Last year, a quarter of the British population declared they had no religion. Stylist looks into the emerging paths filling our spiritual void
Words: Helen Foster
Artwork: Richard Paton
It’s a crisp Sunday morning in a large hall in London and a man with a considerably bushy beard and toothy grin is making around 300 people in their 20s and 30s giggle infectiously. It’s impossible to tell what any members of the audience do – there are no suits, no name badges, no signifiers of wealth and status, just a lot of laughing. As well as being cajoled into a good humour, these 300 strangers are here to listen to sermons, contemplate in silence and sing – loudly and in unison – upbeat songs with life-affirming messages.
In one of the back rooms, tea and cake is being prepared so no-one steps back onto the cold London streets without some fortifying refreshment. But these people are not in church. They’re at Sunday Assembly, a twice-monthly gathering which takes place in cities around the world (it’s constantly growing) which, according to co-founder and comedian Sanderson Jones (aforementioned man-withbeard), aims to provide “the best bits of church but without the God bit”. As such, sermons are on subjects like mindfulness (the art of living in the now), the congregation comes from all faiths, and the songs are more likely to include Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now than a hymn.
While it might be one of the first gatherings of its kind, Sunday Assembly is not alone in its embracing of togetherness but relinquishment of religion. It’s a societal movement. The last census found that the number of people in Britain who say they have no religion has almost doubled in the last 10 years (from 14.3% to 25.1%).
Since then a YouGov survey has found that of the non-believers 36% are women compared to 43% of men. And within Christianity itself, the UK’s largest religion, women were found to be more religious than men – 59% of women compared to 51% of men. Yet the abandonment of organised religion is a growing trend – just over half of 18-34 year olds considered themselves to be non-religious, compared to 41% in the 35-54 bracket.
Yet despite such damning figures for organised religion, the census also found that well over half of us still believe there’s some greater universal power governing us all. Whether that’s driven by hope, fear or simply the fact that it’s nice to feel that it doesn’t all end when we die can be debated, but the result is a society searching for spirituality, though not necessarily traditional faiths. It’s something theologians are calling ‘post-religious Britain’ – the need to have a spiritual life without a god figure.
“It takes a lot of hubris to think that you are the highest authority governing your own life. Most of us need some form of connection to a higher power so we don’t feel like we’re the sole authority for our own situation,” says Elizabeth Oldfield, director of religion and society think tank Theos.
But we’re not just thinking of ourselves as we reject the old and embrace the new – a 2013 YouGov poll found that 41% of Generation Y-ers (those born between 1980 and 2000) now feel that organised religion is responsible for more harm than good. While that poll didn’t discuss why, past ones have felt religion is now more likely to divide communities than bring them together.
“Younger people also feel the church discriminates against women and gay people,” says Professor Linda Woodhead from Lancaster University.
“Spirituality seems more inclusive – it’s also an area where women have led things. In a study we carried out, of those involved with offering or using spiritual services like meditation groups, 80% were women and that’s very appealing.”
But while we’re rejecting the faces and attitudes behind traditional, established religion, the fundamental beliefs we’re searching for haven’t actually changed. According to Elizabeth Oldfield, when you study religion and spirituality, three uniting characteristics emerge:
1. A feeling of being part of ‘a bigger whole’.
2. Ethics and a sense of what’s right and wrong.
3. A community.
“If we’re missing these things, we feel it. In fact, it’s described as the ‘god-shaped hole’ [a term first coined by Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th century] as it’s so ingrained in us to feel these connections,” she explains. But whereas, in the past, our grandparents only had one place to fill their need to connect – be it the church, mosque, synagogue or temple, depending on their faith – we have a myriad of choices, along with the courage and wherewithal to access them. It’s why banker Becki Gray, 32, chose to see a shaman after a recent break-up.
“A friend had seen her, I read her book and I thought it was right for me. I didn’t want to spend years analysing things via therapy. I wanted to realise the feelings and move on to whatever path I was supposed to travel next.”
And it’s why advertising executive Alli Highfield, 36, chose a therapy called intuitive mentoring.
“I had just changed job and it wasn’t working. I had no colleagues to confide in and friends could only help so much. I knew whatever I did had to come from inside me, but how do you access that without someone’s help?”
Traditional communities are breaking up and reforming in line with today’s hectic lifestyle. Our needs as humans are the same, we’re just finding different methods to service those needs.
‘Believing without belonging’ is felt by many emerging spiritual disciplines to be reflective of a new age of transparency. Look at the exposure of entrenched but corrupt structures of governance that we’ve witnessed in recent years such as the banking crisis and expenses scandal – they believe this transparency applies to bankers and politicians as equally as it does to our spiritual guidance.
“We no longer want to be told what to do, we want to feel it and find it out for ourselves – and religion doesn’t allow for that,” explains Katie Winterbourne, an intuitive therapist practising at London’s Urban Retreat at Harrods.
“It’s too dogmatic. Within spirituality, though, the whole aim is to find your own truth. People are asking ‘Why am I here?’ and they need places to answer it in a way they believe.”
And as traditional religion fades away, fewer orthodox belief systems are finding their place in the foreground, arming us with the support and guidance we need to find our way through life. There are plenty of paths for the godless disciple to follow, ranging from Sunday-morning sing-alongs to weekend workshops, so we’ve tracked down seven new practices that may just give you the spiritual answers or sense of community you’ve been searching for.
