Aim. The concept of spirituality is much discussed in the UK nursing literature, despite the fact that Britain is one of the most secular countries in the world, and steadily becoming more so. Here, I pose the following question: given this increasing secularization, what accounts for the current interest in spirituality among UK nurses?
Background. The literature on spirituality in nursing has blossomed in the last 10 years, and various attempts have been made to define ‘spirituality’, ‘spiritual need’ and ‘spiritual care’. Most definitions distinguish between ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’, acknowledging that the latter is more institutional, and theologically more restrictive, than the former; and they suggest that spirituality is universal, something which (unlike religion) all human beings share.
Method. I draw on the sociology of religion – neglected, for the most part, in the nursing literature – to establish two main points. Firstly, that the UK and the USA are at opposite ends of the religion/secularity spectrum, implying that it is a mistake to assimilate USA and UK sources. Secondly, that the concept of spirituality, as currently understood, is of very recent origin, and is still ‘under construction’, having become separated from its associations with Christian piety and mysticism only since the 1980s.
Conclusions. The extension of spirituality into secular domains is part of a professionalization project in nursing, a claim to jurisdiction over a newly invented sphere of work. For the time being, it remains an academic project (in the UK) as it is not one with which many clinicians identify.
Relevance to clinical practice. What counts as ‘spiritual need’ or ‘spiritual care’ may not be the same in both countries, and UK clinicians are unlikely to welcome the role of surrogate chaplain, which their USA colleagues are apparently willing to embrace.