A Humanist Encounter with Faith & Spirituality

This is the text of an article published in the June 2016 edition of “Interreligious Insight”, the journal of the World Congress of Faiths.

‘Spiritual’ is a word most humanists avoid because of its lack of definition and its religious connotations. And most humanists feel alienated by the word ‘faith’, regarding it as synonymous with ‘religion’ and ‘belief in the absence of evidence’. So a World Council of Faiths conference in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral titled ‘Promoting spiritual life: an interfaith perspective’ was not my natural habitat. But that was where I found myself early in 2016.

I have had enough ‘interfaith’ experience – yes, that’s another alienating term – to know that the people involved are almost always friendly and interesting, and that there are invariably areas of common ground. This event was no exception and I felt welcome. And my concerns about the relevance to me of substance of the conference were largely dispelled by the opening talk, ‘An overview of current approaches to spirituality’, by the Revd Canon James Woodward, Principal of Sarum College. He emphasised both that he did not know whether ‘spirituality’ was valid concept – referring to it as a ‘Polyfilla’ word – and that, as far as British Christianity in its present institutional form was concerned: ‘It is over’. That put paid to some of my preconceptions!

A huge transition

James Woodward’s words echoed those of Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead in the introduction to their 2015 paper ‘A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools’[i] ‘The last twenty-five years have witnessed some of the most significant shifts in religious belief and practice since the Reformation’. The changes they’re referring to have two characteristics:

  • A major decline in Anglican identity has been accompanied by a major rise in those who identify as non-religious, who currently comprise around half the British population. That will increase, as the non-religious proportion is higher among the young.
  • Within the large minority who retain a religious identity, ‘stronger’ forms of faith – non-denominational Christianity, including Pentecostalism, and Islam – are becoming increasingly prominent. Anglicanism, while important, will find itself in a minority. To quote Professor David Voas[ii], a specialist in population studies: ‘The future of religion in Britain is to be found in Islam and the black majority churches’.

40 years of British Social Attitudes survey data tell the story:BSA trend chart 1983-2015

This is a huge transition. The most serious attempt so far to address it and come up with practical proposals for the way forward is the Woolf Institute’s ‘Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life: living with difference – community, diversity and the common good’ which reported at the end of 2015. The commission consisted of 20 people from across the spectrum, chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss[iii]. They considered the issues under six headings (they called them ‘conversations’): vision, education, media, dialogue, action and law. Underpinning their work is this statement in the report’s preface: ‘There has been general agreement that in today’s society it is essential not only to understand religion and belief but also to reflect on how they interact with each other at local and national levels. Indeed, it is only with such an understanding that communities can be sustained, and that people can live with difference and contribute to the common good.’

Both religious people and humanists have a common interest in helping ensure that the outcome of this major change is a harmonious, well-integrated and, I would argue, secular plurality.

Getting the terminology clear

To do that, it’s essential that we get the language clear. Three terms in particular often lead to confusion: ‘Secularism’, ‘Humanism’ and ‘Spiritual’.

In broad terms, most British secularists see ‘Secularism’ as meaning a situation where:

  • the State is neutral in matters of religion and belief;
  • freedom of religion and belief, and their expression and practice, are protected, provided the rights of others are respected;
  • the same, democratically-determined, law applies equally to everyone;
  • no one should be either privileged or disadvantaged on the grounds of their religious or non-religious beliefs.

So Secularism does not mean Atheism or Humanism; or denying the influence of Christianity on British and European history and culture; or denying the freedom of religious individuals or institutions to participate in public life and express their views. But it does mean that their views are not given greater weight than others, or considered more immune to challenge, simply because they’re faith-based.

There are various definitions of ‘Humanism’ in its modern sense, including the International Humanist & Ethical Union’s 2002[iv] ‘Amsterdam Declaration’ . This is from the British Humanist Association’s (BHA’s) website: ‘The word humanist has come to mean someone who:

  • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic);
  • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals;
  • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.’

