Mind published an interesting blog post on their website today, in which a woman with bipolar disorder describes the importance of her spirituality in staying well. The spirituality she describes is explicitly non-religious.
It’s interesting to contrast her experience with the recent finding that people who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ are more likely to experience mental health difficulties than those who belong to a religion.
Mark Vernon’s piece discussing this is well worth reading. It occurs me to that the writer of Mind’s blog post is absolutely right in saying that giving due attention to spiritual needs is long overdue.
It’s important to make a couple of points about the framing of this issue. Firstly, that ‘spirituality’ can be more than merely ‘new age’ and secondly, that it doesn’t always have to be juxtaposed with religion. Indeed, the Social Brain Centre is in the early stages of exploring how spirituality might be reconceived based on new understandings of human nature, and there will be more about that here soon…
Fancy losing weight, looking younger, living longer, fending off Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and even cancer, whilst eating whatever you want? This is only some of what the 5:2 fasting diet claims to offer, and the only catch is that you have to fast twice a week. The ‘fast’ days do not require complete starvation, but instead involve heavily restricted calories – 500 for a woman and 600 for a man. It’s up to the individual how to make up the calories, but the suggestion is that you eat breakfast and one other meal, either lunch or dinner.
The evidence is strong that it’s a very effective way to lose weight. But there’s more to it than that – much has been made of the link between this pattern of eating and increased longevity. Research conducted by the Baltimore National Institute on Aging indicates that levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) are lowered by twice-weekly fasting. Controlling levels of IGF-1 can promote longevity as well as offering protection against a range of diseases.
High levels of IGF-1 are thought to increase the cell divisions associated with cancer, hence the possibility that reducing it may offer defence against it. Although this evidence is encouraging, the sceptical scientific community still feel that more extensive research needs to be conducted before conclusions can be drawn. Some critics have suggested that the extremes involved might result in the development of eating disorder, although there is no hard evidence for this either.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze?
Since the BBC broadcast a documentary about it last year, the diet has grown hugely in popularity, with celebrity support coming from the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Is there something different about this approach to reducing the amount we eat, or is it just another boom and bust fad diet like Atkins or Dukan? According to those who champion it, this approach to reducing calorific intake is much easier to sustain because of the fact that five days out of seven are unrestricted.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze? However hungry you might get on the fast day, is the knowledge that you could have a full English breakfast the next day enough to get you through?
It seems to me that this particular approach to eating might not only be easier to stick to than others, but could also encourage deeper consideration of one’s relationship with food. Having not tried this diet myself, I can’t comment from first-hand experience, but I suspect that on fast days, you are more acutely aware of your body’s need for food than on days when you’re eating whatever you want. By deliberately depriving yourself of the ‘usual’ amount of food, you are choosing to make yourself somewhat uncomfortable which much have psychological and maybe spiritual effects as well as physical ones.
The Islamic month of Ramadan uses fasting as a way of teaching Muslims self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity, as well as encouraging reflection on the suffering of the poor, who may be forced to fast through poverty. Being hungry is used as a vehicle for nurturing the skills needed to maintain self-control – acting as a tool for sustaining mindfulness. Perhaps some of these benefits can be gained through regular intermittent fasting as well.
Advocates of the 5:2 diet talk about quite enjoying the feeling of hunger (knowing that it will be short-lived) and of feeling exhilarated on the fast days and liberated on the days when no restrictions are in place. From the various accounts I’ve read of doing the diet, I have not seen explicit mention of spiritual or psychological benefits, but I have a suspicion that impacts on these domains may go some way towards explaining its popularity.
For many of us, today is the first day back at work after the Christmas break. It’s the time for fresh starts, clean pages, and resolutions. The clichés tell us that the New Year is an opportunity to put some distance between ourselves and last year’s bad habits, ill-advised decisions and unhealthy obsessions.
