‘Spiritual but not religious’: the other Britain

Photo by Nic (Flickr)
Photo by Nic (Flickr)

When I started researching The Secret Life of God I was really just following a hunch. I had been spending time in the Middle East, where – despite the headlines about sectarian conflict – different faith groups have long lived side by side in the atmosphere of pervasive religiosity that the Arabs with most of the rest of the world.

Back home, the story that Britain was telling about its own way of seeing the world didn’t make sense. Most talk about anything religious or spiritual turned on a crude opposition of belief vs unbelief, which at its most extreme was represented by religious fundamentalists on the one hand and fundamentalist atheists on the other. The latter, with strident prophets such as Richard Dawkins, had the sexier story, one shored up by the post-Enlightenment certainty that British humanity was resolutely marching away from superstition to a faith-free zone characterised by scientific materialism, humanism and rationalism.

But the everyday world in which I lived didn’t match this picture. Nobody I knew, including those who declared themselves to be atheists, seemed to make sense of their lives in this tough, faithless way. At turning points and crises, an entirely different language emerged, one that expressed a concern with meaning, purpose, mystery and the sense of a connection with a wider reality. Often people expressed this vaguely in terms of things being ‘meant to be’, but as my generation started hitting the big, midlife stuff – the death of parents, the untimely deaths of others, the disintegration of youthful dreams – some admitted to having a direct, personal experience of the spiritual.

Recent surveys suggest that this shift away from the ‘religious’ to the ‘spiritual’ may be part of a wider trend. Institutional religion may be on the wane but, far from dying out entirely, contemporary religiosity is more based on experience, more ‘lived’, and arguably more authentic. This shift may turn out to be another of the major transitions that (British) society has periodically undergone, moving from polytheistic paganism to monotheistic Christianity, and European Catholicism to the broader church of Anglicanism. Whatever the case, something is afoot in the spiritual life of Britain which is going largely undocumented.

Loosely in the form of a travelogue with a journalistic edge, The Secret Life of God attempts to put some of the faces and places to this other, more spiritual, Britain. I set out to find people experimenting with religious life or on the fringes of mainstream institutions, but you won’t find many New Age dilettantes on its pages. The individuals and communities I encountered in the course of my research are the spiritually serious, those firmly committed to a journey in search of the right form of faith for them, now.

I explored the outer reaches of contemplative Christianity, went undercover among Sufi Muslims, and took part in the resurging pagan movement. It wasn’t possible to cover Britain’s faithscape comprehensively; many interesting traditions have been omitted for reasons of space and time. But the forms of spiritual life chronicled in the book are deeply connected to British history and geography, as well as reflecting its changing social make-up.

They also, perhaps reflecting an old truth that any successful quest is rooted in experience – very much mirror my own biography as a twenty-first century Briton shaped by the place of my birth, changed by travel, and half in love with nature.

The Secret Life of God is available, in paperback and as a Kindle edition, on Amazon.