Chaplaincy – wherever it serves – will inevitably encounter those of no particular religious belief. A chaplain serves and meets needs where duty calls. How does a chaplain meet the needs of a non-religous person? Here, we bring a series of articles which directly address this growing phenomenon that is encountered in all domains of chaplaincy service.
Dr. David Savage is the author of Non-Religious Pastoral Care: A Practical Guide, and he took a leading role in establishing the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network. He has provided pastoral care at Guy’s and St. Thomas NHS Foundation Trust since 2012, and was the first non-religious person to successfully complete their spiritual healthcare department’s two-year professional training course.
Most people recognise the deep humanity of both those in need and those who provide pastoral care, be they people with religious beliefs or people with non-religious beliefs. In either case, it is right that everyone should have the same opportunity to receive the like-minded care they need and, just as importantly, an equal opportunity to provide that care.
While, in principle, all healthcare staff provide such care, it has been chaplaincy departments that have traditionally led in this role. Until recently, these departments have been overwhelmingly religious and Christian. The position of chaplains in providing pastoral, spiritual, and religious care should and will continue; they have a long tradition of dedicated service. But, in the words of King Wu-ling (307 BCE), “A talent for following the ways of yesterday is not sufficient to improve the world today”. The world of contemporary UK healthcare is very different to that in which traditional Christian chaplaincy was formed. In 1950, shortly after the National Health Service was established, 80% of Britons said they were Christian. By 2018, this had fallen to 38%, with most people describing themselves as non-religious.
In order to improve pastoral, spiritual, and religious care practice and ensure that everyone’s needs are met, it will be essential to get a better understanding of who these non-religious people are, their beliefs, values, and perspectives. Only then will it be possible to develop a pastoral, spiritual, and religious service that is really fit for the twenty-first century.
Who Are these Non-Religious People?
The non-religious have been variously described, on the one hand, as aggressive or militant atheists and, on the other, as inherently religious, “believing but not belonging,” depending vicariously on the church involved. Both these stereotypes should be avoided. Other researchers found little support for the idea that a gap left by declining religion was being filled by holistic or New Age beliefs. Similarly, they could not support the contention that people were “believing but not belonging.” The evidence paints a different picture.
The British Social Attitudes survey asked about religious identity – where religious or non-religious people were on a scale from extremely religious to extremely non-religious. They found that, “Three-quarters of the non-religious are now ‘very or extremely’ non-religious, whereas less than a quarter of the religious are ‘very or extremely’ so”.
This suggests that most non-religious people hold their “non-religiosity” quite strongly and, presumably, quite seriously. As to their actual beliefs, the picture is more confusing. A survey by the religious think-tank found that 21% of non-religious people believed in God and 16% believed in life after death. It also found that only 87% of Christians believed in God and only 38% believed in heaven. As Table 1 shows, one cannot assume that a person’s actual beliefs always correspond to all the traditional tenets of that religion or belief.
These findings were reinforced at a Vatican conference reporting on “understanding unbelief.” Speaking to The Tablet magazine, Dr. Lee, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Kent’s Department of Theology and Religion, said:
[The] findings show once and for all that the public image of the atheist is a simplification at best, and a gross caricature at worst. Instead of relying on assumptions about what it means to be an atheist, we can now work with a real understanding of the many different worldviews that the atheist population includes.
While one could explore these findings further, a bigger message should not be lost. It is that both groups described sincere beliefs and values. “The non-religious” are not merely people without a religion, they are people with beliefs and values. While these may be non-religious beliefs and values, for many people they will be sincerely and seriously held, which help to give meaning to their lives and provide a foundation for their moral behaviour. Similarly, while many people with non-religious beliefs may not have faith in the sense of having a belief in the doctrines of a religion, they may well have faith in the sense of having trust or confidence in someone or something. That may be faith in their doctor, in the value of friendship, or in our common humanity. If we are to provide good pastoral and spiritual care to those who identify as non-religious, it is essential that we do not perceive them merely as people without religion, but that we see them positively, as people with beliefs and values which are important in their lives.