The Reverend Dr Giles Fraser, speaking on the Today programme’s Thought for the Day this morning, spoke of his childhood pleasure at receiving a new exercise book at the start of a new term. He used this as a platform to go on to talk about the importance of forgiveness, but his mention of the new exercise book took me back to the first day back at middle school after the Christmas holidays.
The pristine, yellow exercise books would be waiting in a crisp pile on the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom. The first task was to write my name, class number, teacher’s name and subject in the lined box on the front cover. I would do this carefully, first in pencil, to make sure my script was as neat and elegant as possible, and then, once satisfied, I’d go over it, allowing the ink to flow from the freshly inserted cartridge in my fountain pen. Finally, once the ink had dried, I would select my cleanest, softest, pencil eraser and rub out the spidery shadow of my pencil-drafted name.
I distinctly remember admiring the look of the newly titled and personalised exercise book, flicking through the clean, empty pages, and promising myself that I would fill it with only the most careful, accurate and neatest work. Compared to the dog-eared, mistake-filled book from last term, it really did seem to represent an invigorating and exciting chance to do things differently.
So, this morning, when I switched on my computer and Google Chrome flashed up a message offering to restore the tabs I had open on the last working day before Christmas, I paused for a moment before declining the offer. And then, when faced with a blank search page, I felt a bit sad that there is no pristine, empty exercise book for me to flick through, internally promising that it will be filled with more thoughtful, careful and considered work than last year’s. Somehow, a clean sweep of tabs on my browser just doesn’t hold the same power to make me feel filled the promise of a new year.
In the digital age, more and more of us are pretty much permanently plugged in to cyber communication of one sort or another. I didn’t look at my Twitter feed for several days over Christmas, but I’m fairly sure it didn’t dry up. With our smart-phones permanently by our sides, for many of us it’s rare that we really create distance between the world ‘out there’ and our inner selves.
Perhaps it’s an odd symbol, but for me the fresh exercise book at the start of a new school term really did offer an opportunity for something akin to a reflective moment, perhaps even a spiritual one. In the absence of fresh new stationery to bring in the New Year, I’m wondering what are our equivalent modern symbols – what small rituals do you have that allow for moments of reflection?
This morning I was looking forward to taking part in a workshop hosted by the Spiritual Capital Foundation led by RSA Fellow Naftali Brawer. Alas, some unexpected and depleting events at home made it difficult for me to attend, and rather than arrive late, flustered, and distracted, I felt the wisest course was to offer my thoughts remotely. So with apologies to Naftali, and the other participants whom I hope to meet later, here is what I would like to have shared.
We were asked to consider a set of questions as a provocation:
- What does meaningful work look like?
Meaning is relational. The point is not so much that personal relationships are meaningful, which is obvious, but more about how different parts of ourselves, domains we operate in, and experiences we regularly have, fit together. Creating meaning at work may not so much be about the explicit purpose of your work activities, but about how your experience of productive activity connects to things you identify with and value.
- How important is the distinction between Work, Job and Career?
Distinctions are only as important as the definitions they rely on, and definitions of anything that really matters – love, wellbeing, wisdom, work – are essentially contested for good reason. I think there can be a wide variety of ways that work can be meaningful and imbued with purpose. We don’t have to rely on the language of ‘career’ or ‘vocation’, because that suggests a relatively linear path of growth, but on the other hand, we probably do need to interrogate the expression “It’s just a job”, because the ‘just’ there has rhetorical force that is not helpful.
- Is work an end in itself of just a means to an end?
Ideally it should be both. Freud’s famous line about love and work being the preconditions for happiness comes to mind.
- Should we bring the whole person to work?
I wonder whether there is a link between the extent to which work is meaningful and the extent to which people are capable of keeping their work and home lives separate.
As much as we can, yes, but we need to respect privacy. And many rely on a strict separation of work and home to function. I wonder, however, whether there is a link between the extent to which work is meaningful and the extent to which people are capable of keeping their work and home lives separate. That would be an interesting question to explore.
- Should work pervade the whole person?
