Lost and Found - Secular Orthodoxy

What is the place of spirituality in Homelessness Service Provision? In this blog series, I’ll be looking at spirituality and faith. Is it something that homelessness services address, and should it?

In the last blog I looked at the benefits of faith and spirituality, especially for those using homelessness services, discussed by Carwyn Gravell in ‘Lost and Found: Faith and Spirituality in the Lives of Homeless People’. But Gravell finds that those who are homeless are hardly ever asked about their faith by service providers. The second part of the study is concerned with the reasons for this situation, and the secularisation of mainstream homelessness services generally.

The last Labour government’s stance on religion was summarised by Alastair Campbell when he said “We don’t do God.” This could also describe the philosophy of mainstream homelessness services, which regards exploration of faith as irrelevant, a private matter or even potentially damaging.

Gravell links this secular standpoint to the influences of the welfare state and scientific materialism, both fairly recent innovations. In the Victorian age of philanthropy, charitable organisations such as soup kitchens or night shelters were religiously motivated, and run by volunteers and non-professionals. Many organisations still are religiously motivated today. But publicly funded, high end homelessness services such as supported accommodation only began in the 1960’s, and the model for these services was influenced by the prevailing ideas of our time.

The professional homelessness sector, which is part of the welfare state, is designed to eradicate the social ills of ‘want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness’ and promote utilitarian and materialistic ideals. This means it addresses material needs, such as physical health, housing and employment situation.

This emphasis on material needs, Gravell argues, stems from faith in the power of science and technology. Science, using the methods of quantification, experiment and peer review, has brought many technological achievements and improvements to people’s lives. Science has even influenced government thinking on services, emphasising ‘evidence based policy making’ and allocating funding based on results.

But while science is incisive and useful for some problems, a worldview based purely on science will only give credence to what is publicly testable and repeatable, in other words what is material or mechanical. Gravell appeals to the work of the physicist Rupert Sheldrake, who in his book The Science Delusion argues that scientific materialism makes assumptions that are not themselves scientifically testable, implying that it fails its own test of plausibility. One such assumption is that the world is purely mechanical, and acts in a deterministic manner based on certain physical laws. Evidence from recent scientific fields such as quantum mechanics and consciousness studies are challenging this view. Because scientific materialism is beginning to be seen as scientifically inadequate, it is important to ask whether a service model based on scientific materialism is adequate to the needs of service users. The danger is that living people are reduced to numbers, passive recipients of treatment, and essentially machines.

There are those who deny that atheism is incompatible with spirituality, or that the mechanistic view of science is actually accepted by most scientists. In his recent book ‘Waking Up’, the neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris makes a case for spirituality and meditation whilst remaining sceptical of institutional religion. But while many may reject the black and white distinction between orthodox religion and scientific materialism, both can still influence how we address social problems and help people. Both the religious and the non-religious may be reluctant to discuss faith and spirituality, because of the perception that any discussion of faith is a form of proselytising. But this means that the needs of those who are spiritual, be they religious or not, are not met.

The aspiration of mainstream homelessness services is to cure what is seen as a social problem through material benefits. There is no doubt that accommodation, treatment for substance abuse, and employment training improve the lives of vulnerable individuals, but these interventions don’t necessarily ensure reintegration back into society. Faith based services can offer consolation and benefits that would otherwise be unavailable, as was made clear in part one. At the same time, Gravell says faith based organisations remove or play down the faith dimension of their services in order to get commissioned.

According to Gravell, the main distinction between faith based and secular services is their levels of intervention. Secular services tend to insist on some form of treatment or intervention, such as drug treatment, as a condition for hostel space. On the other hand, faith based services more often offer beds and food unconditionally.

Service providers in the homelessness sector have a wide array of attitudes to faith, ranging from a strong personal faith to strident atheism, and also a middle position of openness to spirituality. Many of these individuals work alongside one another, aspiring to help those in need with different motivations, but towards a common good. In our largely secular society, silence about matters of faith is the norm. In order to determine whether service users are interested in talking about matters of faith and spirituality, Gravell organised interviews with 75 people who were homeless or vulnerable about these topics. The results of these interviews, and implications for homelessness services will be discussed in the next part of this series.

Alex Charlton