Spiritual but not religious?

Spiritual but not religious?

I’m just back from the first public discussion of Jonathan Rowson’s spirituality project for the RSA. I want to reflect on what was said because it amplifies and extends some of the points I made in my last blog entry and will lead naturally to other things I want to think about in these pages.

The RSA session illustrated very obviously the danger for the project of using the word “spirituality”, because the discussion turned almost entirely around the possible value of faith (and, more or less, “faith based traditions” also known as religion). This would be fine if the enquiry was about the possible value of this kind of faith in societies that have largely lost it, but I think this enquiry is more interesting than that.

Jonathan Rowson’s own definition of what he means by spirituality is broader than a faith-based definition, even if it courts the metaphysical when he suggests it’s about feeling we’re part of something bigger. I accept that the latter is a common apprehension, a mark of a yearning that most of us will have felt and many will have thought important, but what’s really interesting is whether it’s possible to understand this yearning in terms that don’t commit us to metaphysical propositions (I’ll come back to “propositions” in a minute), and which go further than the usual language of ethical humanism (a point touched on by Robert Rowland Smith in the discussion). I think it’s about our need to make sense of what we have, both in terms of articulated “meaning” and an embodied understanding of how we are. (I understand the next session will go further into what embodiment might mean and look forward to it – it’s particularly important when neuroscience is forcing us to revise what we could mean by “mind” as an embodied phenomenon, and that’s to say nothing about the way deep-rooted notions of identity and self are unravelling in front of us).

The project offers the potential to understand this context, to explore how our ideas of self, meaning and even truth may be better understood as part of our socialised existence, with direct consequences for how we see the political sphere.

Faith traditions have a necessary interest in all this, and Elizabeth Oldfield expressed that interest eloquently and sympathetically. But I can’t help thinking this interest is something for those traditions to work on themselves, or at least that it’s secondary to this enquiry, and as we saw tonight it drags the centre of gravity away from where it needs to be. In this light I agree with Madeleine Bunting that the S word (spirituality) is unhelpful at this stage, though perhaps for different reasons from hers: I was with her until she started agreeing with Jonathan Rowson that faith/belief is not about a rational assent to a proposition, but more a commitment to a way of being. Well, John Henry Newman traced similar ground in A Grammar of Assent, but it won’t do. I understand that an assent to a religious proposition may not be like accepting the evidence for human involvement in climate change, and I accept that such belief can feel like an immediate aspect of consciousness (in the same way that it makes no sense to say “I believe I’m holding a spoon” rather than “I’m holding a spoon”, but this “faith commitment” still rests on propositions about how things are, and if those propositions are contradicted by other things, it is not stupid to doubt them, or to doubt the wisdom of those who continue to cling to their commitment.

But here am I falling myself into an argument about the special nature of religious faith (or its ordinary nature) and that’s to lose focus, illustrating yet again the danger of trying to think about these things even from the “perspective” (as someone put it) of spirituality.

A final thought (for the moment): someone in the audience asked whether or not “intellect” might be a hindrance in this discussion. Here’s another lurking false opposition. I suppose we could try to define intellect as something narrow, something distinct from other ways of knowing, but the danger here is we underestimate what we are doing when we intellectualise. Intellect itself is embodied, shaped by our emotions and feelings. I seem to remember Iain McGilchrist talking about the problematic opposition of intellect and feeling, and I think ironically it probably belongs to a religious tradition which this enquiry should be trying to leave behind.

To return to the starting point, about what we might mean when we speak of being “spiritual but not religious”, we should not get sidetracked by the quite different question of what hold “religious” still has on us; not if what we really want to understand is whether the idea of “spirituality” has any meaning outside or without religion. In order to do this it might be tactically necessary to drop the word “spirituality” and concentrate on developing a more useful set of terms.

Faith and openness

Faith and openness

I’ve been thinking about Jonathan Rowson’s latest enquiry within the RSA’s Social Brain project, asking what it is that people mean when they say they are “spiritual but not religious”. It’s a good question, and Rowson argues that the answer (or at least the enquiry) should help us understand better what’s going on around us in these troubled times.

In this light I found myself watching the Wachowski siblings’ film of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which plays around Buddhist-like (but unspecific) notions of rebirth and the possibly transcendental significance of our individual actions (I’d say the film is by turns entertaining and irritatingly pretentious, but that’s not my main focus here).