What is Non-Religious Pastoral Care?
Pastoral care practice can be grounded in religious theology, philosophy, and in other ways. Good pastoral carers may be people without a recognised “religion or belief,” for example, someone who identifies themselves as spiritual but not religious.
Much non-religious pastoral care is grounded in humanism, and humanist organisations have been at the forefront of the development of non-religious pastoral care. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) defines humanism as:
a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.
Humanism sees the world as comprising such things as galaxies, trees, air, quantum particles, and other physical entities. It also comprises our sense of awe and wonder; feelings of love, sorrow, and happiness; our thoughts, fears, and hopes. But it does not extend to supernatural places/forces/beings.
Humanists base their ethical decisions on reason and a concern for human beings, sentient animals, and the environment, rather than on an appeal to a higher religious authority.
Humanists often feel that meaning and purpose can be achieved by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same. Rather than asking the question, “What is the purpose of life?” as something out there to be discovered, perhaps as part of God’s plan, humanists may ask, “How can I give my life meaning and purpose?” Many consider that empathy and compassion can help to make the world a better place, that we care for each other because we share a common humanity – a view shared by many people with religious beliefs.
In the United Kingdom, non-religious pastoral care is being built on foundations established by Dutch humanist counsellors, who have been operating in the armed forces, prisons, and hospitals since the 1950s.
Two approaches are often used, the person-centered and the existential. Carl Rogers developed person-centered counselling, one of the so-called humanistic approaches. Rogers began by trying to treat, cure, or change a person, but experience taught him that it was the person he was seeing who knew what the hurt felt like, what directions and problems were important to them, the part experiences played. His approach became person-centered, in order to facilitate a process of individual growth or flourishing by creating conditions of congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy. Rogers describes congruence as having a relationship which is genuine, without barriers, recognising the feelings and attitudes playing at that moment. He found that the more accepting he was of a person, the more he could create a relationship which that person could use. Acceptance meant having a warm regard for a person as someone of unconditional self- worth. This acceptance and unconditional positive regard should be there even when that person has attitudes, beliefs, and values which may be different to those of the carer. It is by understanding those thoughts and feelings as the person sees and feels them, which allows the person to be really free to explore themselves at a conscious and unconscious level. Empathy is where one can sense the feelings and personal meanings which someone is experiencing, perceiving them from the inside, as it were. This is different to cognitively understanding them, and it is different from having compassion. Creating conditions of congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy are important in pastoral care.
Existential counselling clearly recognises human limitations and existential constraints. These constraints may be caused by such things as the limitations on physical and mental functioning, self-perception, etc. Common across all of these are existential constraints caused by events like loss, isolation, death, grief, and anxiety. In the existentialist approach, people are not defined or determined by these constraints; they have the ability to make sense of their lives by responding actively to them. They do this not by turning to some external, perhaps supernatural, power or to some “inner natural force,” but by exercising their freedom to give meaning to their own situation. One author, writing on Existential counselling & psychotherapy in practice, states that,
the fundamental objective of existential work is to enable people to rediscover their own values, beliefs and their life’s purpose … This means that you come to know yourself in light of human limitations and possibilities and that you engage wholeheartedly with life in the way that is most satisfactory to you.
While non-religious pastoral carers are not employed, and do not act, as counsellors, these humanistic counselling approaches inform non-religious pastoral care practice.
Non-religious pastoral carers are taught that active listening skills are absolutely vital to its person-centered approach. Active listening is a type of listening that rarely occurs in our everyday lives. Listening to a person gives them the opportunity to be heard, and, importantly, to experience or to feel that they are being heard. If done with trust and intimacy, in a non-judgmental way, it can be a rare and powerful experience. Active listening focuses on the person’s agenda.