No. Of course it depends on the work, but I think it can take its toll on family and friends if work is all pervading.
- Fragmentation of self and multiple roles
This is the heart of the matter, and links directly to literature on mental complexity which is broadly about our capacity to hold multiple perspectives from a higher-order complexity that allows us to differentiate and integrate them enough to be able to act without falling apart.
Perhaps the key issue about meaning and purpose at work is how we handle the hidden curriculum involved at work – namely what we are tacitly expected to be and know to do the tasks alloted to us. The curriculum at work is, for instance, ‘be congenial, productive, organised, flexible, focussed, cooperative, competitive….’ And then at home the curriculum is be ‘loving, attentive, authoritative, relaxed, available, fun, romantic, organised, forward planning etc’ . In both cases there is also a ‘hidden curriculum’ on what it requires of us to be all of these things, often all at once. This idea of hidden curriculum is developed in great depth in the work of Robert Kegan which we summarised for our report on the psychological demands of the Big Society, but much of the work there is relevant to work more broadly.
Perhaps the key issue about meaning and purpose at work is how we handle the hidden curriculum involved at work – namely what we are tacitly expected to be and know to do the tasks alloted to us.
I think that creating meaning and purpose at work could be about building mental complexity- that this can be something that has genuine value and meaning for people, and can often arise as a collateral benefit of work that might otherwise appear purely instrumental.
- Can/should work be a source of identity?
Of course, but not the only source, not least because it leaves us vulnerable to existential collapse if work goes badly or we lose our jobs.
- Can/should work be a form of creation?
I feel ‘creativity’ is often valorised in ways that are not entirely helpful. I think it is important to have a sense of autonomy, and this allows us to act creatively, but ‘creativity’ as such is not the goal. The goal is more people to experience freedom and know that this freedom has both intrinsic value, in the experience itself, but also extrinsic value in terms of the quality of work that arises from that experience.
I think by this point Naftali would be telling me my five minutes are up, but I would want to squeeze in a mention for The Good Work Project at Harvard which is now a huge body of research and activity. My understanding of its core claim is that Good Work means work that is excellent(high quality), ethical(doesn’t harm, has social value) and engaged(absorbing and meaningful to do).
The theory may have moved on, but the central claim I remember is that good work relates closely to the alignment within any given domain. Broadly, if you, your colleagues, your bosses, your funders, your audience, your stakeholders etc all share the same values and objectives, good work comes relatively easily, but when there is misalingment of objective, values and so worth, good work in that domain is hard, and you are more likely to do ‘compromised work’. The theory and research is more subtle and complicated than that, and I warmly recommend that those interested to know more might watch a former teacher of mine, Howard Gardner, give a talk on the subject here (26.57 minutes in).
While preparing a funding application on a related subject, it felt serendipitous to hear ‘Start of the week’ on Radio Four last night by chance. A couple of quotes that were almost exactly what I was after:
In response to the question: “What do you believe?” Jonathan Safran Foer said: “I’m not only agnostic about the answer, I’m agnostic about the question.”
An earlier post- ‘Don’t believe everything you hear about belief‘- makes some sense of that. Moreover, Richard Holloway, whom I hugely admire, said he was a deeply religious person, but did not profess to any particular belief structure becuase he didn’t think you could capture the mystery of existence in any particular ‘formula’.
And Andrew Marr, opened the discussion by referring to “an increasingly hot tempered public struggle between religious believers and so-called militant atheists, and yet many people, perhaps most people…live their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief….today we are gathered on what I would suggest is that interesting more debatable territory.”
I agree with that and my impression is that people who live in this ‘tepid confusing middle ground’ are indeed a silent majority. Unlike religious believers and committed humanists or atheists, we are neither clearly positional nor particularly tribal. We do not have a kind of ‘religious class consciousness‘ to bind us together and lobby on our behalf.
‘The tepid confusing middle ground’ is not the most elegant expression, but it gets us away from some of the problems with the ‘spiritual but not religious’ language that I have considered earlier.
