According to a recent article on the BBC News Magazine website, about one fifth of the UK population would describe themselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious’.
Recent research by Prof Michael King from University College London suggests that this group may be more prone to mental health problems such as anxiety or depression, compared with the conventionally religious, or even compared with those who would describe themselves as agnostic or atheist.
‘Spiritual, but not religious’ describe, of course, a very broad church, ranging from neo-paganism to devotees of healing crystals, and much else besides. For many, it is a label for an otherwise intangible feeling that there must be something beyond the merely material.
Conventional religion is seen as unattractive by many people, partly because it requires belief in ‘doctrines’, and these can feel arbitary and constraining, partly because it lays down certain behaviours as ‘right’ or wrong’, and this is considered authoritarian, and partly because it is felt that a great deal of harm is done in the name of religion, from repression of women to terrorism.
For many, God has been replaced by science as a means of understanding the world. But science does not deal with the feelings of awe and wonder that many feel when they contemplate the universe and their own place within it. Beautiful scenery, a piece of music, being in a large crowd, and many other experiences may give us a sense of the transcendent.
‘Spirituality’, then, becomes a word for that sense of the trascendent, for acknowledging the inexpressible, for recognising that human experience has non-conceptual aspects.
For pagans, this comes through understanding that there is a divine force in nature. For others, there is a more general sense of re-connecting with ancient traditions at times such as the summer solstice. Yet others value silence and meditation, or use healing techniques such as Reiki to ‘re-balance the energy flow of the body’. Then there are those who, while not committed to any particular religious faith, visit holy places in order to gain a sense of the sacred and a connectedness with those who have been there before.
It is, of course, possible to mock the sheer variety of ‘spiritual’ practices. Comedian David Mitchell imagines a spiritual summer camp:-
From reflexology to astrology, from ghosts to homeopathy, from wheat intolerance to ‘having a bad feeling about this’, we’ll be celebrating all the wild and wonderful sets of conclusions to which people the world over are jumping to fill the gap left by the retreat of organised religion.
Critics such as Alan Miller suggest that ‘spiritual but not religious’ offers neither a coherent explanation of anything nor a set of principles of any kind.
According to Brian Draper, associate member of faculty at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, spirituality offers ‘a smorgasbord-like array of beliefs’, many of which are built on “pseudo-science”.
Humanists tend to be sceptical over the question of ‘spirituality’. Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, finds it all too vague. When the word can be used to cover everything from ‘the full Catholic mass to whale songs, crystals, angels and fairies’ it has ceased to be useful. Humanism, for Copson, is preciely about finding meaning in the here and now, rather than in something ‘out there’.