Saturday, 22 August 2009

Spirituality - The Emperor's New Clothes

The word 'spirituality' is very much in fashion but is used in such a nebulous way to mean so many things that it has become virtually emptied of meaning. It has also become something of a sacred cow, not to be questioned.

A Pew Survey in 2008 and a Newsweek survey in 2009 both found that Americans are increasingly identifying as spiritual rather than religious. Newsweek states that, of the people surveyed: Nearly half (48 percent) described themselves as both 'religious and spiritual' while another 30 per cent said they were 'spiritual but not religious'. A Mori poll in the UK in 2003 found that 24% of people considered themselves spiritual but did not belong to a religion.

There seem to be four main flavours of spirituality:

The first is used by religious people almost interchangeably with 'religion' and 'belief'.

The second covers people who have a faith but a more personal relationship with their deity, away from hierarchical, structured religion, formal worship and dogma. Some people's faith, whether they use the word 'spiritual' or not, is so loosely defined that it would barely be recognised as faith at all by the orthodox. One such believer writes in the Guardian that 'what I believe is that God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure'. Hers is a very rarified conception and it's not clear why anyone would put themselves in a category and then go to great lengths to explain how different they are from everyone else in that category. Safety in numbers, perhaps.

The third is a secular, mostly New Age flavour that is personalized, pluralistic, mystical. This can take a particular form - for example, Native American spirituality - or it can be just be a sense of connection with the universe, that there is 'something out there', a belief in the supernatural in the broadest sense. Words like 'energy', 'quantum' and 'natural' crop up a lot. For example, the all-embracing pick and mix nature of this spirituality is illustrated by the Spiritual Forums, which welcome discussion on the Spiritual, Paranormal, Metaphysical, Philosophical, Supernatural, Complementary Therapies and Esoteric subjects from Astral Projection to Zen, Angels and Yoga.

Although this alternative spirituality is New Agey, it is not new. Followers of Swedenborg and his brand of spirituality have been around since the 18th century and, although less fashionable now, they still exist. Madame Blavatsky was another precursor of New Age spirituality.

Finally, there is spirituality-lite, a kind of life-style accessory involving scented candles, pictures of sunsets, having once read a book by Deepak Chopra and the buying of alternative medicine by people who probably went to India at some point or would like to.

What they all have in common is that they focus on something other than the purely physical. They often take a critical view of materialism although the last two flavours involve buying a lot of accessories.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs identifies five layers of human requirement. The first is the most basic, satisfying physical survival needs for food, water, sex, sleep and so on. The second is for safety, the third for relationships. The top two needs, once these basics have been achieved, are for esteem/self-esteem and self-actualisation. Spirituality seems to fall into these two categories, particularly the last (although deeply religious people might possibly put it into the relationship category). Anyone struggling to survive is not going to be pondering the meaning of life and their connection with the universe or admiring a dream catcher they picked up in the local garden centre while listening to whale music.

Is spirituality just an indulgence, a modern fad, or does it have benefits?

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) have a leaflet called Spirituality and Mental Health which looks at the potential benefits. It states that: In healthcare, spirituality is identified with experiencing a deep-seated sense of meaning and purpose in life, together with a sense of belonging. It is about acceptance, integration and wholeness. It also says that Evidence for the benefits for mental health of belonging to a faith community, holding religious or spiritual beliefs, and engaging in associated practices, is now substantial. The Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group (SIG) has over 2000 members.

The leaflet has a long list of spiritual practices, including belonging to a faith tradition, acts of compassion, reading scripture, yoga, meditation, appreciation of the arts and engaging in creative activities, including artistic pursuits, cookery, gardening etc, group or team sports.

Spiritual practices, they say, include being self-reflective and honest, developing greater empathy for others, achieving a peaceful state of mind, wisdom, equanimity, patience and joy.

While a lot of the things on the lists are desirable both in life and in therapy, many of them are not what most people would consider spiritual. Is sport a spiritual activity? It appears that the RCP are using this catch-all term to cover pretty much anything that improves quality of life.