Maybe there is some fruitful link between this kind of existential middle ground, and the economic ground of the ‘squeezed middle’ that Ed Miliband likes to talk about?
Alastair Campbell’s Panorama documentary on Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics was a refreshing attempt to draw attention to the complexity of our alcohol problem. The programme revealed the full range of alcohol consumption patterns, from ritualistic social drinking in working class pubs to professionals quaffing wine like it was water, often alone at home. Campbell also shared the story of his own battles with drink, and made passing references to some of the policies that influence the supply of alcohol.
But what about demand? Throughout the documentary, not once was there any penetrating attempt to make sense of exactly why people drink. It’s not just about unwinding after work, socialising, or having a good time. To quote the man himself, these explanations are bog-standard.
With a national audience looking for insight, this was a missed opportunity to deepen the discussion. Campbell could have called upon at least four useful perspectives that we should be more widely aware of.
First, neuroscience tells us that we drink to reduce associations in our mind. Ethanol, the psychoactive ingredient of alcohol, impairs communication between neurons by weakening the molecules in the walls that separate them, such that electrical signals are not sent as normal and associations between ideas do not emerge as readily. That might sound like a bad thing, but such associations are the basis for our continuous and strenuous efforts to make sense of the world, a burden we could do without. Alcohol typically elevates mood because with fewer associations to bother us, we start living less in our heads, and more in the here and now.
What this means is a bit shocking. Not only do we drink to get drunk, but we get drunk to justify behaviour that is not actually caused by drink at all!
Secondly, and relatedly, psychology suggests we drink to escape the self. When we succeed in this venture we feel great, with less narcissistic chattering and relatively unmediated connection to the people and world around us. But of course alcohol can also make us think only of our selves, leaving us heavy, lost in thought, and disconnected from the world. The reason one of these two things happen, rather than both, is that alcohol causes cognitive narrowing, making us less nimble with our attention. With less flexibility, we tend to focus our reduced cognitive resources on whatever is most salient to us at the time, and ignore almost everything else.
Third, anthropology suggests we drink to allow ourselves to break taboos. However, we should be clear about what is caused by ethanol and what is caused by culture. Anthropologist Kate Fox, supported by a huge body of cross-cultural evidence, argues that while the physiological effects mentioned above are undeniable, the assumptions we make about the impact of such effects should be contested.
Drinking does not make you outspoken, promiscuous, aggressive or rude, and nor need it make you lose control of your behaviour more generally. Such things happen in the UK, but they are self-fulfilling, and happen because of what we collectively expect alcohol to do to us. As Fox puts it: “When people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol.” The problems of drinking-related anti-social behaviour in Britain are therefore about cultural conceptions of what drunkenness means, not what alcohol does.
What this means is a bit shocking. Not only do we drink to get drunk, but we get drunk to justify behaviour that is not actually caused by drink at all! And we do this because we have an ‘ambivalent drinking culture’ where we view alcohol as morally significant, rather than an ‘integrated drinking culture’, where alcohol is morally neutral.
Fourthly, spirituality tells us that we drink to glimpse unity and transcendence. Whatever you think of the the Alcoholics Anonymous process it places spirituality at the heart because it recognises that the compulsion to drink is a perverted spiritual need. By weakening self-consciousness and relaxing the central nervous system, drinking gives a glimpse of transcendence and serves as a kind of secular spiritual experience. The centrality of this link was indicated by William James over a century ago in his classic text On the Varieties of Religious Experience:
“The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the YES function in man…”
For anybody who enjoys a drink, I imagine that much is plausible, but as always James saw deeper:
In modern language I think he means something like this: It’s such a pity that we draw the wrong conclusions from the pleasures of being slightly drunk.
“It is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognise as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning. The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of the larger whole.”
In modern language I think he means something like this: It’s such a pity that we draw the wrong conclusions from the pleasures of being slightly drunk.
