Table 2.   from the end of Section 3
Contrasts between the cultural meanings underpinning traditional and contemporary spiritualities

Trends in cultural meanings in a relatively traditional society, and to some extent in individuals with a traditional religious spirituality

Trends in cultural meanings in contemporary Westernised societies, and in individuals with a secular, individualistic spirituality

Personal meaning was usually a social given.  A religious meaning system was received like a set package;  it was ‘taken-for granted' and internalised.

  • There was security in having a relatively ‘black and white' meaning system and moral code.
  • Individuals did not have to ‘search' for meaning;  they had a ready-made package.
  • The religious meaning system may have been experienced as somewhat harsh and oppressive, but it helped people make sense of their lives at several levels, answering the fundamental questions: Who am I? Where have I come from? Why am I here?

Meaning in life was now less a social given and more a matter of personal choice;   personal meaning was ‘constructed' by individuals for themselves, or chosen from a proliferation of options.

  • There was a challenge to individuals in constructing their own DIY (Do It Yourself) spirituality.
  • ‘Searching' for meaning and taking responsibility for developing one's own personal meaning system could be stressful.
  • The speed, scope and scale of economic, social and cultural change have made the past seemingly irrelevant and the future uncertain for many.  This seems to have created more ‘cultural agnosticism' about meaning, purpose and certainty in life.
  • Even if life's meaning was less clear, life itself became more comfortable, more varied, safer, healthier and longer.

Religious belief:  Beyond the mortal realm, people had a religious faith that not only provided them with a road map for life, but it gave them a sense of place in the cosmic scheme of things.

While many retained some form of religious belief, this was not nearly as absolute and binding as it once was.  The individual's own experience tended to became the touchstone for authenticity, and even for what was regarded as the ‘truth'.  While nominally linked with religion, some see a clear distinction between their own personal faith and the faith taught by traditional religious institutions (Schweitzer, 2004). 

Religious authority:   Religious spirituality (in the West) was sustained and validated by church authority.  Its plausibility depended on high regard for the church;  the notion of the authority of god underpinned church authority.

  • An emphasis on obedience to religious authorities and to god.

Authority of the individual:  The plausibility of religious authorities tended to be low.  Increasingly, individuals became their own spiritual authority, deciding for themselves on the basis of their own judgment about particular aspects of spirituality.   “People assumed that their lives are not predetermined by birth and social origin, and that every one has the right and also the responsibility to shape his or her life according to their own wishes and life plans.”(Schweitzer, 2007, p.90)  It is taken for granted that everyone has the right to choose their own faith and that no-one should interfere with their choices.

  • Little if any regard for religious authorities.
  • What suited the individual became the ultimate criteria for the utility of spirituality.

The existence and image of God:  There was a strong belief in the existence of god.  The image of god included the notions of:-  creator, all-powerful, benevolent, loving and caring for each individual, judge of good and bad, rewarder of the good and punisher of the evil, listens to people's prayers and requests for help.

A natural uncertainty about the existence of god became more prevalent.  Belief in a benevolent god was attractive and comforting , but not something that many individuals counted on or thought much about.

Family and community ties:  Children usually grew up in a close network of family and community relationships that largely defined their world – their values, beliefs, identity and station in life.

Family and community ties were loosened.  Consequently individuals appeared more open to various life options available in the wider culture, together with more individualism in their choices.

The world outside:  Most people knew relatively little of what lay outside their world, and of other ways of living (in pre-television times).

People know much more of the rest of the world and how differently others lived and thought.  Information about what was happening around the world was available instantaneously.

Social change and the predictability of life:  Much of life was predictable and what was not was explained in terms of the supernatural and religious belief.

Rapid social change resulted in much more uncertainty about life and the future.  Many accommodated to the uncertainty as ‘natural'.  (Others could not cope with the uncertainty so well, and identified with communities where meanings were more definite and authoritarian – a move back towards a more traditional setting).