A humanist is not, therefore, someone who is by definition anti-religious. In fact there is a spectrum of views on that: some humanists/atheists are indeed opposed to religion in all its forms; others are ‘anti-religious privilege’ and ‘anti-bad-things-done-and-said-in-the-name-of-religion’ but less concerned about others’ personal beliefs and happy to seek common ground with people of faith.

Of the 50% of so of the population who are non-religious, most[v] – but certainly not all – are broadly humanistic in their beliefs and outlook, whether or not they label themselves as ‘humanists’.

‘Spiritual’ is more problematic, baggy term, with multiple meanings. Broad definitions are fine, but attempting not to deal with the issue at all by saying ‘We know what we mean’ can only perpetuate confusion.

For example, how are we to understand the result of a 2013 YouGov poll[vi] conducted for Professor Linda Woodhead’s ‘Westminster Faith Debates’ (see chart)?

Identity pie

We can only guess what respondents meant when they answered the question.  When I expressed concern at the conference about the word’s multiple meanings, James Woodward asked if I had an alternative, and what I thought the meanings were. I readily admitted that I do not know of another word that covers all the ground. But to me it is used to mean three things:

  1. our inner human lives, including our sense of meaning and purpose;
  2. specific types of subjective experience usually described using words such as ‘transcendent’, or ‘connectedness’, ranging from the mundane to ‘peak experiences’;
  3. the manifestation of a real but non-physical ‘spiritual’ realm to which some people attribute these types of subjective experiences – the territory often claimed by religion.


Rather than argue about the definition, I think it would be best always to make clear what we mean when we use it, or – as I tend to do – avoid using it altogether.

A good illustration of the dangers of muddled thinking here was provided by a 2009 debate on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme between the humanist philosopher A.C.Grayling and the Anglican broadcaster Christina Rees. It was about the BBC’s long-contested policy of excluding non-religious speakers from the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot.  In defending the ban, Christina Rees said that ‘Most people, more than 80% [sic],understand life as having a spiritual dimension’ and accused A.C.Grayling of ‘coming from a position that decries the spiritual dimension…a partial and diminished perspective…’ as ‘there is more to life than you can see, touch and measure’. This is a classic example of a slippery use of ‘spiritual’: she was eliding its three meanings to suggest that people who do not believe in a non-physical ‘spiritual realm’ are ‘Mr.Spock’-like creatures, lacking inner lives, emotions or the ability to experience a sense of wider connectedness. Her argument was effectively that the ‘thoughts’ of the non-religious are implicitly of less value than those of the religious because only the latter are fully human. This, of course, is rubbish.

It also illustrates the sort of sterile ‘religion good/atheism bad’ (or vice versa) debate that broadcasters may favour but which serves mainly to entrench existing positions, as opposed to dialogue aimed at enhancing understanding of both commonalities and differences.

‘Spiritual’ in the sense of our inner lives

Whether we are religious or non-religious, we are all human beings with inner lives. As the 1993 BHA ‘Human Spirit’ leaflet put it: ‘…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.’

It was this sense of ‘spiritual’, and especially in the context of health, that Dr Desmond Biddulph, President of the Buddhist Society (and a psychiatrist), discussed in his conference presentation ‘How can faiths work together to promote the value of spirituality?’ He urged us to help others feel less isolated, more able to shed fears and live fully. I couldn’t share all of his Buddhist perspective, or the implication that those who are of no ‘faith’ have no part to play in helping people who need the support of an independent fellow human being. Nevertheless, in the sense of acknowledging, supporting and perhaps developing both the human inner life and our shared humanity, there is plenty of common ground here.

As we progress through the transition to a majority non-religious, plural society, the practical issue of delivering compassionate and empathetic support to non-religious people in vulnerable situations needs to be addressed. One of the growing areas for attention by the BHA is Pastoral Support  in hospitals and prisons. The trained and accredited humanists who do this work in hospitals are usually embedded in chaplaincy teams and, naturally, they deal with the same types of human issues and concerns as their religious colleagues.

Under guidelines issued in 2015[vii], NHS bodies in England are obliged for the first time to provide pastoral support and care to non-religious people on the same basis as chaplaincy is provided to the religious. That’s significant as most non-religious people prefer to talk to someone who thinks like them rather than a vicar, imam or rabbi. Unfortunately, the approach of the Established Church to this development has in some cases been to defend the status quo rather than facilitate the change to a plurality of provision in which the non-religious are properly respected.

‘Spiritual’ in the sense of subjective experience

In ‘The Book of Atheist Spirituality’[viii], the French atheist philosopher, André Comte-Sponville, describes what he calls a ‘mystical experience’:

‘The first time it happened I was in the forest in the north of France. I must have been twenty five or twenty six… That particular evening, some friends and I had gone for a walk in the forest we liked so much. Night had fallen. We were walking. Gradually our laughter faded, and the conversation died down. Nothing remained but our friendship, our mutual trust and shared presence, the mildness of the night air and of everything around us…My mind empty of thought, I was simply registering the world around me – the darkness of the undergrowth, the incredible luminosity of the sky, the faint sounds of the forest…only making the silence more palpable. And then, all of a sudden…What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only – a surprise. Only – this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy with neither subject nor object …Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All…. “This is what Spinoza meant by eternity”, I said to myself – and naturally, that put an end to it.’

What he’s talking about is a ‘peak’ human experience. I recognise it because I’ve had one too.  Most religious people would call this a ‘spiritual experience’. In this example, it’s particularly powerful. But it’s on the same spectrum as the experience created by great art, whether it’s the shiver down the spine from a Beethoven slow movement, or the instant of human connectedness from a great painting, novel, film or play; or the gentle silence of a country scene; or the sense of awe and wonder at the stars on a dark night.

Albert Einstein put it in a cosmological context[ix]:

 ‘There are moments when one feels free from one’s own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny, only being.’

This is non-religious ‘spirituality’ in Comte-Sponville’s sense. Einstein isn’t suggesting there’s a spiritual realm or nature-defying miracles. He’s talking about enhanced human experience, in this case triggered by the natural world. Many artists try to create a similar response. As the painter Mark Rothko said: ‘A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.’

This type of conscious transcendent experience is not the only type of subjective experience described as ‘spiritual’. Marianne Rankin is Director of Communications for The Alister Hardy Trust. In her conference talk: ‘The personal experience of the spiritual: its variety and commonalities’, she reported that the Trust’s ‘Religious Experience Research Centre’ has collected around 6,000 accounts of first-hand ‘spiritual’ experiences since its foundation in 1969. Some of these are ‘Near Death Experiences’, in which people who recover consciousness from near-fatal conditions report experiences which often have common characteristics, such as walking down a tunnel towards a bright light. Such experiences have been observed across cultures and can be found in literature dating back to ancient Greece. Others are ‘Out of Body’ experiences, often associated with sleep or anaesthetic, in which people report the sensation of floating above their own bodies.

Like the other examples, they can be tremendously powerful and many people who have experienced them are totally convinced that they are a manifestation of a ‘spiritual realm’ in which their soul is separated from their body. The difference here between the religious person and most humanists is not in the power of the subjective experience itself, but in whether they consider it to be a manifestation of the way our brain and bodies work, or a manifestation of disembodied soul and a ‘spiritual realm’ – physical versus non-physical.

It was notable that Marianne Rankin’s talk did not deal with that. Perhaps wrongly, I had the impression that The Alister Hardy Trust’s library of experiences is seen as evidence in support of the ‘spiritual realm’ hypothesis, or at least that it is built on the premise that the hypothesis is true, despite the fact that Sir Alistair Hardy was a distinguished evolutionary biologist. Yet there is an extensive, and growing, body of science providing physical explanations for these phenomena and examples of how they can be reproduced artificially[x]. And there is no objective evidence for the ‘spiritual realm’ hypothesis. To claim that a subjective ‘spiritual’ experience or sensation is evidence of a disembodied realm of soul and spirit is, to me, rather like saying that the pain of shutting your fingers in a closing drawer is evidence of a disembodied realm of pain and suffering. It isn’t.