The tragedy James alludes to is that when we get this periodic glimpse of being present, at ease with the world, and available for other people, we wrongly think that drinking more will heighten the sensation. Instead, we should ask ourselves more fundamental questions about how we might live our lives, in order to experience such bliss all the time.
“With the emergence of capitalist spirituality we are seeing an attempted takeover of the cultural space traditionally inhabited by “the religions” by a specific economic agenda”
This could be an exam question, but is in fact a line from ’Spirituality and the re-branding of religion’ by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, which features in Religion, Media and Culture: A Reader.
I have been reading various articles of this nature recently as part of our nascent attempts to think about how to make the language of the spiritual less apologetic, and more edifying.
Carrette and King begin by sharing their widely shared frustration at the use of the term:
“The concept represents on the one hand all that is banal and vague about ‘new age’ religiosity, whilst on the other signifying a transcendent quality, enhancing life and distilling all that is positive from the ‘ageing and outdated’ casks of traditional religious institutions.”
They go on to argue that ‘the religious’ has been subject to a “silent takeover” by contemporary capitalist ideologies, mostly through the language of ‘spirituality’. It is suggested that this concept smuggles in social and economic policies geared towards “the neoliberal ideals of privatization and corporatization applied increasingly to all spheres of human life.”
Rather than look for some kind of essence of spirituality, or to define it, dare I say it, definitively, the author s ask “Who benefits from particular constructions of spirituality?”….and, like William James, to pay attention to “The fruits, not the roots” of the term.
In this case, it is argued that by decoupling spirituality from the institutions and social conventions of religion and making it more about individual personal development, often linked to lifestyle and wellbeing products, spirituality becomes a kind of sticking plaster for the neoliberal agenda. If your problems are ‘spiritual’ and not economic and political, so much better for those with political and economic power, because you are more likely to be a compliant citizen and reliable consumer.
If your problems are ‘spiritual’ and not economic and political, so much better for those with political and economic power, because you are more likely to be a compliant citizen and reliable consumer.
But is that the whole story? Part of me takes the point that ‘spirituality’ is not sui-generis, and always has spatial and temporal coordinates. I also think it is generally more productive to think about what a concept does, rather than what it is.
However, while I like to ‘problematize’ as much as the next thinking person, there is a danger of such discussions becoming little more than a dance of discourses….Much of academic sociology seems to take the form: “There are these discourses on subject X. We need to problematize them. Here is another discourse that draws attention to the unstated assumptions, neglected features and inadequate theory of the other discourse. The picture I/we have presented is fuller and richer and poses deeper questions that need further reflection”
Forgive the caricature, but on reading such papers I feel two things:
1) How long (not long- MLK)) before the problematization of the problematization gets published?
2) Now what do we do?
It’s not that I don’t see the need to be aware of how concepts are shaped by historical circumstances, but I do want to avoid drowning in evanescent discourses. I want to hold fast to the idea that however we conceive of ‘the spiritual’ we are speaking about perennial questions and not merely about modern or post-modern questions.
What appears constant is the hunger for meaning, belonging, transcendence and a way of living that makes sense. The interpretations of such things certainly change over time, but if we focus too much on the interpretation we forget that some phenomena, including, I think some such basic spiritual needs, are universal, timeless and deep.
As the Buddha might put it in 21st century language: Will somebody remove this bloody arrow from my stomach, get me a doctor, and tell these people who keep asking me about which country the arrow was made in, and who paid for it, to bugger off?
I have been a big fan of Alain De Botton for a number of years, and have enjoyed many of his books. As an undergraduate I was excited by the very title ‘How Proust can Change your Life‘, before I had even heard of ‘Prooost’, and I remember a diagram on the improbability of a couple meeting on an aeroplane, I think in ‘Essays in Love‘, that made me ponder the idea of fate more deeply than I ever had before. I am also a fan of The School of Life, which he inspired, and broadly support his considerable efforts to make philosophy, non-academically conceived, more engaging, accessible, and, frankly, enjoyable.
