Aberdeen University has been accused of promoting "pseudo-science" by setting up the Centre for the Study of Spirituality, Health and Disability, writes Olga Wojtas.
The National Secular Society, whose honorary associates include academics Peter Atkins, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, A. C. Grayling, Ted Honderich and David Starkey, called the centre a waste of money and a disturbing blurring of science and religion.
The society has been angered by Aberdeen's comment that, over the past decade, there has been worldwide recognition that spirituality and health are closely related.
Keith Porteous Wood, the society's executive director, said: "We are concerned that this highly speculative and in many ways scientifically questionable work is being promoted by a secular and publicly funded university.
"We suspect that, whatever the stated motive, it will result in evangelisation by the back door, using taxpayers' money to do it."
Mr Wood said he was also concerned that the centre might encourage a philosophy that illness or disability sprang from lack of faith or deficient "spirituality".
But the centre said it had been wrongly caricatured.
John Swinton, professor in practical theology and pastoral care, said: "We have no intentions of 'baptising people behind their backs'. Our desire is to help hold on to the caring heart of healthcare practices and ensure the inner feelings and experiences of patients are valued and cared for in ways that encourage health even in the midst of illness."
The centre said that while spirituality may include religion, the two were not synonymous.
Professor Swinton, who was a psychiatric nurse for 16 years, said that while people were moving away from institutional religion, they remained interested in spirituality, which was to do with the search for meaning, hope, value and purpose.