Their claim that there is substantial evidence for the benefits of faith and belonging to a faith community is undoubtedly true for some people. But faith can also bring a whole lot of unwanted baggage such as guilt, prejudice, pressure to conform and conflict, especially for people whose lifestyle or identity is not mainstream. Faith communities can be supportive, a vital social safety net but some communities are very focussed on ritual, dogma, formal worship and other distinctly non-spiritual elements. So it seems that this leaflet is being over-general and optimistic, the word 'spiritual' bland to the point of uselessness.

The NHS has also recognised the need for using spirituality as part of 'holistic' and 'humane' treatment. Its guidelines for staff state that Recognising a person's spiritual dimension is one of the most vital aspects of care and recovery in mental health. While treating the whole person rather than regarding them as a set of symptoms is laudable, the guidelines are over-stating the case for spirituality and potentially putting a burden onto already over-loaded and under-funded medical staff.

The guide defines spirituality as (among other things), a life-force, what makes us unique, a sense of connectedness with other people, nature, animals, sport, our life-pilgrimage and quest, what gives our life meaning. Again, the vague, hippyish, touchy-feely catch-all. And, again, sport features on the list.

Although the guide gives an unsurprisingly prominent place to religion as an aspect of spirituality, its aim is to include everyone. However, there is no recognition that some people may not want to use that term to define the part of their lives concerned with relationships, enjoying nature, art and so on, perhaps because it has religious or New Age connotations or perhaps because it is just inappropriate. Human spirituality is, for the NHS, a given. The Scottish version of the NHS guide begins with the quotation: we are not human beings seeking spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings seeking what it means to be human.

The promotion of spirituality either by people who claim to have it or by organisations that think everyone should want it, is not entirely benign.

It is sometimes a way for an individual to make themselves feel a bit 'special', a self-aggrandizing term that they cannot define or explain but which must not be challenged or even questioned. There is potential for misunderstanding between the different interpretations of the word and, although the 'right' to spirituality is assumed, different groups could well see their version as superior. A deeply religious person is unlikely to value Native American spirituality even if they pay lip service to tolerance. It is potentially yet another way of creating the Us and Them divide so well exploited by religions. My spirituality is more spiritual than yours.

Moreover, on the basis of the NHS and BPS definitions, if you are not spiritual at all, you are lacking. Anyone rejecting the need for this vapid labelling could be seen as somehow less than fully human, lacking in 'wholeness' - and this is the worrying element (that and the fact that tax-payers' money is being spent).

One survey contradicts the findings that spirituality is essential for wholeness and a healthy emotional or mental life. Profiles of the Godless questioned nearly 6000 individuals and looks in depth at atheists, agnostics and spiritual people, comparing them with believers. The distinctive element of this research is that it breaks down the category that many surveys use to lump all non-religious people together.

It found that more women than men described themselves as spiritual (which touches on something I blogged about here). Interestingly, it also found that 'spirituals' (as the survey describes them) reported lower satisfaction with their lives than those with other belief labels. It reports: Those non-believers most confident in their non-belief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, relative to the 'fence sitters' (...) Therefore, having uncertainty regarding one's religious views appears to be associated with relatively greater emotional instability.

One conclusion of the survey was that being sure about what you think and believe, whether that manifests as being actively religious or atheist, is better for your mental health than being agnostic or spiritual.

While it would be satisfying to have a term to apply to that part of our lives in which we enjoy things other than meeting survival needs or satisfying material desires, spirituality is not a good candidate. A word that means too many things means nothing and, in trying to be inclusive becomes exclusive.

Why choose a term that has religious overtones and then stress that religion is not the only form of spirituality? The word also has the taint of dualism, separating body and spirit. This is an old view of the Self with wholly religious roots. There is also the marketing triad of Mind-Body-Spirit used in bookshops and places that sell spirituality accessories, which further splits the Self.

There is a difference between being a materialist (not believing in unseen powers or a separate spirit or life-force) and being materialistic (placing too much value in, or reliance on, material things). I am a materialist but not materialistic and I reject the use of spirituality, in any of its meanings, to apply to my life. Does that mean there is something a bit wrong with me? I have a hole where my spirituality should be.


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