A few days ago, I was reading an online article about the use of spiritual assessments. In many institutional settings, including hospitals and the military, the use of assessments for spirituality has become common. There is a wide variety among these instruments but they generally ask a range of questions about spiritual and religious practices as well as social support and meaning in life. The reason that they are used is that research has shown that spirituality is a key part to resiliency for those with serious health and mental health problems.
From my perspective, the article didn’t present anything particularly new. However, I was surprised as I read the comments posted in response to the article. The comments conveyed a belief that the goal of spiritual assessment is to enable conservative Christians to identify and convert agnostic or atheist individuals. Given my familiarity with spiritual assessments and the research behind them, I was taken off guard by the assumption that the process of spiritual assessment was an attack on atheists.
As a progressive Christian, I often experience a range of attitudes from disrespect to disdain directed toward me by conservative evangelical Christians. My beliefs are different from theirs, though we both call ourselves Christians. A person who is agnostic or atheist experiences much more serious criticism and is subject to unwelcome evangelization.
Conservative Christians often draw battle lines aiming at those whose beliefs are different from their own. Because conservative Christians loudly insist that others share their beliefs, people who are agnostic or atheists are not given the freedom to voice their convictions. This results in a barrier for agnostic or atheist individuals’ ability to identify and develop the spiritual dimension of life.
Spirituality is a dimension of human experience that we all share. Spirituality is not about beliefs in a deity or some realm beyond us. While spirituality may include beliefs in a deity and religious practice, spirituality itself is related to our ability to create or discover meaning, purpose and value in our daily lives. It’s a human capacity and capability.
During these winter nights, as the daylight draws to the end, I often look out from my dining room window to the western sky to the varying shades of purple, pink and blue that stream from the West. I experience awe at the beauty of the sky. I also experience a sense of gratitude for life when I look at the winter sunset. Looking at the sky in the late afternoon before darkness falls draws me to an inner stillness. In short, the experience is meaningful to me and enables me to experience my life as having a sense of meaning. In other words, watching the winter sunset adds a certain quality to my life that is more than just watching the changes in the sky as the sun sets.
We know from studies of other primates, like chimpanzees in the wild, that they too will sit transfixed while watching the sunset. Clearly, they are also drawn to something and demonstrate an experience of awe in that moment. Do chimps who watch the sunset and experience awe take something from that experience and use it to build meaning in life? I have no idea. But people do – no matter what their belief system may be.
Spirituality is about our capacity to create or discover meaning in ordinary life events. Spirituality draws us to something more than what is apparent in daily routines. Spirituality is what enables the drudgery of work to be experienced as purposeful or sacrifices made for a loved one valuable.
When we lose the capacity to find meaning, purpose, or value in our daily lives, we are more likely to have difficulty recovering from physical or mental illness. In this way, spirituality is a key component for resiliency. To that end, the goal of spiritual assessment, whether used in health care, mental health, or by the military, is meant to utilize an individual’s inner resources for wholeness.
I was saddened to read the angry responses to the article on spiritual assessment. It’s clear that one of the many casualties in the American culture war is that people whose belief system does not conform to certain perspectives are disrespected and marginalized. As research continues to emerge on the relationship among spirituality, health, and mental health, it is my hope that people who are agnostic and atheist will experience greater freedom in exploring the spiritual dimension of life.
© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.