Can Spirituality Address The 21st Century Challenges Of A Postsecular Age?

Image by Maria Fonseca for Intelligenthq

Article written by Maria Fonseca and Paula Newton

In January 2015, London woke up to a rather unusual tax selfassessment campaign, as the city became invaded with posters and images displaying various people dressed in working clothes, levitating in the air, while meditating. It seems that Meditation is becoming trending and the “fashion” is now becoming mainstream. The meditation “fever” is as well affecting our leaders. In 2012,  former American President Bill Clinton began to meditate with the help of a Buddhist Monk. The controversial Rupert Murdoch is said to have given transcendental meditation “a try” in 2013. Arianna Huffington, a keen supporter of the event Wisdom 2.0 dedicated to spirituality and technology, is  known for stating how meditation transformed her life.

Spirituality and its practices are undeniably gaining momentum in all sectors of society, and its urgent to reflect on the real impact of this on modern society. What place does meditation and spirituality have in our lives? Are we truly living in a post-secular moment as the one Jürgen Habermas described? What are the links between meditation and the public wellbeing debate, and how can we bring the debate of the role of spirituality in society by focusing less on pleasure and personal well being and more on meaning and growth for both the individual and the society overall? How can we clarify and unpack what the capacious term of “spirituality” is about after all ?


Aiming to investigate some these questions, the RSA commenced a two year project to understand how spirituality has a place in a variety of different aspects of life. These aspects are belief, the body, death, the soul, love and political dimensions of the spiritual.

The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is an enlightenment organization based in the UK. Committed to find innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges, the society promotes research, talks, and beautiful animated videos that can be accessed online. Through its ideas, that aim to challenge the way we think, and through its 27,000-strong fellowship it seeks to understand and enhance human capability, aiming to close the gap between today’s reality and people’s hopes for a better world. In total, 300 people took part in the research Spiritualise, providing insights at different times during the project. The project mainly had its foundations in the UK. Writing for the Action and Research Centre, the research’s author,  Dr Jonathan Rowson (2014) suggests that spirituality can be utilised to handle some 21st century problems that we face.

There were four main arguments produced as a result of the research, states Rowson. One is that spirituality is part of everyone. It is argued that every person has a need to know what they are in the deepest possible way. The second part of the argument is that some scientific inquiry does provide a context and an understanding of the nature and value of spiritual practices, experiences and beliefs. One such part of this is that our minds need balance, but there are other arguments. A third element to the argument is that spirituality has problems distancing itself from religion as well as wellbeing. Some aspects of this are that love provides a chance to belong, death makes us aware of being, self is a “path of becoming” and soul is a sense of beyond that we have. The fourth argument, and a particularly important one, is that the spiritual ought to have a more important role to play in the public realm. It is argued by Rowson that spirituality already plays a part in psychiatry, nursing, education and activism both socially and environmentally. It is further opined by Rowson that the spiritual needs to provide more of a root in organisations of all kinds.

One of the problems with societies currently, according to Rowson is that there is confusion about spiritualism. This is partly a function of living in secular societies. Secular societies create a conflict because people are spiritual at least to some degree. It is explained by Rowson that while a lot of people never attend a religious service, a third of those people still do believe that there is a higher power. Another challenge raised by the report is that spirituality is very hard to define. It is argued that:

 “Some feel the term ‘spirituality’ is now thoroughly tainted with new-age associations and the attendant patterns of individual choice and consumption.”

This makes it even harder to understand. The word can also be “vague” and ambiguous in the eyes of some. Creating meaning from that can be challenging. One point that does seem to be relatively consistent in how people think about spirituality however is a sense that it has a lot to do meaning, and relatively little to do with happiness. Rowson is clear to make a distinction between the two, as this is also what other studies have shown.

Can Spirituality Promote A Link Between Personal And Social Transformation ?

Given all these points there is a lot to consider regarding the role of spirituality in the public realm, as Rowson argues. There is some argument to the case that spirituality can provide a link between personal and social transformation. Rowson also believes that spirituality is needed to increase understanding of the “public wellbeing debate” by focusing less on pleasure and more on meaning and growth. Additionally, Rowson argues the case for an improved balance between intrinsic and extrinsic forms of motivation. There is also a link between spirituality and climate change (Rowson, 2014).

In particular, an attempt to find meaning and depth to experiences is argued by Rowson to be important. Finding intrinsic motivation is an important part of this. Spirituality has the ability to create a greater level of commitment, and that commitment can be based on a balance of shared interests, exploration and growth. It is this that has the potential to deliver change in society. This may drive a sense of what could be a shared aspiration to “live better, help often, wonder more” as Rowson explains. Arguably there is some way to go to achieving this, but that people are researching it and asking these difficult questions appears to be a very good start in the right direction.