Spirituality: a useful and inclusive definition

Thames at night (3)

I often hear the distinction made about being spiritual but not religious. However, spirituality is hard to define.

I came across a useful working definition of spirituality by Simon Robinson;
‘Awareness and appreciation of the other (including the self, other person, group, environment or deity)
Capacity to respond to the other
The development of significant life meaning based upon these relationships’

This kind of meaning, Robinson argues, includes ‘the development of faith and hope, both in a generic sense, life purpose and reconciliation.’

This rings true for me when I think of the many conversations with students and staff who are reflecting on their growing understanding of how they relate to the full range of their own experiences, how they relate to others, and how they are making sense of God, nature, or the cosmos (for this definition the ultimate ‘Other’ does not have to be God).

Religion, Robinson argues, involves ‘a particular, systematic practice of spirituality, with shared doctrine which focuses on the Divine’. The difference is having ‘shared doctrine’. Of course, ‘doctrine’ can be secular as well as religious.

Simon Robinson is Professor of Applied and Professional Ethics at the Leeds Metropolitan University.

Robinson, S and Katulushi, C (eds.) (2005)Values in Higher Education. Leeds: Aureus & The University of Leeds.
Robinson, S. (2008) Spirituality, ethics and care. London: JKP.

Religion for Atheists

Yesterday evening I went with my colleague Rikke to hear Alain de Botton talk about his new book ‘Religion for Atheists’. The title sounds like he wants to create a new religion for atheists and the media and commentators have been quick to ridicule this. Actually he is exploring the positive things that secular humanists could learn from religions. The examples he gives of things humanist might see of value in religion include  a commitment to offering education, the benefits of being organised, the communal dimension to experience, the acknowledgement that people are sensing beings and not just the holders of rational beliefs, and an unashamed sense of purpose in the use of art. It was a bigger list than I was anticipating.

It was at times uncomfortable to listen to someone who can catalogue so clearly the damage caused when religion goes bad. At times he has a quite idealised view of the religious life. I suspect that his broad brush strokes about so many subjects would not stand up too well to close historical scrutiny. However, it was good to hear an atheist who has some understanding of religion and spirituality as it is actually lived. There is a hope of positive dialogue between religion and atheism out of this. Makes a change from the usual atheist practice of setting up of  a false picture of religion and then demolishing it.

We had great seats in the middle of the front row of the upper circle.  During the Q and A the chair noticed that there was one clergyman in the audience and  he called on me to ask a question. Which I did but … now I am out of time, so the question will be in the next post.

Some of de Botton's 'followers' queue for an audience ( and to get thier books signed)

Atheism and Interfaith

Here is the link to an article in the Guardian Online that Rory Fenton wrote about the need to find ways to have dialogue between religious and philosophical world views.

It gives a good account of some of the initiatives that have been tried by Imperial Interfaith to include the athiest and humanist viewpoints. Rory was Imperial College Student Union’s first Interfaith Officer, a post created last year. 

In the public sphere the boundary betwee the religious and the secular points of view is not often marked by grace or hospitality on either side. This can be equally true in the Univeristy as well.It is good that students from different religions are thinking carefully about how to use the dialogue skills they practice amongst themselves to this other area of conflict bewteen religion and secularity.

Picture from the Imperial Interfaith T-Shirt.