Along with other pastoral, spiritual, and religious care practitioners, non-religious pastoral carers often use terms like “being present,” “staying with,” or “walking alongside.” These terms are much easier to feel or to experience than to write about. They are about creating a spontaneous relationship that is open, flexible, and confident. It starts with self-understanding and an awareness of one’s own resources.
Non-religious pastoral carers also have an advocacy role, which can be broad: ensuring that management and staff have a better understanding of non-religious beliefs and values; ensuring that appropriate language is used; encouraging the recruitment and training of non-religious pastoral carers; effectively communicating their presence and the services they offer.
Of course, there are times when a role may be specifically religious or specifically non-religious. For example, for Roman Catholics the celebration of the Sacrament of the Sick must be performed by a Roman Catholic priest. For many rites of passage, births, marriages, and deaths, people may want a ceremony which is in keeping with their own beliefs and values. They may want a ceremony conducted by someone who shares both their beliefs and their lived experience, for example, a humanist celebrant.
Words cannot begin to describe the utter sense of desolation at the loss of an expected baby. If the baby has died around the time of birth, there may be few memories or mementos. At such times, a baby-naming ceremony can play a very important role in giving the baby their own identity, their own name. Given that most of these parents will be non-religious, parents need to be made fully aware that they can choose a baby-naming ceremony conducted by a non-religious celebrant or pastoral carer, rather than a religious chaplain. The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society found that baby funerals are usually conducted by a hospital chaplain. Again, parents really need to be offered the choice of a non-religious alternative. Similarly, the option of non-religious and civil ceremonies should be highlighted for adult contract funerals. Merely offering a religious chaplain as the default option cannot be good practice.
Imagine a situation where a patient asks a non-religious pastoral carer to pray for them. In some cases, that carer would arrange for the appropriate chaplain to visit, an important “signposting” role. But this is not always possible. Being authentic, a non-religious pastoral carer could not, with integrity, pray to a god they didn’t believe in. Yet they would still want to provide good pastoral care. There are several ways forward. For example, the non-religious pastoral carer could read out a prayer for the patient to hear; they could bring the patient prayer cards from the office; they could encourage the patient to reflect on their beliefs; or they could, perhaps, help them to put some words together themselves, etc. While being true to themselves, it should be possible, with empathy and compassion, to provide good pastoral care.
We have seen that most people with non-religious beliefs are (very) unlikely to want to receive care from a chaplain. Hence, if a department is titled “chaplaincy,” it is (very) unlikely that those with non-religious beliefs would contact it, visit its website, or read its leaflets. The use of this title is a massive barrier to accessing like-minded non-religious pastoral care. Its use is traditional, and tradition dies hard. Today, over two-thirds of acute hospitals still use this title, but there are clear signs of progress. Some are adding pastoral and/or spiritual to their title, about one in six have stopped using the word chaplaincy in preference to pastoral and/or spiritual care department. The findings of a patient survey initiated at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust recommended re-branding chaplaincy. The survey found that while patients were aware of chaplains, they had a low awareness of the service they offered. Even though the Trust had had a non-religious pastoral carer on its chaplaincy team for many years, when surveyed, those patients with non-religious beliefs were astonished to discover there was such a person. Presenting the findings, (it was) recommended “re-branding and promoting of the chaplaincy as a listening/ pastoral support service (rather than one which is framed through ‘spiritual and religious’ care) as an additional form of support for those receiving clinical care”.
A re-branding which explains the services offered, rather than portraying the staff, may well be of more benefit to patients. Renaming departments as pastoral and spiritual care departments would be an enormous step toward a truly inclusive pastoral, spiritual, and religious care service. Importantly, this doesn’t mean that chaplains should not be mentioned. Communications need to make clear that chaplains are important members of fully inclusive teams, delivering generic pastoral and spiritual care as well as specific religious care. But it should be recognised that the use of the term “chaplaincy” and the failure to say explicitly that non-religious pastoral care is available creates insurmountable barriers to the development of genuinely inclusive care.
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