C21hurch Session 3

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Session Three—Contemporary Spirituality

Having looked at our contemporary fragmented rootless world in the first two sessions we now turn our attention to the spiritual life of Western culture. Attendance at church on Sundays has been declining for years. People are less and less ‘religious’. But that does not mean that there has been a decline in belief—quite the contrary. As we will see, the majority of people today have serious spiritual concerns, though few of them feel that the church can offer anything meaningful.

In this session we will be looking at some of the recent research into the spirituality of people who have little or no contact with the church. We will then briefly explore alternative spiritualities, including ‘new age’ and ‘dance/rave’ cultures.

The evidence suggests that, despite the expectations of many humanists and atheists, spiritual awareness is actually growing quite fast in the West. For instance, research undertaken by David Hay of Nottingham University asked random samples of people in 1987 and in 2000 the same questions about their spiritual experiences and their awareness. These were the numbers of people who responded positively:

Question—Have you ever had an awareness of:



A patterning of events



The presence of God



Prayer being answered



A sacred presence in nature



The presence of the dead



An evil presence



Cumulative total of positive responses (some had more than one positive)



David Hay does not believe that there has been a real increase in the frequency of spiritual experience but rather that people are now more willing to talk about it even with strangers (both the 1987 and 2000 polls were conducted over the telephone). But what do these people mean by spirituality? In order to try to find out more we look at the results of a number of different pieces of research focusing on contemporary expressions of spirituality.

Understanding the spirituality of people who don’t go to church

David Hay and Kate Hunt of the Adults’ Spirituality project at the University of Nottingham invited people chosen at random in a suburb of Nottingham to fill in a questionnaire. From this they identified 31 people who had no religious affiliation and who described themselves as ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’. These were then encouraged to talk in four focus groups led by the researchers. Each group was both video and audio recorded. The ages of the participants ranged from 24 to 60, with seventeen women and fourteen men taking part. Seventeen people identified themselves as ‘spiritual’ and fourteen as ‘religious’. Twenty-nine of the participants also agreed to take part in further one-to-one interviews with the researchers.

Some of their key findings:

As a result of this study a question was inserted into the Soul of Britain survey (2000): “Some people don’t think there is a God. Why do you think this is?” The answers were:

In their study, Hay and Hunt also asked about the Church and Churchgoers. The responses were depressingly predictable but not quite as straightforward as the stereotypes might suggest:

Barriers to Belief

Nick Spencer conducted a similar small-scale in-depth inquiry among 40 people in South London and Nottingham. The participants were selected as self-described non-believers, though militant atheists were excluded. The three groups in London (female 25-44, male 18-24 and male 25-44) were on the ‘antagonistic’ end of non-belief while the two Nottingham groups (female 18-24 and mixed 45+) were more open and tolerant. The research looked at barriers to belief and identified a number:

Making Sense of Generation Y

The third piece of research is a little different. Whereas both previous studies had a mix of age groups, Sara Savage, Sylvia Collins and Bob Mayo studied the spiritual life of Generation Y. Sociologists and popular writers use a number of designations for the different post-war generations. Firstly there were the Baby Boomers, born roughly between 1945 and 1963 and so called because they were part of the great post-war population bulge. Then came Generation X, also known as the Baby Busters, born roughly between 1963 and 1981; they were followed by Generation Y, or the Millennial Generation, born between 1982 and 2000; and finally (for the present), Generation Z, born after 2000.

Savage, Collins & Mayo interviewed 135 young people, mainly between the ages of 15 and 25, in 26 focus groups throughout England. Of these, 52% were female, 48% male; 94% were white, 6% Black or Asian; 60% defined themselves as non-Christian, 40% as Christian. Their findings showed significant differences between this generation and those which preceded it. For instance, researchers have often spoken of a hunger for spirituality in Gen-X and Boomer people—a ‘God-shaped hole’ in their lives. None was found for the Gen-Y young people in this study. Instead, the major finding was of what the researchers call a ‘happy midi-narrative’. It goes something like this:

“My aim to be happy will be realised through me being myself, and connecting to others and the universe (without harming them). As I do this, I will create a meaningful and happy life. If we all make this individual effort (everyone’s own responsibility), each person’s happiness will sum into a corporate experience of unity and enjoyment. This happiness is meaningful in itself; it is the Ideal.

