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’.
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.