I believe Status Anxiety was by far his most powerful contribution. He gave name and form to a pervasive felt sense that constantly eats away at people, and elucidated the individual craving for ‘love from the world’ which pervades almost every aspect of modern life. (On a personal level, I related to the idea as a chess Grandmaster because the chess rating system functions as such a tangible status metric).
I didn’t get much out of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work although it was such a beautifully designed and produced book that I kept expecting to, and enjoyed travelling hopefully. And now I am struggling a bit with Religion for Atheists, which he spoke about at the RSA last week.
He gave name and form to a pervasive felt sense that constantly eats away at people, and elucidated the individual craving for ‘love from the world’ which pervades almost every aspect of modern life.
Richard Holloway, one of the wisest thinkers in the country, seemed to value the book, which gave me pause, especially because he felt it would be most appreciated by “uneasy believers” who would “welcome it like a well of water in a dry place.” In other words De Botton’s reappraisal of religion is thought to be deep and sophisticated enough to revitalise moribund traditions, by reminding them that the true sources of their value are not, and never have been, wedded to doctrine. (Karen Armstrong makes a similar point in The Case for God).
So what’s the problem? Why do I feel, as I recently tweeted, that De Botton doesn’t ‘get it’? As Emma recently wrote, and Cognitive Media beautifully illustrated ”Without a properly articulated framework of values, his arguments for why atheists should grab a bit of religion just don’t stand up.” But that’s just part of the story. Something deeper is bugging me.
I felt a similar dissatisfaction when he interviewed Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (about eight and a half minutes in) and it was related to De Botton’s somewhat promiscuous attitude to ideas. In essence he argues that the value in not subscribing to any particular tradition is that an individual can freely ‘pick and mix’ from all the available ideas and thereby come upon those ideas that suit their needs and interests at a given point in time.
This is not a religious position, but you might call it De Botton’s ‘Life stance’ which is an increasingly popular term used to describe people’s spiritual position, or perspective on how the way they live their lives relates to matters of fundamental concern. (‘a properly articulated framework of values’, even).
My concern for this position is that it doesn’t acknowledge the positional nature of depth, of the need to stick with something even when you don’t like it and it’s not working for you.
De Botton is surely right that you can experience depth in a variety of settings without religious commitment- there is depth in art, architecture, music, literature etc. But I wonder if the kinds of existential challenges we face can be adequately dealt with in this relatively piecemeal fashion. For instance, why read the Bible for insight into human experience when you could read Shakespeare? Why pray to an unknowable God when you could just enjoy the aesthetic power of the sunset?
I think there is an answer, and it relates to a story I came upon from a less revered but much enjoyed cultural resource, the WestWing:
“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.”
A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’
The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”
The integrity of a religious tradition is that it places obstacles in your path that you are obliged to overcome on that path if you want to grow, and cannot eschew by casually rejecting the path and going on to another.
The idea that ‘I have been here before’ and ‘I know the way out’ is what I mean by positional depth in this context. In the context of a shared tradition we recognise similar human needs that are culturally embedded and socially constituted, in a way we cannot by a personal pick and mix approach.
The integrity of a religious tradition is that it places obstacles in your path that you are obliged to overcome on that path if you want to grow, and cannot eschew by casually rejecting the path and going on to another. I don’t quite feel I have nailed it, but I think this might be the ‘it’ that De Botton doesn’t seem to ‘get’.
I’ve just returned from Alain de Botton’s talk on the content of his new book ‘Religion for Atheists’. There was so much in what he said that speaks directly to my personal experience, my academic interests and my current professional life at the RSA that I could quite easily ‘go off on one’. But, time is short, so I will hold back on the ranting and make a just few points in response to Alain’s talk.
In summary, de Botton argues that atheists don’t need God, or the structured philosophy, values and codes of a religion, but they do have spiritual needs that can be met by picking and mixing from all of popular culture. This broad thesis, I am in agreement with, but for me, there’s a massive gaping hole in de Botton’s vision of atheist religiosity.