“However, bad things can happen in real life that prevent us from attaining this happiness: broken relationships, suffering, loneliness, depression, self-rejection, addiction, injustice, ageing. But each one of us is surrounded by resources of family and close friends who love us unconditionally. The popular arts provide us with valuable resources: information, choice, creativity. With these, we can experience movement from the Actual (real life where bad things can happen) towards the Ideal (happiness).”

The study noted a number of things absent from this story:

A number of key concepts are present in the happy midi-narrative:

Savage, Collins & Mayo also looked at the importance assumed by soap operas (especially EastEnders) and films. These offer glimpses of what the Ideal world would/will be like. The Actual world is often rather dull and largely free from real danger. The Ideal world is exciting, full of action; a place where the Ideal self can flourish—authentic, strong, good-looking and in control of one’s self.

Soaps, because they were perceived as realistic, tended to help people understand the world and cope with any bad things which came up. Films, being more imaginative, tended to offer more of the Ideal. Indeed, the most successful films could offer a passing experience of the Ideal which was a foretaste of things to come.

Music and clubbing were also important. Music provides a bridge between the Actual and Ideal self. Music is generally either enjoyable or meaningful: when rhythm predominates it is the enjoyment of the music which is paramount; when the lyrics encourage reflection on the Actual world they can be valued. Music can be both meaningful and enjoyable if the young people create it themselves (through DJ-ing, mixing or composing); if they identify closely with an artist; or if the music leads to lifestyle choices such as clubbing, or becoming a Punk, Goth or Emo etc.

Clubbing is a transcendent experience which brings the Ideal into the Actual, at least for the time being. The aim is to experience a collective ‘high’ which can be sustained for some time and then is brought down gently by a sensitive DJ. When clubbing you should be yourself, express yourself through the music and let others be themselves. (For more on this see the ‘rave spirituality’ section below.)

Alternative Spiritualities

Simon Small tells of some research which estimated that for every metre of shelf space given over to Christian books in shops like Waterstones there are 14 metres given to ‘Mind, Body & Spirit’. What is sometimes known (though not to its followers) as “New Age Spirituality” is a hugely popular field—fourteen times more popular than the church if those crude figures are anything to go by!

Alternative spirituality is a blanket term covering a huge range of areas, including Spiritualism and Channelling; Earth Energies; Happiness & Well-Being; UFOs; Jung: Meditation; A Course in Miracles (Anon. 1997); Angels; Jesus; and many more. Small suggests that people tend to get interested alternative spirituality in their 20s or later.

Although there is great diversity within the alternative spirituality scene, there are some common themes which characterise many of those who are involved:

Rave Spirituality

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his The Birth of Tragedy (1871), distinguished two modes: Apollonian and Dionysian. The former, he associated with the plastic arts, the latter with music. Dream is associated with Apollo and ecstasy with Dionysius. Nietzsche’s idea was later used by Ruth Benedict (1989:79) to describe different approaches to religious experience. Apollonian religions are cool and inner-focused; sometimes rational, sometimes mystical. Dionysian religions are hot and body-focused; sometimes ecstatic, sometimes ritualistic.

Alternative spirituality is largely Apollonian in character though there are exceptions—pagans, for instance, may adopt an ecstatic approach with lots of drumming and dancing in their rituals. But as a generalisation it is broadly true—Simon Small notes that most people from the alternative spirituality scene have great difficulty with charismatic worship.

The dance/rave scene, on the other hand, is much more Dionysian. The very name of the psychotropic drug of choice—ecstasy—could be seen as a bit of a giveaway! Consider this anonymous description of an experience of using ecstasy for the first time in a club in Vancouver:

When we entered, I knew it was a special place - the good-vibe eye contact everyone was making with each other abounded. As I worked my way into the fierce house music that was throbbing the flesh all around me I stopped and absorbed exactly what I was feeling—connection. The wisp of another’s hand, or finger by my body initiated a new bond within this mysterious culture—always followed-up by a comforting glance.

I somehow worked my way into a whole new circle of people and experiences on the floor. From the corner of my head I sensed the warmth radiating from an older (probably early 50’s) woman slightly detached from the people I was currently grooving with. We caught each other’s eyes for what seemed like hours as we held still and allowed the room, the lights, the people, to just orbit around our perfectly still bodies. I silently mouthed to her “please dance with me”. She silently mouthed back to me “I already was”.

This definitive point was the pivot-point for my evening. I truly understood at that infinitely microscopic point in time what it meant for myself (emotionally) and others to come together through such an act of raw, unplugged, uninhibited spirit.

