by Liam Hawkes 

Religion gets a pretty bad rep in the media, and some of the time it is justified. The following reflections are not intended to directly deal with the oppressive histories (and some present-days) of particular religious doctrines. Instead I want to reflect on the structure and nature of faith and spirituality, to investigate the effect it can have on our everyday lives. These reflections are in part inspired by my experiences of the faith of others, looking from the outside. This semi-voyeuristic experience of faith and spirituality led me to question the structure and direction of my own beliefs and how they could be grounded in a kind of blind faith.

I do not want to claim that religion is just a passive component of a believers’ personality, because a lot of the time it very much defines and shapes their understanding of themselves, and their world. No matter what history faith has had, or the extremes fundamentalists go to, or the religious violence which has permeated human history, there is something fundamentally fascinating, and ultimately useful, about faith and spirituality. I think that a knowledge of the comparative structures of religions and experiences of spirituality can enrich our lives, and we should not ridicule or dismiss those with strong faith in their religion.

we should not ridicule or dismiss those with strong faith in their religion.

The concepts of faith and the divine are some of the fundamental components to human social and cultural evolution which we haven’t yet moved beyond the need for, and which has organised and united people under similar principles for thousands of years. They seem to tap into something essential to the human experience. This is something which exists throughout history as a common link which we all share, whether that is a wonderment at nature or an ethical code of morality. Faith and religions uncover ways of how to live and experience the world and each other.

There’s something incredibly powerful about witnessing the choral harmonies of hymns sung in a Gothic church, or the rhythmic chanting of Hindu or Buddhist prayer. There is a sense of absolute selflessness, an awareness of being part of something bigger. Suddenly the harshness of life doesn’t seem to matter as much, and there is an unrestrained calm. Religion, faith, and spirituality can have the power to induce an experience which seems unequivocally different to the devotion to the life of urban and technological paradigms most of us lead. They seem to identify something which is missed, or perhaps misunderstood in contemporary society.

Has this become the point religion has reached now in contemporary societies? It has become an alternative escapism for the masses. Whereas throughout history it has been the dominant social norm, it now becomes subservient escapism that offers transcendence as an alternative to rootedness in the mundane material existence. It offers a connection to other people and the environment which you don’t get to experience in the fast race of everyday life. It offers peace and quiet, muting out the roar of the city. It reveals another layer of beauty to the world that is perhaps not as accessible without a kind of spiritual awareness.

It offers peace and quiet, muting out the roar of the city.

Faith and spirituality have played the defining role in shaping the societies we know today. They have united people under the same banners; they have formed empires and then toppled them again. The driving force of human existence in society is faith. Faith that the next day will be better than the last. Faith that the life you want to lead can be lived. Faith that it will all be worth it in the end. Faith in an individualism which pushes us further and further from the people that surround us. We might not be as ready to place an unquestioned faith in some omnipotent being high in the sky, but arguably most still place a blind, unquestioned faith in political structures and socio-economic norms of our societies. How is this so different than devoting oneself to God? I would think that it is not.

(Interior of Saint Severin gothic church, Paris, via colourbox)

Therefore, it is possible to speak of spirituality without a kind of faith or religion. We can have a spirituality of the individual, of the consumer, or of the political believer. By the definition of spiritual one cannot be spiritually connected to the workplace, or a car, or a mobile phone, because they do not relate or affect the human spirit (a vague term I know) and only relate to material objects. However, I do think spirituality can exist independently of organised religion. Religion is the communal manifestation of humanities spiritual connection to each other and the world. That spiritual connection doesn’t seem to go away if we ignore religion — it simply manifests itself in other forms.

The more I think about it, the more I think that we alienate ourselves from each other with some ungrounded faith in individualist values. The meaning of spirituality has been altered. We no longer look for spiritual leaders in the church or the temple, or in the idols or gods we pray to. It exists in our media and culture. It exists in our idolisation of pop-culture, political leaders, and celebrity icons. Faith in the divine has been transcended by faith in the structures and systems of our liberal societies. This is the spirituality of contemporary society — a spirituality of the individual.

spiritual connection doesn’t seem to go away if we ignore religion — it simply manifests itself in other forms.

Perhaps there is a certain idealism in spirituality and faith. But this is an idealism that no one should apologise for. We are all idealistic in our own ways. We all have aspiring ideals, whether it be material, ascetic, or spiritual. What religious faith and spirituality achieves is a codifying of those ideals into a doctrine which shapes someone’s life. That is why I am jealous of those with such strong faith.

Once again a certain experience of mine springs to mind. As I look on, 500 people stand before me, arm in arm, hand in hand, singing and celebrating not just their life, but the life of all of humanity. They are comfortable and happy with the person they are; they feel loved no matter what happens. I can only look on from my position of ignorance — grounded in a disconnected, selfish, consumerist social and cultural reality — and marvel at the acceptance that is brought to them by their faith in the infinite.

Featued image © Ivymay Caswell Photography


  1. Hi,

    Enjoyed reading this, I think there certainly is a place for conversations between left, radical politics and religions.

    The main sticking point that I had surrounding this article is in the very nature of “Spiritual but not Religious” spirituality. Religion inherently involves the believer partaking in a particular throwness – they find themselves within a community, being involved in practices that are inherited. Under the parish system and built into the liturgy, a person is able to exist in the community in virtue of being a person (admittedly how this plays out in reality is another matter), instead of them possessing particular traits. Ideally, formal religion would without condition include people, and demand on them to acknowledge others as also being integrated. The pinnacle of this is found in the church offering a sign of the peace to each other, acknowledging difference in their midst, and a fellowship that has been reconciled.

    By contrast, the idea of SBNR thought involves somewhat of a pick-n-mix of transcendence, a free market of religious options where the individual takes the forefront, not the community. The retreat from organised religion towards such spirituality involves the supremacy of the individual – it buys into a political philosophy that lacks any reverence for the other, and fails in engagement with any progressive politics.


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