The Durham Street Auditorium was packed, so along with several other members of RSA staff, and those members of the public unable to get in, I watched the talk from the live video link room in Vault 1. Once it was time for questions, I couldn’t resist sneaking in order to ask one myself and the question I asked him was about the apparent lack of conceptual model for what a modern day atheist stands for.
Without a properly articulated framework of values, his arguments for why atheists should grab a bit of religion just don’t stand up.
Although he intimates that there are general principles of living which are basic common sense and says explicitly that he is in favour of savouring and maintaining the secular preference for complexity, he doesn’t offer a framework for aligning these. Without a properly articulated framework of values, his arguments for why atheists should grab a bit of religion just don’t stand up.
In my view, the vague suggestion that ‘we all know that love is sacred’ isn’t enough. It only works if we reach a conceptual consensus of what love is first. Although I absolutely agree that, as a species, we do have sufficient cultural resources, including religious ones, to find the things that we need to get through life, I don’t think that the idea that we’ll just spontaneously do it without any kind of road map is a robust one.
Beyond the argument he makes in the book, de Botton appears to have got quite carried away with establishing a brand identity for atheism. His vision is grand. His website is graphically impressive, and lays out his plans to build and run atheist temples all over the country, to set up a chain of high street atheist therapy clinics, along with a family of atheist-appropriate spiritual hotels and a repositioning of the role of museums. It all seems a little messianic to me. You can read Steve Rose’s thoughts on this in the Guardian today. For me, there’s something about it which just feels dark. I don’t doubt that de Botton could be onto something in terms of a capitalist venture, but personally I’m more troubled than I am inspired. As I said to him after the event, his business model is better than his conceptual model.
his business model is better than his conceptual model
But, that’s not to say he doesn’t also make some very important points. In the early part of his talk he mentioned the way in which religions provide people with what you might call a calendar of character development. In Christianity, saints days are a regulated reminder to reflect on the spiritual lessons in the stories of each of those saints. Festivals, be they Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, bring light into our lives when the changing seasons bring darkness.
The point of these calendarised events isn’t just to give people a random ‘check in’ though – the structures also guide people through the lifelong quest of coming to understand ourselves and our place in the world. To do this requires perseverance when the going gets tough. Continued reflection, deeper consideration, engaging with the struggle – all of these are a necessary part of the spiritual journey. And, what religion offers is a values-based foundation for this process, which insists on depth.
De Botton’s view of the pick and mix doesn’t seem to account for, take seriously, or accommodate this need for values-driven assessment of where we’re at. And, although some people might be quite good at coming up with their own frameworks and living by them, I don’t trust a vision for atheist religion which is essentially structureless. So, yes, you can accept the non-existence of God, that’s fine. And yes, the idea of keeping the trappings of religion which are helpful is also fine. But, to draw on the metaphor, if you want atheism to resemble or be analogous to religion, you still need a baby in the bath.
Le 21ieme siecle sera spirituel ou ne sera pas – Malraux.
“The 21st Century will be spiritual, or it will not be.” Well said, Malraux.
Spiritual. That other ‘s-word’. Not ‘even spiritual’, ‘almost spiritual’ or some other timorous apology. Why shirk from matters of ultimate concern?
I don’t exactly know what ‘spiritual’ means, but I also don’t know what lots of words I use on a daily basis mean; goodness, happiness, wisdom, freedom, democracy, power, love, equality, joy.
On reflection, most of the things that matter to us are ‘essentially contested’ i.e. the definition is alway a matter of contention. The best you can do is lay out the various conceptions of the concept that matter and declare an interest in which matters most to you in a given context.