1. Godless Gatherings
With the motto “Live better, help often, wonder more”, Sunday Assembly (sundayassembly.com) aims to give members a space to contemplate how amazing it is to be alive – but also a community who’ll support you when that doesn’t feel true. Their gatherings attract hundreds of people and, having begun in London, are now springing up in different venues around the world – from Sydney to San Francisco. “It seems it’s what people have been looking for, a place to belong,” says Sanderson Jones. “We won’t tell you how to live – but we’ll try and help you do it the best you can.” Other godless groups include One Love Get Real – their ethos is that we’re all spiritual beings on a human journey, not the other way round. “To me, that feels like a more authentic way to live,” says Louise Ashfield, 35, a One Love Get Real attendee and care worker from Surrey. “I’m finding if I tap into that, things go well for me.”
2. Straight-Talking Self-Helpers
Providing enlightenment for the price of a paperback, the new self-help writers use spiritual techniques like visualisation or meditation, but tell it like it is.
“There’s a wave of people with a real spiritual depth – but who are direct, articulate and can explain how to integrate spiritual ideas into a modern lifestyle,” says Michelle Pilley, MD of spiritual publisher Hay House.
One name to add to your bookshelf includes New Yorker Gabrielle Bernstein, author of Spirit Junkie: A Radical Guide To Discovering Self Love And Miracles (£10.99, Hay House). Bernstein practises Kundalini Yoga, taught by the renowned Yogi Bahjan, which aims to merge individual and collective consciousness. She encourages her readers to build altars in their homes, decorated with items that inspire them (hers plays host to angels, Ganesh and buddhas) in front of which she prays and meditates. She believes you can transform your life by overcoming fear and changing the perceptions of themselves.
The approach itself may be thousands of years old (traditionally practitioners entered an altered state of consciousness to commune with spirits and bring their guidance into our world), but it’s had a celebrity shot in the arm. Kate Moss reportedly had her house shamanically cleansed, while Kelly Brook has posted inspirational verses from her shaman on Instagram. Anna Hunt, aka ‘The Shaman in Stilettos’ (annahunt.com), is one face of new shamanism. She explains that physical or emotional problems in life are caused by blockages in our internal energy: “Shamans can see and move energy – and if you can move energy, you can alter life.” Hunt, who works from her London clinic, explains that she uses techniques like analysis, crystals, visualisation, and even, at her Spanish retreats, a hallucinogenic cactus called San Pedro (banned for consumption in the US, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Norway and New Zealand) once described as “the equivalent of 10 years of therapy in a few hours”. The idea is that the cactus helps summon feelings that our conscious suppresses, allowing the shaman to read and release them. Modern-day shamans ply their art on relationship problems, career crises and the ever-present spectre of stress.
4. Change Course
Not a quick fix, and definitely not a painless process (it’s intensive self-analysis), but “change courses” are thriving. The Hoffman Process (hoffmaninstitute.co.uk) or newcomer the Path Of Love (thepathoflove.net/uk), aim to help you change the way you think, so you can, in turn, change the way you behave and “realise your full human and spiritual potential”. The Hoffman Process moves clients away from dogmatic religious ideas and tries to show that spirituality is inside them, and that they should listen to their inner voice for advice and guidance.
The two figures behind the Path Of Love, Turiya Hanover and Rafia Morgan are trained in areas such as astrology, family constellation (looking at traumas that happened in previous family generations and how they affect the current generation) and are committed to a deep spiritual awakening. Both use health experts, therapists and spiritual leaders to reach the same aim: to help you look at what’s not working in your life and connect with your true self.
5. Wisdom 2.0
If you listen to the doommongers, technology makes us selfish and unwilling to make real-life connections. Nowadays, apparently, we favour an early night in front of the internet. Soren Gordhamer, the man behind the emerging movement Wisdom 2.0, is the man trying to find the balance between our technology-saturated lives and our true selves by using mindfulness and Eastern meditative practice. And it’s a balance others are evidently struggling with too. Five years ago, his first event in San Francisco welcomed 325 people. This year he’s fronting a series of global events under the same title (Wisdom 2.0 Europe will take place in Dublin
on 16-17 September – wisdom2summit.com) that bring together spritual leaders (Christian monks to talk about the power of acknowledging gratitude on a daily basis, zen masters to teach the art of mindfulness and meditation) and technology leaders. The series of interactive workshops aim to provide spiritual guidance for a generation searching for a deeper connection harnessing the power of technology. However, it may be Gordhamer’s wooing of Google, and other tech giants, that is his greatest success. If they’re taking on his mantra to “live wisely and live purposefully”, the chances are, we’ll all benefit.
6. Intuitive Mentoring
Intuitive mentors aim to help you make decisions by reading you (like a psychic, although many don’t like that word, believing that psychics tell you specific things, whereas intuitives help you work out the your problems yourself) and locating areas of your life you should work on. They don’t tell you specifics, just where to look in your life to make change.
“When I read someone, I often have no idea why I’m saying what I’m saying,” says Katie Winterbourne (katiewinterbourne.com), one of London’stop mentors. “I might see areas of blocked energy in the body or I might see scenes from your life. But when I find it [the blocked energy], I see someone actually shift in front of me,” she says. Once the intuitive identifies where you might have issues, you then explore the hows and whys. “It really gave me the confidence to know I was doing what was right for me,” says advertising executive Alli Highfield. “I ended up leaving that job and starting my own advertising company.”
The hottest self-help book of the moment, E-Squared (£10.99 Hay House), is an updated take on the law of attraction. This theory – also known as cosmic ordering – says that you can attract what you desire in life if you just open up your thoughts accordingly.
“It sounds like hocus-pocus, but it’s grounded in science,” says author Pam Grout.
“Everything in life is made up of energy – and what we focus on magnetises what we’re thinking about, drawing it into our energy field.” So sure is she of this science that the book is designed like an experiment with nine 48-hour tests (involving reciting a mantra) that Grout says prove the principles work.
Once you believe them, you can use them anywhere in your life.