Why we need spirituality to meet the challenges of the 21st Century - RSA

Why we need spirituality to meet the challenges of the 21st Century

Press release

  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

With our world leaders and politicians seemingly incapable of tackling the major problems of our age, such as climate change, inequality and widespread political alienation, the RSA think tank has called for spirituality to play a greater role in the public realm.

Published soon after the RSA’s flagship City Growth Commission altered the terms of the devolution debate, today’s report Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges concluded that in a culture often thought to be shallow, awash with unfettered consumerism, boxing day sales, celebrity gossip, status updates and formulaic scandals; the need and appetite for more ‘depth’ is palpable.

View the Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges report.

The report argued that many of society’s problems risk going unaddressed as we struggle to ‘do depth’ in public – it’s historically sidestepped by governments and deferred to religions – but at a time of political alienation and democratic stress, it is no surprise that politicians and the public are now seeking to reconnect with their forgotten spiritual roots.

Written by Dr Jonathan Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre, the report said the challenge of finding a more substantial and grounded public role for the spiritual needs to be taken seriously because it arises alongside a weakening of public institutions and ‘the commons’ more broadly.

The two-year project, which received contributions from over three hundred experts including atheists, agnostics, and people of various faiths; as well as the founders of the Sunday assembly and many actively involved in Parliament’s mindfulness movement, said that spirituality is worth fighting for because our major personal and collective challenges are ultimately spiritual in nature.

The report concluded that talking about the spiritual is more than just a ‘western middle class indulgence’ and that reclaiming the spiritual for the public realm is about having the courage to speak of what truly matters.

Currently, however, most of the public are frequently left behind by loud debates between religion and ‘aggressive secularism’ - many people think of themselves as having a spiritual aspect to their lives, but without really knowing what that means.

The report concluded that whilst spiritual expression and identification is an important part of life for millions of people, it currently remains ignored because it struggles to find coherent expression and, therefore, lacks credibility in the public domain.

The RSA recommended that people think of spirituality in terms of the four main aspects of human existence that are constantly distorted or misrepresented:

  • Love – the promise of belonging

  • Death – the awareness of being

  • Self – the path of becoming and transcendence

  • Soul – the sense of beyondness

The point of rethinking spirituality would help clarify that the world’s main policy challenges may be ultimately spiritual in nature, the report argued. When you consider how we might, for instance, become less vulnerable to terrorism, care for an ageing population, address the rise in obesity or face up to climate change, you see that we are – individually and collectively – deeply conflicted by competing commitments and struggling to align our actions with our values.

The report recommended that we rediscover or develop mature forms of spirituality, grounded both in what we can never really know about our place in the universe, and what we can know – and experience – about ourselves.

For the last five years, the Social Brain Centre has shown how an emerging 21st century view of human nature indicates that we are fundamentally embodied, constituted by evolutionary biology, embedded in complex online and offline networks, largely habitual creatures, highly sensitive to social and cultural norms, riddled with cognitive quirks and biases, and much more rationalising than rational.

Within this context, the spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, the report said, namely to know oneself as fully as possible. For many, that means beginning to see beyond the ego and recognise oneself as being part of a totality, or at least something bigger than oneself.

The report found that there are many ways to illustrate how new conceptions of human nature might revitalise our appreciation for the spiritual. For example, it concluded that our deeply social nature highlights that spiritual ‘beliefs’ are not propositional. Our ‘automaticity’ also reveals why the spiritual injunction to ‘wake up’ matters, and our divided brains contextualise the need for perspective and balance, the report said.

Commenting on the report, Director of the RSA Social Brain Centre, Dr Jonathan Rowson said:

“When it comes to the very practical business of aligning our vision and values with our actions on the word, we look like amateurs, unfamiliar with the tools we need. Spiritual experiences, perspectives and practices are wrongly framed as otherworldly, rather than precious human resources to bring our ideals into being.”

Ian Christie, Research Fellow, University of Surrey said:

"We have had two centuries of a civilisation of unparalleled material progress, abundance and development based on extrinsic values (self-interest, materialism, economic growth, keeping up, social mobility); intrinsic ‘beyond-self’ and religious values have periodically been reasserted but they have lost their institutional hold and centrality to the stories that make sense of our lives. The extrinsic values celebrated by industrial society are now under real pressure in the West as scarcities begin to return and confidence in the future wanes, for good reasons of ecological disruption, social fragmentation and economic dysfunction and inequality.”

Author and journalist, Will Self said:

“I face up to death but then I flip back into denial. Surely that’s what it’s like? I lie in bed in the small hours of the morning, absolutely terrified by the apprehension of my own dissolution…And then I go to sleep and wake up in the morning and make toast.”

Chief Executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor said:

“The fact that the RSA - known for its work on policy issues like city growth, self-employment and public service reform – undertook this project is a sign of the growing importance being attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity. Spirituality is coming into the mainstream. It could powerfully affect the way we approach major 21st century possibilities and challenges”

View the Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges report.

Notes to editors

  1. For more information contact RSA Head of Media Luke Robinson on 020 7451 6893 or 07799 737 970 or [email protected]

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