Is there a taboo around spirituality in British culture?
There's a strange disjuncture in our culture. On the one hand, the majority of people hold spiritual or religious beliefs. In a ComRes poll in 2013, 59% of British people said they believe in spiritual forces (God, spirits, demons and so on), and 52% believed they affected life on Earth. In another ComRes poll this year, 46% said they believe in life after death - the same number as those who don't. So, although church attendance has declined steeply, we're still a culture where a majority believe in the spiritual dimension of life, and where many follow forms of spiritual practice like yoga, meditation, prayer, psychedelics and so on.
Yet this aspect of people's identity is not really covered in our media, particularly in the intelligent media, by which I mean broadsheets, magazines like The Economist or Prospect, Radio 4, book festivals and so on. In the upper echelons of our culture, I think religion is seen as a bit reactionary and bonkers, while spirituality is seen as flaky. At the height of the Enlightenment, the theologian Friedrich Schleiemacher wrote of religion's 'cultured despisers'. Today the spiritual side of existence is not so much despised as ignored.
If, like me, you're spiritual or religious and you work in the intelligent media - or academia - you keep your beliefs to yourself. There's a sense you're in territory that is, not exactly hostile, but inhospitable to those beliefs. If you meet others interested in spirituality (you meditate? you go to church? you've tried ayahuasca??) you communicate your sympathy through private conversations and secret handshakes. Off-microphone, as it were.
Take the BBC, the closest thing we have to a national church. It helps create the culture that binds this country together, and more than any other institution it steers our national conversation. And I adore it. But you'd be hard-pressed to find much in its copious output that explores spirituality. There are still a handful of religious programmes, but one feels they're more the product of weary box-ticking for the ageing faithful (Songs of Praise, Thought for the Day), rather than excited and enthusiastic exploration of spiritual reality. Radio 4 has Beyond Belief, which is great, but not much else. The Beeb produces wonderfully-inspiring nature programmes (Planet Earth) or science programmes (The Wonders of the Universe) but little that genuinely and sympathetically explores the spiritual dimension of life. The one place that does unashamedly discuss spirituality as a positive force is Radio 6 - musicians are happier to talk about it.
Or take the Hay Festival, which I also love. This year, the theme is Reformations. There's not a single talk covering spirituality, and of the six talks covering 'religion', five aren't really about religion at all (have a look). The only talk at the festival exploring the religious or spiritual as a positive force in our lives is mine. God help us!
You notice the weird absence of the spiritual in our culture when you go abroad. I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, which is the biggest book festival in Asia. The line-up there included the guru Sadhguru, talking on the main stage about his ecstatic experiences growing up. It was surreal for me, as a Brit, to hear someone on the main stage of a book festival talking about the spiritual life. Like someone openly talking about being gay in the 1950s.
Now I know it's banal to say 'oh India is so much morespiritual than the UK'. Secular Indians get exasperated with the spiritual exoticism Westerners project onto India. But it's true that spirituality is far more mainstream in Indian culture. Many of the educated professionals I met on my travels spent time in an ashram, for example. One investment banker I met spent half the evening enthusing about Osho.
I'm not saying Indian culture is perfect - if anything, it's perhaps too spiritual. There's an over-credulous adoration of huckster gurus like Osho or quack ideas like astrology (few in India get married without consulting an astrologer). Religion spills over into the public sphere, with roaming Hindu 'virtue squads' attacking cattle traders or teenagers on dates. Spirituality can be used as an excuse not to fix things on the material dimension - this week, a leading guru claimed the spate of farmer suicides in Tamil Nadu was caused not just by drought but also because 'the farmers aren't spiritual enough'.
But there must be a middle ground between India's over-credulous embrace of the spiritual, and the UK's cultural disregard of it. I feel there is a taboo around spiritual experience in our culture (and 75% of my blog readers agreed). The taboo feels particularly strong if you talk about God, higher intelligences, or life-after-death - anything that treads beyond metaphysical materialism immediately feels dangerous and slightly mad.
But let's look at it from the point-of-view of producers and commissioning editors. Let's say you're sympathetic to spirituality. How exactly are you going to cover it? Who would you try to get on to your show? There are very few spiritual leaders in our culture who are able to talk to a general audience rather than a New Age workshop - few well-known and articulate spokespeople like Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley or Terence McKenna. There are few ashrams, and hardly any renunciates who've dedicated their life to spiritual development. So who would you get on?
Also, the media tend to cover things when they're new. What's new about spirituality? The way to attain spiritual peace is by transcending attachment and aversion. Well, hold the front page.
What tends to happen is the media tries to tap our yearning for transcendence through science, and the latest scientific trial. Then you can have an excited headline like 'scientists discover the happiest man in the world is a Buddhist monk!' Or 'Psychedelic scientists discover higher state of consciousness!'
For example, there are two aspects of contemporary spirituality that get a huge amount of media publicity - contemplation (ie mindfulness and yoga) and psychedelics. In both cases, it's thanks to scientific research in these fields, which dress spirituality in the respectable white coat of science. Brain scans give a material basis to spiritual experiences, which makes them more tangible and credible to our era of Doubting Thomases.
'People tend to associate phrases like ‘a higher state of consciousness’ with hippy speak and mystical nonsense', psychedelic researcher Robin Carhart-Harris told the Guardian after one such trial last week. 'This is potentially the beginning of the demystification, showing its physiological and biological underpinnings.' The assumption is that neuro-imaging shows what is actually happening. The material dimension is real, everything else is mystical nonsense.
I welcome the emergence of a more critical, scientific spirituality. But it tends to be carefully policed - don't talk about the soul, spirits or the afterlife. Don't let any of the hairier bits of spirituality protrude from that respectable white coat. The psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihayli showed the efficacy of this approach - he took the experience of ecstasy, stripped it of anything to do with God or a spiritual dimension, re-branded it as 'flow', then sold it as a management technique. But what about a spirituality beyond the self, beyond this life?
We need to find space in our culture - and particularly in intelligent culture - for an 'intelligent spirituality', a spirituality that is both scientifically literate but also aware of the limits of quantitative empiricism, and which is open to the range of metaphysical positions an intelligent person might take. We don't yet fully understand the relationship between consciousness and matter, so we don't yet know if consciousness can survive death, nor if there are more intelligent beings out there (or a supreme intelligence or source of intelligence). We need to keep searching without being ashamed or afraid of looking ridiculous - I don't think we've reached the final page of homo sapiens' spiritual quest just yet.
If there isn't a British magazine that explores these topics intelligently and sympathetically, should someone set one up? In the meantime, I recommend Mark Vernon and Rupert Sheldrake's podcast, Russell Brand's podcast, the Scientific and Medical Network, Aeon (although it's mainly materialist in its metaphysics), and the US podcast On Being. You might disagree with some of the statements in this essay - perhaps I've over-emphasized the taboo? My friend Dr Oliver Robinson, for example, thinks the media and academia have become much more open to spiritual experience in the last few years. Feel free to comment below!
If you like this topic, check out my new book, The Art of Losing Control, about how people in western culture find ecstatic experiences today.