Robin Sylvan’s study (2005) shows the breadth of spirituality in rave culture in the US and Europe. Many of the people he interviewed openly acknowledge the spiritual aspect:

There’s a feeling of making a connection between different realms somehow and allowing a flow to happen between those worlds. (Jason Keehn in Sylvan 2005:87)

While Michael Mahahan sounds quite Pauline:

I became a little less human and a little bit more spirit. (Sylvan 2005:89)

Sylvan argues that raves are often heavily ritualised and explicitly spiritual. More and more raves begin and end with ceremonies and there seems to be a trend for constructing ‘altars’ to provide a physical focal point just as the DJ is a musical and spiritual focus. The role of the DJ as ‘priest’ is emphasised by a number of those interviewed in this study. One DJ, James Frazier, says:

Usually I will say a prayer to the universe, saying I just ask to be a vessel, you know, and get out of the way, and just to give as much as I can to those people that are here…There’ll be situations where I’ve pulled the wrong record, but it turned out to be the right one. And I realize, Oh, it’s not me; you know what I mean? It’s like I’m doing this, I’m just a vessel, and it’s doing itself. (Sylvan 2005:116)

According to Sylvan, there are seven characteristics of rave culture (2005:11ff):

Given all this it is little wonder that the group Faithless can record a track entitled, God is a DJ!


The studies we have looked at in this session give us some sense of the key themes which underpin people’s perceptions of religion and their approach to what we might call spirituality. Very few of those involved in the studies were over 45 and it is clear that the younger the people, the more distant they are likely to be from ‘church’.

Some clear themes emerge but within them is a great diversity of shades of opinion—and what the individual might say in private can be quite different from what they might say in public. In the next session we will attempt to grapple with how we might connect with those who hold the views explored in this session and how we might share the truths of the gospel with them.

Session Three Notes—Contemporary Spirituality

Details of the first study can be found in Hay & Hunt 2000.

The term bricolage is used in Levi-Strauss 1966:16ff.

On the question of theodicy, see also Philip Pullman’s hugely popular trilogy, His Dark Materials.

The Nick Spencer study can be found in Spencer 2002.

More details of the Generation Y research can be found in Savage et al 2006.

Some other figures which shed some light on spirituality in contemporary Britain:

72% of population believe in God or ‘Higher Power’ (Social Trends 28, 1998)

I know that God really exists and I have no doubt about it


While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God


I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others


I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind


I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out


I don’t believe in God


Not answered


Music Lifestyles

(These notes are based on various Wikipedia entries.)

Punk: Punk rock (often referred to simply as punk) is an anti-establishment rock music genre and movement that developed between 1974 and 1976 in the US, UK and Australia. In reaction to the increasingly elaborate rock of the late 60s and early 70s, punk rock bands created fast, hard-edged music, typically with short songs, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-government lyrics. Punk embraces a DIY ethic, with many bands self-producing their recordings and distributing them through informal channels. By late 1976, bands such as the Ramones, in New York City, and the Sex Pistols and The Clash, in London, were recognized as the vanguard of a new musical movement.

By the beginning of the 1980s, even faster, more aggressive styles had become the predominant mode of punk rock. Musicians identifying with or inspired by punk also pursued a broad range of other variations, giving rise to post-punk and the alternative rock movement. By the turn of the century, new pop punk bands such as Green Day were bringing the genre widespread popularity decades after its inception.

Goth: By the late 1970s, there were a few post-punk bands in the United Kingdom labelled ‘gothic.’ However, it was not until the early 1980s that gothic rock became its own subgenre within post-punk, and that followers of these bands started to come together as a distinctly recognizable movement. The scene appears to have taken its name from an article published in UK rock weekly Sounds: “The Face of Punk Gothique”, written by Steve Keaton and published on February 21 1981. The opening of the Batcave in London’s Soho in July 1982 provided a prominent meeting point for the emerging scene. The term ‘Batcaver’ was later used to describe old-school goths.

By the 1990s, the term ‘goth’ and the boundaries of the associated subculture had become more contentious. New subcultures emerged, or became more popular, some of them being conflated with the goth subculture by the general public and the popular media. This conflation was primarily owing to similarities of appearance, social customs, and the fashions of the subcultures, rather than the musical genres of the bands associated with them. As time went on, the term was extended further in popular usage, sometimes to define groups that had neither musical nor fashion similarities to the original gothic subculture.

