Spirituality and its discontents

Greg Dawes

Epicurus, Nuremberg Chronicle 1493
Epicurus, Nuremberg Chronicle 1493

There’s a lot of talk these days about ‘spirituality’ and health. But as a student of religions I am deeply allergic to this use of the word spirituality. An invitation to contribute to this blog seemed a good chance to explain why.

Let me begin with the way the term is used. A widely cited definition is that given by Christina Pulchalski. ‘Spirituality’, she says,

is a dynamic and intrinsic aspect of humanity through which persons seek ultimate meaning, purpose, and transcendence, and experience relationship to self, family, others, community, society, nature, and the significant or sacred. Spirituality is expressed through beliefs, values, traditions, and practices.”

What I want to note here is the ambiguity this definition embodies, one found in most recent uses of the term. The word ‘spirituality’ is commonly used to refer to two quite different realities.

It is used, first of all, to refer to a distinctive set of human needs. Those needs overlap, but go beyond, what we may describe as ‘emotional’ needs. Perhaps the most striking is the need to attribute meaning or significance to our lives. We generally achieve this by relating our activities to something greater: a goal or purpose that goes beyond the confines of our all-too-short existence. For some, bringing up children can help to meet this need, as can dedication to what we consider an important career, or craft, or profession. But there are other needs that could be described as ‘spiritual’. An example would be the need to feel we belong somewhere, to feel rooted in and connected to a particular place or community.

That there are such human needs seems clear. They may only become visible when more basic needs have been satisfied – those who are struggling to find food are unlikely to worry about the meaning of life – but they are always there, beneath the surface.

There is, however, a second way in which ‘spirituality’ is used: to refer to the particular ways in which people try to meet these needs. Pulchalski’s definition refers to these as ‘beliefs, values, traditions, and practices’. There are, of course, a bewildering variety of such ways. They form a spectrum, ranging from the entirely secular to the explicitly religious. We may, for instance, express the need to feel connected to a place or community by joining a club, or seeking political office, or going hiking in the mountains, or volunteering for community work, as well as by joining a church.

The problem here is that the word ‘spirituality’ is not a neutral description of these beliefs, values, traditions, and practices. It has religious connotations. Until recently, it was used almost exclusively in the context of the Christian faith, where it referred to either a general ‘regard for things of the spirit’ or a particular way of living the religious life (as in ‘Carmelite spirituality’). And of course the root of the word is the term ‘spirit’, which traditionally referred to an immaterial being, such as a god, spirit, demon, or angel, or perhaps some immaterial substance or power (such as mana). Pulchalski’s definition also has this religious bias, with its talk of ‘ultimate meaning’ and ‘the sacred’.

Lucretius 1495
Lucretius 1495 edition

Given these religious associations, what message is conveyed when we use this term? It is that the paradigmatic (and perhaps the best) way of meeting these needs is by way of some kind of religion. But this is (to put it mildly) a contested claim. Even in the ancient world, there were those who disputed it. Epicurus and his followers, for instance, did not openly deny the existence of gods, but believed that for the purposes of living a good life, the gods could (and should) be ignored. Lucretius held we could learn to live meaningful lives in a universe composed of nothing but ‘atoms and the void’.

There is, however, a further problem with this use of the word ‘spirituality’. It is often claimed there is a correlation between spirituality and health. This is still disputed, but let me grant it, for the sake of the argument. The problem is that not all ‘spiritual’ paths are likely to be equal in this respect. Some may be positively pernicious. Is a religion that teaches that suffering is God’s punishment for sin a positive form of spirituality? What about one that allows for ‘plural marriage’, or encourages genital mutilation, or teaches apostates can be executed, or relies on mind-altering drugs? And who is to decide?

This problem becomes acute when we go beyond recognising ‘spiritual’ needs, and begin appointing experts (chaplains and others) to help people meet these needs. If we do this, we cannot avoid favouring certain beliefs, values, traditions, and practices. We may appoint Jewish and Muslim chaplains, but what about practitioners of Wicca (modern witchcraft) or self-proclaimed pagans, or Scientologists, or practitioners of Aleister Crowley’s religion of Thelema (‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’)? Do we appoint Epicurean chaplains, who teach people to resist the seductive power of religion (and thus the other chaplains)?

