plants"
(News, 25 January).
Some people will be sceptical about this new spiritual questing,
much of their unease focusing on the word "spiritual". In much the
same way as "sin" now spontaneously throws up associations of
chocolate and lingerie, so "spirituality" can mean little more than
warm feelings and a fondness for scented candles. They might ask
where the ethical engagement is in this touchy-feely piety; where
is the embrace of suffering, or the intellectual weight?
THE whole question is being tackled head-on by another
self-consciously secular organisation, the Royal Society of Arts
(RSA) in London. Founded in 1754 at the height of the English
Enlightenment, and usually associated with practical policy
development, the society became interested in recent studies on
The "S"-word kept coming up, particularly in the domain of
positive psychology, the academic movement that lies behind many of
the current political attempts to think about mental health as well
as economic wealth. It identifies spirituality as a "signature
Now, one of the directors at the RSA, Jonathan Rowson, is
leading a year-long project, which will include workshops and
public events, to help make spirituality "more tangible and
He believes that the evidence shows that personal growth and
social engagement are nurtured when people have a spiritual
perspective, are informed by spiritual experience, and shape their
lives by spiritual practices. He argues that the world's main
policy challenges, from climate change to rising levels of obesity,
may ultimately be spiritual in nature, because they are about our
struggle to align our behaviour with our values.
Spirituality addresses such inner conflicts. That so many people
seem unable to resolve them may be, in part, a product of a culture
that is starved of that which can motivate us at the deepest
The first of the public events was held in October (the
discussion can be found as a podcast on the RSA's website), and it
was striking how apologetic the contributors were for even talking
about the subject. Mr Rowson thanked the head of the RSA, Matthew
Taylor, for the "reputational risk" involved in sponsoring the
Other participants talked of feeling nervous and unsure, even
while confessing that religion was central to their lives.
Spirituality has become a kind of taboo. Intellectuals,
politicians, the media, and even members of the clergy can be as
embarrassed by it, as Victorians supposedly were by exposed piano
THIS must be because we live in a world that has been profoundly
shaped by a rejection of the spiritual dimension. The theologian
David Bentley Hart makes this case in The Experience of
God (Yale University Press, 2013), arguing that the
philosophical and scientific paradigms that shape the contemporary
imagination have put off-limits subjects such as faith, the soul,
and the implicit.
"The philosophical tendencies and presuppositions of any age
are, to a very great degree, determined by the prevailing cultural
mood or by the ideological premises generally approved of by the
educated classes," he writes.
I think that this is true. Listen to BBC Radio 2 or 4 any day of
the week, and you will be drawn into a world-view that finds
evolutionary speculations about the origins of love or of music,
for example, engaging and acceptable, whereas wondering about truth
or transcendence gets kid-glove treat- ment.
That spiritual sensibilities, the sources of human purpose and
meaning, are ring-fenced is surely part of the reason why we find
ourselves so frequently to be ethically and personally at
PERHAPS the nascent secular interest in spirituality marks a
change. The task of redressing the imbalance is about nothing less
than shifting mindsets, but when unexpected parties - such as the
RSA or self-conscious atheists - come out about spirituality, new
connections become possible.
Conversely, those who needed no persuading, but find the
"S"-word difficult, must swallow their disdain, and be prepared to
treat the word as a placeholder for a society striving to revive
these half-forgotten insights about what it is to be human.
I suspect that some steps will be easy to make. As the
philosopher Robert Rowland Smith put it during the RSA discussion,
many well-meaning people can agree on a notion of spirituality that
is essentially a form of ethical humanism: the intuition that
community, wonder, and helping others adds value to life.
But this does not get to the heart of what is meant by
spirituality. It is, rather, engaging with the possibility that the
source of human vitality and purpose ultimately lies beyond human
capacities and understanding; that life is sustained by what
theists call God.
The difficult moment for the new spirituality will arrive when
those who have put their faith in secular enlightenment are
confronted with the possibility that it is not enough.
Mark Vernon's latest books are Love: All That Matters
(Hodder) and Carl Jung (Guardian Shorts).