September 5, 2008

A Patchwork Quilt of Faith

By Emma Cowing

THE woman's voice floats gently through the mist. "Tell me what you can see," she asks me. "I'm standing at an ornate front door in a long silk dress," I tell her. "I'm waving goodbye to my husband. He's going down the long drive in a horse and carriage. I know I'll never see him again."

I am, of course, doing no such thing. Rather, I am lying on a bed of fluffy cushions inside a garden shed in one of the politer suburbs of Aberdeen, being given past-life regression therapy.

Past-life regression is just one of the many alternative spiritual beliefs to have become increasingly popular in recent years. Once seen as the preserve of fantasists, it has picked up a strong following among many who reckon they might have been around the Earth's block more than once. So keen has interest in past lives become, it even spawned an ITV1 series presented by Phillip Schofield, Have I Been Here Before?, that regressed celebrities to their supposed past lives and then checked the history books for (disappointingly paltry) evidence.

But it doesn't stop at past-life regression. From yoga and feng shui to Wicca and Kabbalah, our interest in all things spiritual - anything, in fact, that hints at a world outwith the mundane, nine- to-five slog - is shooting sky (or perhaps heaven) high in popularity. Magazines such as Psychologies, Take A Break Fate and Fortune and Chat It's Fate - whose monthly circulation is a robust 120,000 - crowd the newsstands, promising their readers anything from angel guides to aura readings, astrological predictions to beginners guides to Zen Buddhism.

Mediums, such as Derek Acorah and Colin Fry, perform sell-out tours across the UK, while TV shows dealing with psychic and paranormal phenomenon are schedule staples on most cable channels. Meanwhile, classes and workshops in less mainstream religious beliefs, such as Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, and Kabbalah - the mystical branch of Judaism beloved of Hollywood celebrities including Madonna and Demi Moore - are popping up around the country and often full to bursting.

So are we, in effect, becoming more spiritual? Traditional church attendance figures say no. In 1990, according to non-denominational research group Christian Research, 14.7 per cent of Scots went to church. By 2010, the group predicts, that figure will drop to 9.9 per cent. Yet deeper investigation tells a different story. A survey conducted this week by the Church of Scotland among 2,200 Scottish schoolchildren aged 11 to 18 showed while only 27 per cent believe in God, 43 per cent believe in Heaven.

And while the Catholic, Protestant, Episcopal and Baptist churches all report a fall in numbers, the one branch of the church that is growing is the American-style Evangelical church, where, Christian Research predicts, attendance will rise from 45,800 in 2005 to 49,700 in 2015 in Scotland.

"People have become more questioning," says Michael Collie of the Edinburgh Festival of Spirituality and Peace, which this year doubled its attendance figures, with more than 19,000 flocking to events held in the capital throughout August.

"There's a lot more technology and information out there and it's easier to access other cultures and ideas. It's started a trend of inquiry. These days there are many different approaches to spirituality. But ultimately, religions have failed to deliver. If you see religion's role as facilitating the religious experience, many have failed to do that."

Instead, many Scots have turned away from the church environment they have been brought up in and sought spiritual solace in alternative beliefs. In the 2001 UK census, 32,404 respondents identified themselves as Spiritualist, 30,569 as Pagan, while 7,227 said they were practising Wiccans.

"The increase in interest has a lot to do with the breakdown of family and community, as well as organised religion," says Mary Bryce, editor of Chat It's Fate. "People started deserting the church in the UK over 40 years ago and now they're in a moral and ethical desert, wanting something more. Spirituality is seen as a positive force by its practitioners and has none of the associations with organised religion, which bigots and less-informed people [tend to] react to. It's multi-faceted and not one-dimensional."

My past-life regression session is certainly turning out to be anything but one dimensional. I signed up - a total sceptic, I confess - while doing research for a book into the possibility of alternative belief, and to see whether I could be converted into believing something that I had always dismissed in the past. After my stint as a Regency-era lady, I find myself in Victorian London, a street urchin who steals from others to stay alive and comes to a sticky end, stabbed to death by a gang of older youths. Yet I leave still feeling like a sceptic. It was, in my opinion, nothing more than an active subconscious, teased out into the open by suggestive hypnotherapy, rather than evidence that I have been reincarnated. Many, however, view it more seriously than that.

"Past-life events affect many aspects of our behaviour, and in some cases, deeply emotional traumas [from the past] can cause psychological problems that cannot be cured with ordinary psychotherapy," claims Andrew Hillsdon, a past-life regressionist and the chairman of the Past Life Therapists Association. "Past- life therapy can release these repressed thoughts and bring about a beneficial change."

Bryce agrees that many of those seeking advice or guidance outwith organised religion look on it as a form of therapy or self- improvement. "Our readers are seeking answers to much larger questions: What is life like beyond this one? Who was I in a previous life? Is my dead loved one happy and at peace? All these questions help them realise a deeper dimension. Often they have suffered bereavement and look for comfort and advice.

"There is nothing like a sign from the other side or a message from an angel or spirit guide to bring enormous solace. Protection is another aspect - ever since 9/11 and 7/7 people need an increased sense of safety. A reading with a medium or psychic is like a mini therapy session and can be hugely cathartic."

Past-life regression is rooted in the ancient Hindu belief in reincarnation, and represents the very modern practice of "pick-and- mix religion" - adopting myriad beliefs and practices from different faiths in an attempt to find something that conforms to one's own understanding. It's not always beneficial.

"You've got to be wary of spiritual tourism, of mixing and matching," says Collie. "There's a danger that people will drift here and there without picking up anything of substance. If you look at any belief system, whether it be Buddhism or Sufism, they all follow practices and systems. If you drift in and out then there is a danger that people won't really do the work. They'll end up with a very superficial understanding of the belief system."

That doesn't mean, however, that traditional religion can't work in harmony with some alternative beliefs. The Most Rev Dr Idris Jones, the Primus of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, has a remarkably open attitude to the wider notion of spirituality.

"There are points of contact between alternative beliefs and organised religion. All of them attempt to explore the meaning of human life and something that's outwith the ordinary physical experience," he says. "They can share these experiences and support each other and, while there can be some elements of conflict between traditional religion and alternative spirituality, there are undoubtedly similarities as well."

Ultimately says Collie, it's about tolerance in each other's beliefs. "People will always look for meaning in life. As the Dalai Lama says, it doesn't matter what you believe in, as long as you behave in a loving way."



This pagan witchcraft tradition worships both the goddess and god in nature. It combines folklore, folk witchcraft and ritual magic, taking inspiration from the Book of Shadows, a collection of rituals and spells compiled by Gerald Brosseau Gardner and published in 1954.


A catch-all term that includes Druids, Shamans, Heathens and Wiccans, all Pagans worship nature and the spirituality of the natural world, either through ecology, Celtic traditions, witchcraft or by worshipping certain Pagan gods. Many Pagans believe "if it harms none, do what you will".


Most Spiritualists believe in a Christian God, but their primary interest is in contacting the dead. They believe that spirits evolve in the afterlife and can be contacted by mediums. They also believe these spirits can provide knowledge about God and the afterlife. There are Spiritualist churches across the UK.


The mystical dimension of Islam, often personified by whirling dervishes, is rooted in the belief that it is possible to draw closer to God in this life through study, dance, poetry, and dedication to Islam. The chief aim of all Sufis is to seek the pleasure of God through self-improvement.

(c) 2008 Scotsman, The. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.