‘Spirituality’ for materialists

Have just come away from speaking at the Battle of Ideas on ‘Religious, Spiritual, or Neither?’ and it made me remember a piece I wrote back in 2008 on ‘Spirituality for Materialists’ for the Journal of Chaplaincy in Further Education. Not sure if I’d stand by all of it now but re-posting here:

Introduction: defining spirituality

‘Spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ are difficult words for non-religious people. When they were clearly associated with religion, many humanists dismissed or ignored them, albeit at the cost of being labelled reductionists or materialists. Today non-religious humanists are divided on their meaning and use. Some humanists think that the words have a general usefulness, to describe a concern about moral seriousness and a high view of human potentiality far removed from crudely materialistic ambitions. Others feel uneasy about using words carrying so much religious and pseudo-religious baggage.

But we had to define spirituality for ourselves when ‘spiritual development’ was established in the Education Reform Act 1988 as one of the essential components of the National Curriculum for schools, confirmed in the Education Act of 1992, where it became part of the list, ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural development’. Official guidance made it clear that spiritual was to be distinguished from religious and there was a flurry of opinion from educationists as to what this entailed. What follows, therefore, is drawn from the experience of the British Humanist Association (BHA) in schools and as spiritual development in FE develops, will hopefully be useful.

Including the non-religious

Even if the need for a non-religious meaning of spiritual had not been forced upon us, at the BHA we would have been keen in any case to take this up. We naturally wish to ensure that non-religious young people are not neglected in any educational initiatives, including those to do with spiritual and moral development. More than that, it is true of many young people with what are basically humanistic conceptions of the world, just as it is true of young people with religious worldviews, that underneath and as part of their lifestances are many implicit responses to questions of meaning, value and purpose. These responses need to be made explicit, explored, and interrogated, if young people are to develop – if spiritual development is to be the heading under which this is to occur, then it is vital that the non-religious are actively included and that a humanist framework is one of those through which such ideas are considered. There is a final and powerful motive for including the non-religious in this endeavour of spiritual development which has to do with the mutual understanding essential in the open society, and we have seen it in school RE very clearly. If spiritual development is delivered in a way that does not take active account of non-religious responses to these important questions then not only will the non-religious be excluded, but they will also feel that spiritual development is not about them and the consequence can be that they have little time or sympathy for the different responses of others to these questions. There is after all a shared human basis to what we call spirituality.

Spiritual development

Arching over all of this is the assumption that there are valid, fulfilling and developmentally useful humanist perspectives on the sort of areas encompassed by spiritual and moral development. And further, that there will always be people, and increasingly if organized religion continues to have a decreasingly important part in the lives of young people, for whom the non-religious answers are the only ones that make sense. For example, 65% of young people are not religious, according to Young People in Britain: The Attitudes and Experiences of 12-19 Year Olds (2004) and 44% in a recent ESRC study. Spiritual development should acknowledge, affirm and encourage the values and spirituality of non-religious young people to the same extent as it does this for religious young people.

In this connection, the Dalai Lama usefully distinguishes religion and the spiritual: ‘Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit – such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony – which bring happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with the questions of nirvana and salvation, are directly connected with religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities.’ (Ancient Wisdom, Modern World (Abacus),1999)

From a specifically humanist perspective, Simon Blackburn, the Cambridge philosopher and BHA Vice President, has said, ‘Wonder at the stars, love of the wilderness, enjoyment of the arts, are a human birthright. We should encourage them and practise them. We should notice the uniqueness of human personhood and the associated boundaries on conduct required by respect for that personhood. Such respect should extend to the buildings, poems, songs and dances of our ancestors, even when they were in the service of beliefs we cannot share. Myths have their place, as do imagination and stories, and often have an application to the here and now.’ The Sunday Times, 4/4/04

Often when people talk about spiritual development, they are in fact meaning either one or more of the following: emotional development, character formation, aesthetic emotions, moral development, socialisation, growing thoughtfulness. It is possible that only ‘spirituality’ captures the amalgamation of all or most of these things, and within that context, a humanist spirituality makes sense. Certainly in schools this is taken for granted: ‘…the development of insights, principles, beliefs, attitudes and values which guide and motivate us… a developing understanding of feelings and emotions which causes us to reflect and to learn…[development of that] element of a human being which animates and sustains us and, depending on our point of view, either ends or continues in some form when we die. It is about the development of a sense of identity, self-worth, personal insight, meaning and purpose. It is about the development of a pupil’s ‘spirit’. Some people may call it the development of a pupil’s ‘soul’; others as the development of ‘personality’ or ‘character” (Ofsted Promoting and evaluating pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, March 2004)

Professor John White of the Institute of Education has identified a sense of the spiritual with ‘the cosmic shudder we all feel from time to time when contemplating the existence of life, especially our own self conscious life, and of the universe’ and many with a humanist, materialist outlook, will agree with Julian Huxley, that the spiritual elements ‘are part and parcel of human nature’. The more poetically minded of evolutionary psychologists would express their findings about human nature in this way. And non-religious young people may usefully find an affirmation of their view from the autobiography of Darwin, whose wonder at the beauty and interconnectedness of the natural world did not diminish with the erosion of his Christian faith. No one, I think could deny that, in this sense, the spirituality of Richard Dawkins is something with which many non-religious young people could identify: the incredible fact of human existence and the incredible fact of each individual’s human existence, which has come about against the odds.

