Is secular spiritual care for real?

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Photo of couple holding hands closeupSecular spiritual care, as with religiously affiliated spiritual care, is a way of providing emotional-existential support to a person in crisis usually caused by illness, transition, trauma, or loss. Often that crisis is compounded by what is impacting many of us these days – a lack of connection.

The year before last, I attended a lecture by Dr Lisa Miller, a Columbia University professor and research scholar on spirituality and psychology. Dr Miller made the point that often the same issue or event that depresses and debilitates one person can in someone else lead to healing and transformation.  She said that the difference between the two is one’s ability to mediate meaning and hold hope.

That’s what spiritual care can help with. And it’s one of the reasons why the State of Victoria, Department of Health and Human Services now regards spiritual care as an ‘allied health’ profession. Unfortunately, the positive mental and physical health benefits associated with spiritual health aren’t being realised by all Victorians.

Through a pilot program that the Humanist Society of Victoria launched with the help of Spiritual Health Victoria last year to put humanist volunteers on pastoral care teams in local hospitals, it was discovered that most pastoral care coordinators were unwilling to take on humanists – even to work only with non-religious patients – unless they first completed a unit of theologically-informed Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), regardless of their competencies, experience or any educational equivalencies.

It was also learned that in many hospitals, those who do not identify with any religion comprise the largest cohort of patients; a designation that in a few places also means that these people will not be visited by a member of the spiritual/pastoral team.

Follow the money

Approximately $1,300,000 is annually allocated by the State for spiritual care. The bulk of it goes to faith communities ostensibly to train, vet, support and place spiritual carers from their specific religious traditions in hospitals. The money is apportioned according to census figures except when it comes to the non-religious community, which receives none of this funding. One reason is that the State makes a distinction between ‘no
religion’, which represents 31.67% of the population and ‘secular beliefs’, which includes a number of categories including humanist but only accounts for only 0.28% of all Victorians.

Even if the case could be made that the State’s ‘unchurched’ ought to have access to some of this money to recruit, vet, train, support and place its own spiritual carers, there is not yet an entity that takes on that role of an endorsing community/credentialing entity’ to serve the needs of humanists, atheists, agnostics, sceptics, spiritual-but-not-religious, theologically fluid, or people who for any reason tick the ‘no religion’ box.
That’s what we need to change. And that’s why we’re now in the process of forming a new non-profit organisation to make available qualified secular spiritual carers available in a variety of settings, starting with hospitals, schools and workplaces.

Is this really needed?

A few of my theologically trained/religiously affiliated spiritual care colleagues believe that there’s really no need for a ‘secular spiritual carer.’ I have heard on several occasions how they have been trained (usually in divinity school) to be able to care for the needs of ‘all people in need of spiritual care regardless of their background.’ While that may very well be the case, the question I always pose back to them is, ‘But do the non-religious feel as comfortable with a religiously-affiliated spiritual carer?’

In my nine months serving as a secular spiritual carer at Caulfield Hospital, I have learned that many patients who tick the ‘no religion’ box would not have a problem being looked in by a member of the spiritual/pastoral team from a faith community. But I’ve also learned that many would, particularly those who have experienced shame or abuse because of religion – such as was the woman who told me how she had been excommunicated from the Lutheran Church, an elderly man who was interested in learning about assisted dying; or someone I’ve come to know quite well at the hospital who endured sexual abuse by a clergy member. I’d also think that a large percentage of patients who identify as LGBTQI would fall in this category.

Humanists, atheists, agnostics, sceptics, spiritual-but-not-religious, theologically fluid, or people who for any reason identify as non-religious, ought to have a say about who should be able to provide them with spiritual care. If you feel the same way and would like to support our effort to do so, please drop me a line at

Reproduced from Victorian Humanist, Vol. 57, No. 8, September 2018

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