The NHS’s new humanist chaplain is a welcome sign of our shifting spirituality

By Andrew Brown

The appointment of 28-year-old Lindsay van Dijk as a humanist chaplain at the Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS trust, leading a team of three Christians, is a rather overdue acknowledgment of the changing religious nature of Britain. It should also make us think about the nature and function of religion, and how little this has to do with belief. Humanism is increasingly the default position in England when people don’t want to think about theology or religious questions. It has replaced “C of E” as the translation of a muffled “don’t know” in questions about religious identity. It’s not the same as atheism, which implies a much sharper-edged conception of identity.

Humanists, you might say, don’t believe in God but think it’s rude to say so, just as traditional Anglicans did believe in God but thought it rude to talk about Him. It can be difficult to tell the difference in practice. Humanists and C of E congregants are both nice people, who believe in the value of decency – but humanists are likely the children or grandchildren of Anglicans. It’s seldom the other way round.

The reason this shift doesn’t much diminish the amount of spirituality in the world is that religions are not really about belief at all. They are about identity, morality and myths. Because we imagine that religions proceed from doctrine to practice, we tend entirely to misunderstand the way that they work. In fact we get it precisely backwards. Religions become incredible not as a result of scientific progress, but because the small, taken-for-granted habits and rituals that sustain them fall out of use. But the human needs that sustained them remain.

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