This and the conviction that life ends when our bodies die can motivate the living of a more fulfilling life. Bertrand Russell’s affirmation that just because a good story comes to an end doesn’t make it not a good story, can lead us into reflection on what a good life might be, in a way that is accessible to those without a belief in another life, or a transcendent reality. The conviction that there is no duality of mind and body, but only a unity can drive us towards fulfillment. The exploration and appropriate affirmation of these convictions would be a fulfillment of the definition of spiritual growth that was given by a 1985 working party of Christians and humanists as ‘Education in spiritual growth is that which promotes apprehension of ultimate reality through fostering higher forms of human consciousness.’

This basing of spiritual development in common humanity finds an echo in a National Curriculum Council discussion document on spiritual and moral development of 1993 which said of spiritual growth that ‘[t]he term needs to be seen as applying to something fundamental in the human condition… it has to do with the unique search for human identity…with the search for meaning and purpose in life and for values by which to live.’ For many this search for answers to the why? and how? questions will only be answered in a non-religious way, and that does not mean the answers are any less uplifting.

In the same year as that discussion document the BHA said that ‘…the spiritual dimension comes from our deepest humanity. It finds expression in aspirations, moral sensibility, creativity, love and friendship, response to natural and human beauty, scientific and artistic endeavour, appreciation and wonder at the natural world, intellectual achievement and physical activity, surmounting suffering and persecution, selfless love, the quest for meaning and purpose by which to live.’ (The Human Spirit, BHA leaflet, 1993) Questions of meaning and purpose can have non-religious answers, of course, and deeply satisfying ones for many humanists. We could look back to the 19th century American humanist Ingersoll who said, ‘Reason, Observation and experience have told us that to be happy is the only good, that the time to be happy is now and the way to be happy is to make other so.’

Meeting the needs of the non-religious

Theory, of course, is of little use without ideas as to how spiritual development can in practice meet the needs of the non-religious. In Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child: a Humanist Perspective (1996) one BHA member asks, ‘In thinking about how to provide opportunities for spiritual growth, is it too fanciful to suggest that a ‘quiet minute’ should happen as a structured component of many school activities and learning experiences? Many schools now have their own wildlife area: how about sitting down under a tree after a nature walk around it? Or trying to take in what a hundred million years means when looking at pre-Cambrian rocks on a Geography field trip? What about a quiet few minutes to wonder at the beauty and intricacy of crystal structures viewed through a microscope? And on a visit to an art gallery, might not the occasional quiet time to absorb the beauty of art… provide a time for reflection and refreshment of the spirit?’ And the pedagogical springboards for non-religious spiritual development are not difficult to come by – there is the whole of the secular philosophical tradition to draw on, as well as young people’s own experiences of the reality of life, which for non-religious young people will of course be where meaning and purpose is derived.

‘Spiritual development relates to that aspect of inner life through which pupils acquire insights into their personal existence which are of enduring worth. It is characterised by reflection, the attribution of meaning to experience, valuing a non-material dimension to life’ (OFSTED Handbook for the Inspection of Schools, 1994) ‘Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked – as I am surprisingly often – why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?’ asks Richard Dawkins.

This is a materialist sort of ‘spirituality’ and I share it. We are highly complex, sophisticated and rather wonderful animals, and I find that remarkable whilst recognizing that it is a natural occurrence. I hold to a philosophical materialism while I enjoy the arts, nature, friendship and love, and I have purposes and principles in my life that keep me going on with it. My attitudes to others, I recognize, are at least in part the social instincts of an animal that evolved to be so, built upon by an inherited culture that has sought to emphasise and develop the human tendencies to benefit others and constrain those that might lead to harm. I believe we make purpose and meaning for ourselves in a world to which no ultimate purpose or meaning can be ascribed. I think that for many developing young people, such a position will be the one they too hold in their adult lives, and I believe that spiritual development cannot be counted a success unless it gives young people the opportunity to discover whether this is so for them.

1 comment

  1. I came here by chance, I suppose, but I have to agree that a spiritual life is an important right for a non-religious or ‘spiritual’ person.
    Personally I go completely the other way. If I really believed that everything stopped at the end of life I would see no further value whatsoever in living.
    At the same time I feel there is a certain courage in the humanist point of view.
    Thanks for the article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *