A ROCK quartz crystal votive candle holder promises to restore your heart chakra. Sage incense can clear a room of negative energy. And, if the vibrations are still not right, digitally savvy energy healers are just a Zoom call away. Don’t expect to change from £100.
Decoupled from their indigenous traditions and religious worldviews, items like these are marketed by the thousands to “non-religious” people in the UK and North America. The trillion dollar wellness industry is proof that the “spiritual but not religious” are always open to being directed to the Divine. But, with brands and social media influencers as their guide, they may be led to believe that Ultimate Reality is beyond a paywall.
The 2018 UK Social Attitudes Survey found that 53% of respondents described themselves as non-religious; a survey of 5,000 UK adults conducted by think tank Theos earlier this year produced the same figure. But, as a forthcoming report Les Nones: Who are they and what do they believe? demonstrates, this does not mean that half of the British population is avowed atheist.
Twenty percent of those surveyed for the report who describe themselves as non-religious nonetheless believe in an afterlife, and almost the same proportion (17%) believe in the power of prayer. More surprisingly, only half (51%) said they did not believe in God.
“Even in a secular world, people are looking for answers or direction, maybe just a thread of hope and comfort,” writes Amal Awad, the author of In My Past Life I Was Cleopatra: A Skeptical Believer’s Journey Through the New Age. “Beyond that, people are looking for relief. We have many emotions to erase, experiences and people to forgive, things to unlearn and not feel.
Hope, comfort, belonging, forgiveness – one can hardly put a price on these integral parts of the human experience. Yet, paradoxically, because of their depth, depth and universality, they are ripe for commercialization.
Christianity is of course not immune to a price tag on our search for meaning, a tangible sense of God’s favor, or a greater certainty of our eternal future. From indulgences to seed offerings, Christian leaders of all denominations have reaped rewards by serving as intermediaries between mere mortals and the divine.
But, arguably, outside the structures of an established religion, one is more vulnerable to spiritual gain. With the wellness industry able to choose from millennia of religious traditions, there is an endless supply of “answers” to existential questions. From angelology to astrology, rune readings to Wicca, all grouped together on platforms such as Goop, money can be poured into an almost endless number of retreats, soothsayers, guides and gurus.
Whatever the spiritual reality behind these ventures, the damage can certainly be real. A former NHS chief, Sir Simon Stevens, has slammed Goop for his health misinformation, which included advice against using sunscreen. The company, founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, has been sued several times for misleading advertising and, according to the Good Thinking Society, in 2018 it was flagged for breaching 113 UK advertising laws. Yet that same year, and despite a backlash for cultural appropriation, Goop was valued at $250 million.
There are no qualifications or barriers to entry required for wellness influencers or self-proclaimed gurus. Anthony William, for example, who calls himself the medical medium, gives medical diagnoses and treatment advice to his millions of followers based on what he hears from a spirit guide. His credentials come not from clinical training, but from testimonials from people like Sylvester Stallone, Robert de Niro and Ms. Paltrow.
Likewise, in the absence of leadership structures familiar to more established religions and poor regulation by governments, scandals easily spread through the wellness industry and accountability rarely ensues.
BUT perhaps most insidious of all is the connection the wellness industry is making between consumerism and closeness to the Divine. A phone consultation with the Medical Medium would set you back $300, while a week-long retreat with another well-known influencer will cost around ten times as much – and there are almost always advanced stages and inner circles to strive for. (and to pay) for . Almost inseparable from the beauty and fitness industries, the philosophy could be summed up as: “No spiritual gain without financial pain”.
So however you engage with those who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” one point is worth emphasizing: closeness to God and the free offer of grace. As Thomas Keating wrote, “The main thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separate from Him.
There is money to be made by proverbially separating people from God and promising to bring them together again with everything you sell. But, by showing radical hospitality and unconditional welcome, we underline the truth that the God of love and mercy is already and always at hand.
Florence Gildea is social policy adviser to the Bishop of Leicester.