But that difference of view does not make the subjective experiences themselves any less powerful or less universal. Our ability to have a sense of transcendence and connectedness with others is an important feature of our humanity and one of the characteristics of human consciousness – a mysterious phenomenon we are barely beginning to understand.

Religions generally give such experiences a higher priority in life than Humanism does because they equate them with getting closer to God. They deliberately set up the conditions in which they are more likely to occur: awe-inspiring architecture, emotionally-powerful music, practices of contemplation and meditation which make people slow down and provide the sort of pause in daily life offered by Comte-Sponville’s silent walk in the forest. In some cultures, drugs are employed. These experiences are almost always positive and life-affirming, so I think there are practical things the non-religious can learn from the religious here (though we’d probably best avoid the mind-altering drugs). The transmutation of Buddhist meditation practice to secular ‘mindfulness’ is an example.

Spiritual transformation and the public realm

In ‘Integrating spirituality into the public realm’, Dr Jonathan Rowson, former Director of the Social Brain Centre at the Royal Society of Arts, was content to use the term spirituality without defining it. He argued that ‘spirituality’ is nothing if it is not ‘transformative’ and that meaningful transformation is not in the realm of inner contemplation, but rather should be a driver for political action to improve life for other people. For him, climate change was the top priority.

There is no doubt that many religious people are driven to do good works by their beliefs, just as many non-religious people also devote their time and money for the benefit of others. And there is validity in the concern that a religious practice devoted solely to personal enlightenment is less beneficial to society than action to help others. But it is hard to accept the principle that subjective ‘spiritual’ experience ‘ought’ to be transformative or – more worryingly – that ‘spirituality’ can be invoked to legitimise political action. There are, and have been throughout history, too many examples of bad things legitimised on the basis of ‘spirituality’ – the US Christian Right and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia come to mind. And most humanists would dispute the idea of elevating ‘spiritual’ motivations above other types of motivation, such as simply thinking that something is ethically right because it makes the world a better place.

Many people of faith and many humanists are interested in similar areas of social and political concern and action – including climate change – there is undoubtedly common ground here. But why bring ‘spirituality’ into it?

In conclusion

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life recommended that: ‘It should be a high priority, not only for interfaith organisations but also for all religion and belief groups, educational institutions, public bodies and voluntary organisations, to promote opportunities for encounter and dialogue.’

The World Congress of Faiths does just that (even if I find the name rather excluding). Although the conference did not reduce my misgivings about the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’, I’m glad I attended. It is always good to hear a spectrum of intelligent speakers, and to learn of the academic work taking place. More significantly, the issues covered touch on important aspects of our shared human experience. As the transition to a plural society with a non-religious majority and a varied religious minority moves further forward, we all have a role in ensuring they are not neglected.


[i] Charles Clarke, Linda Woodhead June 2015: ‘A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools’,

[ii] Ruth Gledhill, ‘Christianity Today’ 9 February 2015: ‘Future of religion in Britain is Islam and black majority churches’

[iii] Woolf Institute December 2016 ‘Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life’

[iv] The Amsterdam Declaration, International Humanist & Ethical Union’s World Congress, 2002.

[v] An Ipsos-MORI poll  for the British Humanist Association in 2007 concluded that ‘Just over a third (36%) of the British population has a humanist outlook on life’.

[vi] YouGov/University of Lancaster Survey Results June 2007

[vii] ‘NHS Chaplaincy Guidelines 2015: Promoting Excellence in Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care’

[viii] ‘The Book of Atheist Spirituality’, André Comte-Sponville 2006, English translation 2007.

[ix] In a letter to  Queen Elizabeth of Belgium.

[x] For example: Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt, Trends in Cognitive Science, October 2011: ‘There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences’.
Charles Q. Choi, Scientific American 12 September 2011: ‘Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations – Seeing your life pass before you and the light at the end of the tunnel, can be explained by new research on abnormal functioning of dopamine and oxygen flow’