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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Chris Baker on Spiritual Capital

We asked Chris Baker of the University of Chester and the William Temple Foundation to reflect on the notion of spiritual capital. We feel that the notion of spiritual capital has much to contribute to discussions about psychological capital and Mindfulness. Here are Chris’s thoughts:

Spiritual capital is a newish term and mirrors the growing prevalence of social capital theory within sociological and public policy discourses. It was influenced in the States by Robert Putnam’s identification of faith groups as important ‘bulwarks’ against the decline of social capital in the West, and as important ‘incubators’ for volunteering and other forms of civic engagement (2000, 2010)[1]. Early work in the US defines spiritual capital ‘as the resources that are created, or people have access to, when they invest in religion as religion’ (Metanexus, 2003: 2)[2]. However, influential research in the UK (William Temple Foundation/Leverhulme Trust) suggests a more generic application, identifying it as the prime motivational link for civic engagement by faith-based citizens and making a distinction between the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. The ‘what’ of religious social capital is identified as material resources such as buildings, volunteers, credit unions, youth workers etc: ‘namely the practical contribution to local and national life by faith groups’ (Baker and Skinner, 2006: 9).[3] The ‘why’ however, is defined as spiritual capital, which ‘energises religious capital by providing a theological identity and a worshipping tradition, but also a value system, moral vision and a basis of faith’ (Baker and Skinner, 2006:9).[4] It is therefore the mutually reinforcing nature of spiritual capital upon religious capital and vice versa, that, it is suggested, gives religious social capital its particular resilience and effectiveness.


However, if the more generic aspects of this definition are taken, i.e.‘a value system and moral vision’, then anyone who reflects on these and seeks to act upon them is deploying their spiritual capital. It is possible therefore talk of the importance and contribution of secular spiritual capital to social capital (Baker and Miles-Watson, 2008: 449).[5]

The spiritual capital concept thus engages with two other significant areas of the changing behaviours debate. The first is within popular psychology and concerns the relative merits of hedonic and eudaimonic forms of happiness and flourishing. The hedonic happiness tradition engages with popular (i.e. self-reported) definitions of what happiness is (so-called SWB – or subjective well-being) and tends to focus on promoting positive affective episodes in one’s life: life satisfaction, the presence of positive mood, the absence of negative mood.

Eudemonic views of happiness are rooted in more ancient religious and philosophical perspectives, and prefer instead to link true happiness to the practice of virtue; i.e. doing what is worth doing. Eudemonia is linked to the Greek word daimon or true self. The eudemonic tradition thus posits six aspects relating of human actualisation (also referred to as Self-determination Theory (SDT) and Psychological Wellbeing (PWB): autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, life purpose, mastery and positive relatedness (Ryff and Keyes (1995))[6]. Spiritual capital, with its stress on the importance of engaging one’s value systems and visions for transformation, is clearly congruent with more eudemonic understandings but would critique some of the more individualistic interpretations just offered.


The second discourse is the post-political, a critique which emerges from Marxist and post-Marxist traditions. It suggests that the post-cold war hegemony of neo-liberal economics, and its emphasis on citizens as autonomous and rational consumers has de-politicised the public square. This de-politicisation is currently reinforced by the policy focus on localism and governance; deliberately vague terms suggesting an uncritical inclusion and a false agenda of consensus that ignores issues of structural power and social exclusion.[7]


In this way, spiritual capital becomes one such resource for motivating citizens, both religious or of no-religion, to become engaged in public life and to shape civil society towards more inclusive, non-material and sustainable outcomes. Emerging debates from human geography and public policy suggest this is already happening. Ideas of postsecular rapprochement and progressive localism, reinforce the importance of, in Latour’s terms, creating multi-epistemological spaces in which matters of concern rather than matters of fact can be uncovered.[8] These dialogues travel across both religious and religious/secular divides. These divides, once essentialised under the rubrics of 20th modernity, are increasingly becoming blurred and fluid within the 21st century.



[1] Putnam, R., 2000, Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster. Putnam, R. and Campbell, D., 2010, American Grace – How Religion Divides and Unites Us, New York: Simon and Schuster.

[2] Metanexus Institute: Spiritual Capital Research Network Report. 2006.  http://www.metanexus.net/archive/spiritualcapitalresearchprogram/

[3] Baker, C. and Skinner, H., 2006, Faith in Action – the dynamic connection between spiritual and religious capital, Manchester: William Temple Foundation.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Baker, C. and Miles-Watson, J. 2008. ‘Exploring Secular Spiritual Capital; An Engagement in Religious and Secular Dialogue  for a Common Future, International Journal of Public Theology, 2 (4): 442-464.

[6] Ryff, C.D. and Keyes, C.L.M. 1995, ‘The structure of psychological well‐being revisited’ Journal of 

Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 719‐727

[7] For example, Swyngedouw, E., 2006, ‘The Post-Political City’, in Bavo (ed.) Urban Politics Now: Re-Imagining Democracy in the Neo-Liberal City. Rotterdam: NAi Publisher; Zizek, Z., 1999, The Ticklish Subject – The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, New York, London: Verso; Mouffe, C., 2005, On the Political. London: Routledge; Ranciere, J., ‘Ten Theses on Politics’. Theory and Event 5 (3).

[8] Latour, B., 2005, Reassembling the Social – An Introduction to Actor Network Theory, OUP: Oxford.


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