A ROCK quartz crystal votive candle-holder promises to restore your heart chakra. Sage incense can cleanse a room of negative energy. And, if the vibrations still aren’t right, digital-savvy energy healers are now a mere Zoom call away. Just don’t expect change from £100.
Decoupled from their indigenous traditions and religious worldviews, items such as these are marketed in their thousands to the “religious nones” of the UK and North America. The trillion-dollar wellness industry is evidence that the “spiritual but not religious” are still open to being directed towards the Divine. But, with brands and social-media influencers as their guide, they may be led to believe that Ultimate Reality lies beyond a paywall.
The 2018 British Social Attitudes survey found that 53 per cent of respondents described themselves as non-religious; a survey of 5000 UK adults conducted by the think tank Theos earlier this year produced the same figure. But, as a forthcoming report The Nones: Who are they and what do they believe? demonstrates, that does not mean that half of the UK population are avowed atheists.
Twenty per cent of those surveyed for the report who described themselves as non-religious none the less believed in a life after death, and almost the same proportion (17 per cent) believed in the power of prayer. More surprisingly, only half (51 per cent) said that they did not believe in God.
“Even in a secular world, people are looking for answers or direction, possibly just a thread of hope and comfort,” writes Amal Awad, the author of In My Past Life I Was Cleopatra: A sceptical believer’s journey through the New Age. “Beyond that, people are looking for relief. We have a lot of emotions to clear, experiences and people to forgive, things to unlearn and unfeel.”
Hope, comfort, belonging, forgiveness — one can hardly put a price on these integral parts of the human experience. Yet, paradoxically, because of their profundity, depth, and universality, they are ripe for commercialisation.
CHRISTIANITY is, of course, not immune from putting a price tag on our search for meaning, for a tangible sense of God’s favour, or for greater surety of our eternal future. From indulgences to seed offerings, Christian leaders of all denominations have reaped rewards by serving as middlemen between mere mortals and the divine.
But, arguably, outside the structures of an established religion, one is more vulnerable to spiritual profiteering. With the wellness industry able to pick and choose from millennia of religious traditions, there is an endless supply of “answers” for existential questions. From angelology to astrology, rune readings to Wicca, all pooled together on platforms such as Goop, one can pour money into an almost infinite number of retreats, soothsayers, guides, and gurus.
Whatever the spiritual reality behind these businesses, the harms can certainly be real. A former head of the NHS, Sir Simon Stevens, criticised Goop for its health misinformation, which included advice against using sun cream. The company, founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, has been sued several times for misleading advertising, and, according to the Good Thinking Society, by 2018 had been reported for breaching 113 advertising laws in the UK. Yet that same year, and despite a backlash for cultural appropriation, Goop was valued at $250 million.
There are no qualifications or barriers to entry required of wellness influencers or self-appointed gurus. Anthony William, for instance, who calls himself the Medical Medium, gives medical diagnoses and treatment advice to his millions of followers based on what he hears from a spirit guide. His credentials come not from any clinical training, but from testimonials from the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Robert de Niro, and Ms Paltrow.
Similarly, with none of the leadership structures familiar to more established religions, and poor regulation from governments, scandals easily spread in the wellness industry, and accountability rarely follows.
BUT perhaps most insidious of all is the connection that the wellness industry makes between consumerism and closeness to the Divine. A phone consultation with the Medical Medium would set you back $300, while a week-long retreat with another well-known influencer will be about ten times as much — and there are nearly always advanced stages and inner circles to strive (and pay) for. Almost inseparable from the beauty and fitness industries, one could summarise the ethos as, “No spiritual gain without financial pain.”
So, however you engage with those who identify as “spiritual but not religious”, one point is worth emphasising: the nearness of God and the free offer of grace. As Thomas Keating wrote: “The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from Him.”
There is money to be made from proverbially separating people from God and promising to bring them closer again with whatever you are selling. But, by showing radical hospitality and unconditional welcome, we point to the truth that the God of love and mercy is already, and always, at hand.
Florence Gildea is the Bishop of Leicester’s social policy adviser.