Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Spiritual but not religious? Put "holistic" on your census form

Here's the response of William Bloom (co-director of the Foundation for Holistic Spirituality and author of Solution: the Holistic Manifesto and the forthcoming The Power of Modern Spirituality) to The Guardian's question of the week in its "Comment is Free: Belief" online section: "What should we tell the census about our religious affiliation?"
Spiritual but not religious? Put "holistic" on your census form

An awareness of life's magic benefits physical and mental health – those who feel this way should speak with a coherent voice

The debate between secularists and religious believers is now hopelessly out of date and obscures a much more important perspective in contemporary religious culture. This new perspective is best described as "spiritual but not religious", or holistic.

At the heart of this approach is an instinctive appreciation that it is normal and healthy to experience and be moved by the wonder and vitality of nature and all creation. This fundamental human experience of awe and joie de vivre is both compatible with a scientific world view and also underpins the personal experience in religion. In many ways it was oppressed or disguised by traditional religions, because it was too individualistic to fit the authority structures of church and temple.

Secularists too recognise this experience of wonder. In fact, one of Richard Dawkins's gurus, EO Wilson, the father of sociobiology, tagged it "biophilia" and suggested that it is the primary source of the religious instinct.

It is important that this perspective is democratically recognised by the census because it has many important implications for education and health, religious studies curriculums and pastoral care, conflict resolution and communal wellbeing.

At the moment this world view has no coherent voice and no representation on all those decision-making and consultative bodies where the traditional faith communities sit. Because of this, I have allied myself with the movement to put "holistic" in the census religion box and create a platform.

The number of people who hold this perspective is debatable, but the authoritative World Values Survey, a research project conducted internationally over decades and based in the University of Michigan, suggests that in societies that are educated and democratic, up to 70% of the population has moved on from traditional faith to this more "generalised spirituality".

In the media, this approach is already an accepted part of culture under the mind-body-spirit banner. The education acts, Ofsted and the NHS, including the Royal College of Psychiatrists, all use the word "spirituality' as distinct from religion and assert that best practice must include it.

If we appreciate that an awareness of life's magic is good for our physical and psychological health, and can also motivate us to better citizenship and a more harmonious life style, then a careful exploration is sensible and necessary. This is a mature approach to spirituality that has learned the lessons of the enlightenment, can avoid superstition and patriarchal hierarchies, and is grounded in a normal and populist experience. It merits serious attention and research.

But our nation's wellbeing agenda and the resources to support it are guided by political realities. So the census provides an opportunity for the spiritual-but-not-religious to demonstrate their numbers and influence policymaking. At the last census there was a good-humoured protest gesture of almost 400,000 people writing Jedi into the religion box, but that was a wasted opportunity because there was no coherent thinking behind it.

Society has moved forward. Traditional loyalties to single faiths are dissolving as, informed by multiculturalism and global awareness, people respect the positive essence of religion but want to avoid the conflict-ridden and confining superstructures.

For want of a better term, putting "holistic" in the religion box may be the best and most hopeful signal for this census.

Read this article on The Guardian's website, along with reader comments:

The Foundation for Holistic Spirituality is a campaigning and educational body working in the emerging culture where spirituality, education, healthcare and citizenship converge. Find out more about it here:

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