Souls On Fire: The Unexpected Rise of Spiritual Activism

Souls On Fire: The Unexpected Rise of Spiritual Activism

Matt Carmichael

“5 handouts or 6?” I asked my wife. “Perhaps you’d best print off 10 to be safe,” she suggested. Thus I turned up in a field in Derbyshire woefully ill-equipped for my workshop on “Spiritual Activism” at the annual Earth First! Summer Gathering of eco-activists. Less than a decade ago similar workshops I ran at the Heathrow and Kingsnorth Climate Camps were intimate affairs in tiny tents. This time, despite my session clashing with another one sharing spiritual themes, a quarter of the population of the camp showed up.

They ranged from the curious hunt saboteur to the anarchist yoga teacher steeped in a range of spiritualities. One courageous biologist came along to try to get us all to see reason. “I’m an atheist,” he said. “So am I,” said a Buddhist. Later, discussing the transpersonal psychologist Carl Jung’s notion of a shared or “collective” subconscious realm of the mind, the biologist piped up politely, “That’s all very well, the trouble is there’s not a shred of evidence for it.”

So what explains the surge of interest in spirituality amongst activists?

In North America the concept of spirituality has been distinguishable from religion for decades. An entire subculture of spiritual activists is served by books, workshops and celebrity speakers like Julia “Butterfly” Hill. On this side of the pond activists have taken a discerning tack, awaiting approaches that can satisfy practical and intellectual, as well as emotional, needs. These seem to be emerging.

Research suggests that the decline of religion in the UK has hardly dented our sense of the spiritual. A typical study of over 2000 British adults, for instance, found that even among non-religious people, 61% believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means.” It would seem that religion served deep human needs for meaning and affirmation which have not adequately been replaced, and what is true of the general public is especially so for many activists seeking deeper answers as to what has gone so badly wrong in our society.

Activist experience raises increasingly profound questions. Issues like climate change and ocean acidification pose existential threats of human induced Armageddon. For many, the roots of these problems lie deeper than colonialism or capitalism in the entire modernist project from Descartes and Newton onwards. Serious questions must be asked of a 500-year old philosophy which views the land and oceans as dead, and reduces humanity to machines which may or may not contain ghostly wisps of intangible spirit, whose function is to bend nature to our convenience.

What’s more, whilst a spiritual framework can seem weird at a parochial level, it’s in tune with a timeless internationalism. A research paper in 2010 argued that much of what we think we know about human nature is based on research conducted on “WEIRD” college students: Western, Educated, from Industrialised, Rich, Democratic countries. It’s this kind of institutionalised tunnel vision that a new generation of activists hear echoing in the voices of the “new” atheists; a hubris that goes to the heart of our globalised woes. Land-based cultures from every corner of the globe share mythologies which seem to speak to the spiritual vacuum by connecting human identity with the natural world. Until we imposed our values, they didn’t cut down forests because the spirits of their ancestors lived there. They didn’t destroy mountains for minerals because the mountains were their gods. These myths enshrined wisdom that protected people from real harm; wisdom we lost when we wrote off mythology as mere superstition.

So activists are raiding the spiritual traditions for philosophies that breathe meaning into life, and for practices which sustain them through testing experiences. The spiritual abuse of forced religion and the long history of religious despotism repel many, myself included, from participation in organised religion, so the raw experience is sought out, and this is where our biologist friend’s missing evidence is found: in the kinds of empirical experiences which are too rare, unpredictable and personal to be captured as data, but for which a substantial body of evidence has been building up over a century or so. There are discernible patterns to the soul on fire. That may never be good enough for some, but activists are often the beggars who can’t be choosers.

Intriguingly, though, interest is being renewed in the tactical deployment of spiritual ideas and methods beyond the boundaries of belief or philosophy. In 1994 my friend and co-author, the human ecologist Alastair McIntosh, spearheaded a successful campaign to prevent a mining company from blowing up Mt Roineabhal on his native Hebridean island of Harris to ship away the stone for road surfaces. A key shift in public opinion came when he testified to the spiritual value of the land at a public inquiry, along with an American Indian tribal leader and a conservative Presbyterian minister. They were able to point beyond calculations of profit and loss to something immeasurable and irreplaceable.

More recently, two atheist activists have expounded evangelical Christianity as a model for dealing with climate change on the one hand, and sustaining grassroots Corbynism on the other. George Marshall spent a decade listening to people in order to research the complex psychology of our responses to climate change for his incisive book Don’t Even Think About It, and veteran Guardian journalist George Monbiot worries that the movement that brought Jeremy Corbyn to prominence will soon fizzle out without social structures to sustain it. Both envy the effectiveness of evangelical social organisation, despite being repelled by the wider aims of the movement. However, the power they wish to tap into – the power to change minds – is the power of charismatic religion. This is a power which can be used for good or ill, and is rooted in the ability to communicate at a deeper level than mere reason; to shift values and shape perspectives not by arguing, but by caring for people in community. Truth becomes inseparable from love, and the social structures of inclusion Monbiot and Marshall wish to emulate emerge from the experience – authentic or otherwise – of divine love.

Another example of the use of spiritual techniques reaching an audience beyond the usual religious suspects can be found in Treasure Islands, investigative journalist Nick Shaxson’s forensic examination of endemic tax avoidance. Having attempted to paint a picture of the international web of tax havens and their links to the City of London mothership, Shaxson interviews Father William Taylor, priest of a neighbouring parish and a leading campaigner against the activities of the City:

“Taylor sees something more than human greed at work. ‘We are in the grip of something quite demonic. Institutions keep it alive and it’s part of all of us. I see it as a demonic spirit.’ He calls the spirit Griffin, the mythical creature which appears in many of the City’s ceremonies…. ‘ I do think that it’s spiritually very dangerous: The Corporation of London is a very dangerous place. I don’t want to say that so-and-so is evil. People who work there are not bad people. We’re all part of it.’”

Why does Shaxson include these quotes? For most of his readers Father Taylor (who is applying the ideas of theologian activist Walter Wink) may as well be speaking Martian. Shaxson is a journalist – he knows when he’s losing a reader and he knows it’s a risk including these quotations. I think he does so because it gives the reader a glimpse of Taylor’s struggle to reconcile conflicting truths. The ‘Griffin’ is not human, and its inhumanity influences otherwise good people. Far from being some indulgent fantasy, this allows Taylor to keep a grip on several key realities: it prevents him from dehumanising City workers because the Griffin is evil, but they aren’t. It also allows him to admit the culpability of wider society, to be honest about how everyone – anyone with a pension at least – is implicated in this gigantic wrong. And it visualises the essential evil embodied in the City in an image that sums up and animates the whole book’s analysis.

Whilst wider society may look askance at both the activism and the spirituality of this surprise trend, enthusiasts might wield influence beyond their numbers. If, like the suffragettes, abolitionists and gay rights campaigners before them, today’s activists shape tomorrow’s mainstream attitudes, we may be entering a world in which neither religion as we know it nor atheist materialism hold sway.


Matt Carmichael is a climate activist, secondary schoolteacher and homemaker based in Leeds, with a degree in Theology and a special interest in spirituality and culture. He is co-author, with human ecologist and Scottish land reformer Alastair McIntosh, of Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service out now on Green Books. Alastair’s website is at