On another day, I might make a pitch for a definition of spirituality, perhaps reflecting on self-awareness or reflexvity, something about mystery, aliveness, peace of mind and belonging; or say what is meant by ‘ultimate concern’. I would include something about the unconscious and the numinous, the transcendent, perhaps discipline and commitment, mythos and the sacred, and various other intrigues. It would also be worth reflecting on the nature of spiritual experience and how it differs from spiritual ritual or practice, or indeed other kinds of experience. Something would have to be said about the dark side of spirituality (satanic rituals, football hooliganism etc) and I would definitely mention Ken Wilber’s Pre-Trans fallacy. But defining the term is not my main concern today.
It is not just that we don’t know what we mean by the spiritual, but rather that we are afraid of what the spiritual might mean for us.
What is bugging me is the tendency to apologise for speaking of the spiritual, regardless of what we mean by it.
We are familiar with Freudian slips, but there are different kinds of psychological leakages that are worth paying attention to. I have in mind pervasive statements like: ”Mental, emotional or even spiritual”…”Almost spiritual”, “‘Dare I say ‘spiritual‘?” and so forth.
What is going on here? Why do we appear to be so cautious about this term?
I don’t exactly know what ‘spiritual’ means, but I also don’t know what lots of words I use on a daily basis mean, like goodness, happiness, wisdom, freedom, democracy, power, love, equality, joy. On reflection, most of the things that matter to us are ‘essentially contested’ i.e. the definition is alway a matter of contention.
To begin with the good reasons:
- You can’t go far in an argument without defining your terms, or at least sensing that your interlocuter knows what you are talking about. This is not easy with spiritual.
- Whatever it means, the spiritual is deeply personal, private even, and we don’t want to be intrusive or presumptive.
- The term is closely related to religion, and there are a lot of zealous atheists out there. You never know when somebody might assume you are a naive idiot without giving you a fair hearing.
- There is a lot of vapid narcissistic activity that passes for spirituality. Some view things like carrying crystals in your pocket, getting over-excited about coincidences, summoning personal angels and similar b**locks as spiritual. Good luck to them, but I don’t.
- Spirituality is easily conflated with spiritualism, with seances, spirits etc and few people want to be associated with the likes of Derek Acorah.
- As Howard Gardner indicated when considering whether to add ‘spiritual intelligence’ to his set of multiple intelligences, the problem is the ‘uncertain ontology’ of the spiritual- the term is a bit of a catch-all for things that are important but elusive, but does not seem to have any settled underlying coherence.
- Indeed, studies in the Sociology of Religion suggest that there is no coherent notion among those who use the term. There is no obvious ‘pattern that connects’ (Bateson) the different uses of spirituality.
- Even though a millions of British people consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” they don’t seem to know what they mean by that.
- The spiritual faces two big opponents coming from different perspectives: scientific materialism and established religion. Both view ‘spirituality’ as a young-pretender without legitimacy.
The spiritual is to the conceptual what Turkey is to the EU. We know we should accept it, but we are not sure what we are letting ourselves in for.
Such reasons, and I’m sure there are more, make some sense of why we hesitate to use the word. If the reserve was purely intellectual, I would respect that and move on, but it feels to me like something deeper is going on. In many people I sense something more like ‘spiritophobia’- fear of the spiritual. It is not just that we don’t know what we mean by the spiritual, but rather that we are afraid of what the spiritual might mean for us.
The spiritual is to the conceptual what Turkey is to the EU. We know we should accept it, but we are not sure what we are letting ourselves in for. If we were to let the term become an intellectual bona-fide what would follow?
Facing up to ‘the spiritual’ obliges us to problematize human nature, to think more deeply about our values and our direction, and to ask ourselves the big questions on a more regular basis. Spirituality is discomforting and we prefer not to think too much about what it points towards, for fear it will oblige us to change our lives.What I am here for? Am I wasting my life? What really matters to me?
But essential too. Malraux’s point is that most of the world is run without really facing up to these questions. And so we live in a world with a climate crisis, a burgeoning population, ubiquitous terrorism, nuclear weapons, and the recurring possibility of financial meltdown.
But essential challenges that require some deep thinking. For such reasons, and more, perhaps we should speak of the spiritual more often, even if we don’t know what it means.