I’ve also just finished reading Peter Hoeg’s The Elephant Keepers’ Children, a much more playful (and generally funnier) piece of work. It’s ostensibly about religious faith, but more about the way reality keeps crashing in on our schemes of things, urging us to a kind of acceptance which is not transcendental in its claims: it is a celebration of diversity and absurdity, a comedy that’s the polar opposite of satire.

Satire divides and deliberately demeans. It highlights absurdities which we would do better to remove from our lives. Hoeg’s comedy, which works in the tradition of gentle humorists like James Thurber and Flann O’Brien (albeit with a higher octane level of caricature), asks us to embrace and enjoy that absurdity in each other, to accept the hopelessness of our dreams of a higher state, while understanding that those dreams are an important part of what we are. It is virtuously inclusive and life-affirming in the process.

Religion at its best promotes that same openness towards others and to life, usually expressed through some developed notions of love and compassion. This may be one of the core elements shared by all major faiths. It may be part of what people mean when they say they are spiritual but not specifically religious.

Religion at its worst does the opposite, dividing the saved from the doomed (usually with pretty clear rules setting out how you qualify for each category) and encouraging its followers to look away from the pleasures and pains of this life to some kind of further significance after death. It’s the latter baggage that the spiritual-but-not-religious usually want to reject.

Rowson’s starting point is a little more anthropological, suggesting that faith might be a commitment to certain cultural norms rather than matters of belief (such faith he suggests doesn’t need to equate with a series of propositions about how the world is). The trouble is that this is probably not how most believers would see their own faith. Or at least it seems more like a description of how the vaguely religious treat the procession of births, marriages and deaths in their lives, a vagueness that the Church of England in particular has been very tolerant of, though from personal experiences I’d say Catholicism is far more demanding and I’d imagine that those drawn to more evangelical faiths feel the same way (I am not denigrating earnest or committed Anglicanism in this, but observing the way mainstream faith has worked at least in England, though it’s interesting to note that this is less true in other parts of the UK).

None of this makes Rowson’s question any less interesting, but rather it suggests that the focus should not be on those with formal faith, but on those who can’t embrace such formality, and still want to reach in some way for the metaphysical, especially if this is how the majority of the European population would describe itself.

I’d probably place myself somewhere in that very broad… er, church. Religious statements about life after death seem to me ridiculous, not because the idea itself is ridiculous, but because there is nothing sensible any of us can say about it, and that includes any notion drawn from superficially attractive Eastern traditions of rebirth (which seem to dance like a reflection off water through Cloud Atlas). At the same time a rigorously materialist view of our existence, while in a sense irrefutable, doesn’t seem quite adequate. It’s like explaining music in terms of mathematical relationships: you can do this, and it’s often interesting, but it won’t help you hear the music for what it actually is.

We have a pretty fundamental need to make sense of whatever is going on around us, which often enough will entail making sense of the senseless, or of trying to find meaning in the meaningless. Conventional religion addresses this need by offering a different frame of reference (“God works in mysterious ways” ). This other frame of reference seems to me as random as the things it’s trying to explain, but this shouldn’t lead us to ignore the important presence of our imaginations in how we experience the world. It may be that those imaginations are a product of routine brain function, but again this doesn’t tell us anything about what’s going on in and around our heads. As the younger Wittgenstein put it, it is not how the world exists that is mysterious, but that it exists.

I’d guess that those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious are articulating the feeling that there is something more to life than the clash of atoms. In doing so they will often reach for a barely-articulated sense of the connectivity of things (hence the irritating platitudes of the Cloud Atlas film). I agree with Jonathan Rowson that we need to understand this sense and work with the grain of it in any ambitions we might have to make our lives or societies better. We need to understand better what it might mean if only because the current government’s notions of a happiness index, which I suspect are trying to get at the same thing, are themselves too crude to tell us very much.

Perhaps we need to be working to help the people who say they are spiritual but not religious to understand better what they mean, to help us all get beyond the platitudes. It may even help the religious if we can all move away from untenable notions of certainty. Rowson touches on this when he suggests that ethics may be better understood as a social disposition than something intrinsically rational. This doesn’t mean that everything is optional in what we believe. It is to accept that our beliefs, like our consciousness, are embodied, whether literally in our bodies or in our social and cultural institutions. The ramifications of this are pretty big, and I guess that’s why Rowson is pushing the Social Brain project down this particular road. It’s a journey we need to make though it’s fraught with difficulty, not least in how we balance an apparently attractive openness with the knowledge that some beliefs really are crazy, and many are pernicious. I want to think more about how we can respect beliefs we judge to be wrong in future entries.

You can find Jonathan Rowson’s blog on the subject at