New Religions and the New Europe Conference: Hospice work 'encourages broader view of spirituality'

Many workers in the hospice movement are motivated by strong evangelical Christian beliefs, but the constant care of the dying is tending to modify these towards a much more New Age type of spirituality, according to Dr Tony Walter, a sociologist who has made a study of dying.

He told the conference that one of the founders of the movement had argued that the work demanded that those who care for the dying move beyond narrow religious dogmas, and also beyond scientific materialism. This was exactly the programme of the New Age movement.

Hospice workers had been driven by experience towards a New Age position. It might be an article of evangelical belief that some people would go to hell, but it was impossible to care long for the dying and not feel that God should rescue all of them.

Equally, the job of hospital chaplain could only be done in a limited number of ways. Some of these were quite unacceptable in the NHS, such as the attempt to pray by everybody's bedside. It was also difficult, if you believed you could help large numbers of people, merely to be on call for those who asked to see you.

The most popular way of doing the job, Dr Walter said, was 'to broaden religion to mean 'spirituality', defined as 'whatever gives meaning to life'. But that makes it totally up to the patient to decide what it all means.'

This, he said, corroded the basis on which a chaplain or religiously motivated nurse could do the job. They were driven to a much more general welcoming of all the patient's spiritual influences, and so into a more New Age position.

Hospices that resisted the trend would find their supply of patients drying up, he predicted. There were now more than 200 hospices in the country, so patients could to some extent choose where to die.