There is a long-standing practice in Western societies of the state remaining neutral in such matters, of favouring no particular vision of the good life. It is hard to see how this practice can be maintained if our public institutions take upon themselves the task of fostering ‘spirituality’.

What follows from these reflections? Firstly, we should not go beyond a simple recognition of the kind of needs that are described as ‘spiritual’. We must not favour any particular way of meeting those needs. Secondly, we should find some other term with which to describe these needs. ‘Spirituality’ carries too much baggage. Victor Frankl famously spoke of ‘logotherapy’, where logos means something like ‘meaning’. But if that is too obscure we could speak of ‘existential’ needs. What is clear is that some alternative is needed.

Dr Greg Dawes: Greg Dawes is Associate Professor of Philosophy & Religion at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

3 thoughts on “Spirituality and its discontents”

  1. hi Greg and thanks for your thoughtful blog.

    Whilst there may be arguments about the way in which the term spirituality has been used over time, I think you have a fair point about the term spirituality.

    I work as a spiritual care coordinator at a public hospital with responsibility, along with others, to ensure that spiritual care is embedded into the system instead of being a religious add on. We have explored the literature and tried a number of methods but still come up against problems in the every day usage of this word.

    Some people still connect it with religion and more particularly the Christian tradition in New Zealand, whilst others see it as somewhat woolly and having to do with any manner of possibilities. We are trying to ground ourselves in the very useful definitions that have come from NZ and other places, one of which you have used in your blog. At the moment I’m tending to lean towards the Waldegrave et al definition with spirituality being primarily about relationship. That said, the word still presents problems in our setting.

    As we talk about this situation (a lot!) some of us are feeling as though what we are often on about in conversation with patients, families, whanau and staff are the existential questions that you note towards the end of your blog. Sometimes those have a god quotient attached to them, often not, but all, as you rightly observe using Frankl’s approach, are about meaning, and meaning in tough times.

    What it comes down to for us is being able to talk about this aspect of people’s lives in ways within a frantic hospital setting that makes sense for most people. For staff, patients, their families and whanau to ‘get it’ in a short sentence so that conversation can unfold easily about what matters to a person, and, we do not put people off by using terms that can frighten and alienate.

    Thanks for thinking about this from your slightly removed perspective. It’s very helpful. Sometimes we can get a bit too intense about our own value here on the ground and try to stay with what we know because it feels safe and comfortable. I appreciate being rattled a bit!

    Kind regards – Sande

  2. Hi Sande and Greg,

    I think that one of the issues at the heart of this debate is the fact that religious discourse has captured the use of the term spirituality to the point that many who are religious no longer accept that those who are not religious can have any claim to using the term spirituality. This is unfortunate and we would do well to recognise that religion is actually a very structured form of spirituality, but is not in itself a complete definition of what it is to be spiritual.

    We can learn a lot from indigenous expressions of how spirituality is defined and located. The Maori concept of wairoa is far broader in its concept and understanding than simply being a religious expression and captures the fact that humanity is eminently spiritual. Some choose to define and express this spirituality through religion, others choose to define and express their spirituality through other mechanisms such as music, art, environments etc

    I think a key focus for future dialogue is to free spirituality from the shackles of religion and allow it to be explored in its fullness.

    Kind regards


  3. Absolutely Simon. Sounds like you’re channelling Elizabeth MacKinlay there with the doorway approach. Love it!

    And I so agree with spirituality needing to be freed from the shackles of religion. One of the struggles we deal with in the hospital is colonisation by Christianity, that does not, in actuality, countenance any other story in the delivery of spiritual care in the public hospital system in New Zealand. And not forgetting the colonisation and fragmentation of the human person by medical science. All done with the best of intentions but that’s how colonisation works best!

    May we work together to open up the possibilities for people to be free to be experts in their own lives, inviting ‘professionals’ to partner with them and not being subservient to one dominant way of understanding.

    Thanks for joining in Simon

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