The response of these newer groups to the older subculture varies. Some, being secure in a separate subcultural identity, express offence at being called ‘goth’ in the first place, while others choose to join the existing subculture on its own terms. Still others have simply ignored its existence, and decided to appropriate the term ‘goth’ themselves, and redefine the idea in their own image. Even within the original subculture, changing trends have added to the complexity of attempting to define precise boundaries.

Emo: In the mid-1980s, the term emo described a subgenre of hardcore punk which originated in the Washington, D.C. music scene. In later years, the term emocore, short for ‘emotional hardcore’, was also used to describe the emotional performances of bands in the Washington, D.C. scene and some of the offshoot regional scenes such as Rites of Spring, Embrace, One Last Wish, Beefeater, Gray Matter, Fire Party, and later, Moss Icon.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the term emo began to refer to those bands which followed the influences of Fugazi, with a more indie rock style of emo, more melodic and less chaotic. The so-called ‘indie emo’ scene survived until the late 1990s, as many of the bands either disbanded or shifted to mainstream styles. As a result, the term ‘emo’ became a vaguely defined identifier rather than a specific genre of music.

At the end of the 1990s, the underground emo scene had almost entirely disappeared. However, the term emo was still being bandied about in mainstream media, almost always attached to the few remaining 90s emo acts, including Jimmy Eat World.

2003 saw the success of Chris Carrabba, the former singer of emo band Further Seems Forever. Despite musically being more aligned to the singer songwriter school, Carraba found himself part of the emerging ‘popular’ emo scene. His music featured lyrics founded in deep diary-like outpourings of emotion. While certainly emotional, the new ‘emo’ had a far greater appeal amongst adolescents than its earlier incarnations.

At the same time, use of the term ‘emo’ expanded beyond the musical genre, which added to the confusion surrounding the term. The word ‘emo’ became associated with open displays of strong emotion. Common fashion styles and attitudes that were becoming idiomatic of fans of similar ‘emo’ bands also began to be referred to as ‘emo.’ As a result, bands that were loosely associated with ‘emo’ trends or simply demonstrated emotion began to be referred to as emo. The term has now become so broad that it has become nearly impossible to describe what exactly qualifies as ‘emo’.

Alternative spirituality

Much of this section is based on notes taken by me at Simon Small’s workshop on Understanding Contemporary Spirituality, held at the Norwich Centre for Christian Meditation on 1st March 2007.

Simon Small suggests that people only get involved in alternative spiritualities from the mid-teens onwards. The Gen Y survey covered people up to the age of 25. Although they found no ‘God-shaped hole’ this may be an age-related experience rather than particular to Generation Y. It would be interesting to track those born after 1982 and see whether they, too, find a sense of meaninglessness and alienation which leads them into a spiritual journey of some kind.

Rave spirituality

The anonymous quote comes from http://www.csp.org/nicholas/A66.html There are further resources on this site.

Following are the lyrics to dance act Faithless’ track, God Is A DJ:

This is my church

This is where I heal my hurt

It’s a natural grace

Of watching young life shape

It’s in minor keys

Solutions and remedies

Enemies becoming friends

When bitterness ends

This is my church

This is my church

This is where I heal my hurt

This is my church

This is my church

This is where I heal my hurt

It’s in the world I become

Content in the hum

Between voice and drum

It’s in the church

The poetic justice of cause and effect

Respect, love, compassion

This is my church

This is where I heal my hurt

For tonight

god is a DJ

god is a DJ

See: http://net127.com/2003/03/24/this-is-where-i-heal-my-hurt

Further reading

Baigent 2003, The Y Church Report—report written for the Catholic diocese of Northampton. It looks at the cultural and faith worlds of young Catholics, and how effective youth ministry might be conducted.

Croft et al 2005, Evangelism in a Spiritual Age also contains some interesting material on contemporary spirituality, focusing on the ‘Beyond the Fringe’ research project carried out in the diocese of Coventry in 2003.

McQuillan 2004, Youth Spirituality—an Australian report looking at the spirituality of young people in Australia and the UK. He used David Hay’s ‘spiritual experience’ questionnaire with a groups of pupils some mixed catholic schools and an all-boys independent school. In both groups the number of positive responses was very high.

Rave Culture and Religion, edited by Graham St John, Routledge, 2004, may be worth reading (I haven’t yet). See http://www.edgecentral.net/rcr.htm

Partridge 2004, New Religions—a comprehensive and readable guide to hundreds of movements of the spirit across the world.