Mammon gets a makeover

June 15, 2007

According to the recent Europe-wide Religious and Moral Pluralism survey, in Sweden 39 per cent of the population agree with the statement "God is something within each person, rather than something out there"; in Britain the figure was 37 per cent; in Denmark 35 per cent.

Belief in the sacred of the inner life has now become more popular than belief in the sacred of transcendent "personal God" theism. Just 23 per cent of Britons report belief in this God of Christianity, and while the number of clergy is declining the number of holistic practitioners is increasing - from very few indeed in Britain in 1970 to around 150,000 today.

It is therefore not surprising to find that such expressions of spirituality - "spiritualities of life" - have entered the workplace. By 2001, almost half of England's general medical practices were providing access to complementary and alternative forms of healing. In hospices, holistic spiritual counselling has become the norm. Interest has also grown steadily among teachers, especially in primary schools, in line with Ofsted's definition of spirituality, which refers to "inner life" and the importance of "valuing a non-material dimension to life".

Then there is the business mainstream. Management training and consultancies, publications, workshops and conferences in the areas of spirituality have proliferated since the 1960s. In their A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America Ian Mitroff and Elizabeth Denton note that the majority of interviewees "take it for granted as a fact that everyone is a spiritual being and that spirituality is an integral part of humankind's basic make-up".

Two recent developments have helped to boost the popularity of non-theistic spiritualities of life in the capitalist workplace, especially in managerial, human resource and creative circles. First is growing interest in "bringing life back to work". Ideas such as "the learning organisation", "human resource development", "unlocking human potential" all envisage work as providing opportunities to work on oneself as well as do a job. Second is the culture of targets. "Benchmarks", "aims and objectives", "strategic plans", "performance indicators", "performance management" have begun to suggest that what is not measurable does not count.

These two developments - the culture of life and the culture of the target - appear to clash. The latter revolves around the measurable; the former involves the development of human qualities that are more encompassing. But one idea is to use inner-life spirituality to help meet targets. Advocates of this idea say that spiritual activities can help dispel negative personality traits and empower the employee from within.

The objection to this is that spirituality becomes instrumentalised. It is treated as a means to an end, with human capacities and capabilities enriched only in order to meet specific targets. Competitiveness, assertiveness, toughness, are committed to obtaining measurable outcomes, squeezing out other aspects of what it is to develop at and through work.

Talk of spirituality and self-development serves as a velvet drape, obscuring the iron cage that efficiency targets impose on personal progress.

Another way of dealing with the clash is to go beyond the strict requirements set by targets, to soften these targets and attempt to sustain productivity through attributes such as honesty, openness, flexibility, responsiveness, a sense of collective responsibility, cooperation and (positive) co-dependence, all influenced by inner sources of inspiration.

Then, rather than developing spirituality within the workplace, there is the possibility for employees to participate in holistic activities such as yoga or shamanism just outside it - during lunch breaks, after work, at the weekend, on holiday and through training or away days. Participants in these kinds of activities report that they help release tensions, restore a sense of wellbeing or self-confidence, perhaps temper vaunting ambitions.

Life may be reduced to targets at work, but the opportunity to experience "more to life" is to hand - quite possibly with positive consequences for workplace performance.

Paul Heelas is professor in religion and modernity, Lancaster University, and author of Spiritualities of Life (in press).

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