Until fairly recently, whenever one came across the words 'spirituality' and 'spiritual' one could be fairly sure that one was involved in some kind of religious discussion, and the words are still most often used to refer to the religious or to an aspect of the religious life. But they are also used with increasing frequency to refer to much that is only very vaguely religious or that is entirely secular. They are deeply fashionable words. In education, it has long been a legal requirement that schools take care of the "spiritual, moral, social and cultural development" of children. 'Spiritual' was generally taken to mean 'religious' and left to the RE department, as was probably the intention. The arrival of the National Curriculum in 1998, with its requirement that every subject contribute to the "spiritual development" of pupils, raised new questions. In a largely secular society what would this entail and how could "spiritual development" include those who often constituted a majority — the non-religious? And how were, and are, the non-religious to use these frequently puzzling, and sometimes alienating relics from a more religious age? It is, of course, possible to consult a dictionary or an expert and find definitions of 'spiritual' and 'spirituality' that are clear, meaningful, and acceptable even to humanists. Most dictionaries make a useful distinction between the overtly religious uses of the words (as in "Buddhist spirituality" or "spiritual leader") and uses connected with the higher elements of the human mind — and it appears to be this second usage that is now intended in the educational debate, as Ofsted guidance in 1994 indicated:

Spiritual development relates to that aspect of inner life through which pupils acquire insights into their personal existence which are of enduring worth. It is characterised by reflection, the attribution of meaning to experience, valuing a non-material dimension to life and intimations of an enduring reality. 'Spiritual' is not synonymous with 'religious'.

Some of these qualities seem to me religious ones, but at least Ofsted is trying to include the non-religious. The Dalai Lama, in Ancient Wisdom, Modern World, 1999, differentiated rather better: "…I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another, an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality… Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, rituals, prayer and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit — such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony — which bring happiness to both self and others… There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system."

Many people would not necessarily call those human qualities which contribute to the happiness of oneself and others 'spiritual', preferring to categorise many of the qualities listed by the Dalai Lama as moral or emotional. But the separation of those elements from the religious sphere is a useful one, long promoted by humanists in the interests of open and inclusive education.

In mainstream culture, the several and distinct meanings that cluster around 'spirituality' and 'spiritual' are rarely acknowledged. Instead they are frequently blurred and conflated, and the resulting ambiguity is used to give a spurious respectability and status to quite ordinary ideas or emotions, together with an aura of mystery. Once attuned to the words, one finds them everywhere. Often it's not at all clear what they mean — possibly even the user does not know, or is being deliberately obscure or using them as padding. One finds the word used to raise the tone of a range of discourses, many of them lacking any real substance or credibility, in the media, the arts, advertisements, and 'new age' beliefs. In these contexts it's not so much a word struggling to express the inexpressible as a word used to sound good and to avoid real thinking. "The meaning of a word is its use in the language," said Wittgenstein, an idea now commonplace amongst linguists. Dictionaries record usage but often lag behind actuality. We need to look now at how 'spiritual' and 'spirituality' are used in the secular world, where they appear to have acquired lives of their own.

I'll begin with the pseudo-religious uses in the ubiquitous "new age spirituality". In fact, these 'spiritualities' are more secular than religious, having few of the attributes of religion: no hierarchies, no moral codes and no deities. From feng shui to crystal healing and astrology, they share a basis in pseudo-science, an almost complete self-absorption, and a love of pretentious language. My well respected local FE college, under the guise of Agenda 21 courses in sustainable lifestyles and work practices, offers one on "Spirituality …[:] ancient and modern spiritual traditions, spiritual traditions of indigenous people of the world, healing, soul & spirit, reincarnation, Shamanism, healing [sic], experimental phenomena[?], ancestral beings, comparative religions, discussions with visiting speakers etc." So this kind of thing is not restricted to the wilder reaches of hippiedom, unfortunately. Even broadsheet newspapers like The Observer (16-1-00) and The Independent on Sunday (23-1-2000) invite us to develop and test our 'SQ' (spirituality quotient), and adverts on the sides of buses urge us to have "a spiritual adventure" (by buying a couple of books about snowboarding and surfing), as a Body Shop leaflet offers me a philosophy that prolongs "physical and spiritual life and health". The "New Spirit" book club markets resources for "mind, spirit and body" (that familiar triad, so puzzling to philosophers and so apparently obvious to everyone else): topics include nature, meditation, creativity, Christianity, Sufism, relationships, psychology, spiritual journeys, yoga, native wisdom, the afterlife, new philosophy, mindfulness.

In the arts, 'spiritual' is, of course, a popular word. What critic, or prince, could resist something so impressive and so pretentious? Prince Charles used to advocate the spiritual in the neo-classical architecture that he favours, though nowadays, when talking about the environment, he uses it to mean 'religious'. The American writer Rebecca Wells claimed in The Guardian, "My work is the result of my imagination dancing a psycho-spiritual tango." An Independent on Sunday book review (May 1999) raved, "Behind his review of the crisis in end-of-century country life, however, is his spiritual response to what gives it its fascination." An Independent on Sunday art review (16-5-99) described, "Newman like 'zips', spiritual conductors between the top and the bottom of the canvas, where the turpentine had dissolved the paint." A group of artists called the Stuckists were said to be "in favour of a more emotional and spiritual integrity in art via figurative painting." (Observer, 14-5-00) In the Tate Modern, the text beside a Joseph Beuys tell us that "he often used unusual materials for his sculptures, investing them with personal or spiritual significance." These examples demonstrate the multiplicity of meanings, and the opacity (often deliberate) that therefore accompanies 'spiritual' and 'spirituality'. These nebulous words almost always require to be explained if they are to communicate clearly. In most cases it would be better to abandon them altogether and use one of the many more precise alternatives: moral, psychological, emotional, inspiring, imaginative, beautiful, life-enhancing, joyful, thoughtful, reflective, abstract, mysterious, weird, exciting, awe-inspiring…. One of these, or even the word 'religious' could usefully take the place of 'spiritual' in the examples I have given — the difficulty is usually to know which, because we can only guess at the meaning of the original.

Education is perhaps one of the few places where 'spiritual' is a genuinely useful word, because it is bigger and more inclusive than 'religious'. But even in schools, unsurprisingly, confusion reigns. Despite useful interpretations from Ofsted and others, nuances from the outside world creep in through the school gates, tainting the word by association, making it vague and difficult to pin down or use with confidence. Teachers wonder what exactly they are supposed to be developing, and inspectors scratch around, sometimes quite imaginatively, for evidence of it. Inspectors looking for "awe and wonder", often seen as the key to spiritual development, sometimes find it in strange places: "a pupil was in awe of a classmate's ability in a PE lesson"; as well as in more predictable ones: "a nursery pupil was in wonder [sic] at the hatching and growing of chicks". Books aimed at this market also display considerable breadth of approach: books about love, happiness, confidence, self esteem, meditation, creativity, bereavement, leadership, God, dreams, yoga and miracles seem to cover every possible angle on spiritual development, though much of this does not seem to me to need this label, which can have the unhelpful effect of categorising and lumping together the rational and emotional with the quasi-mystical.

And parents and other non-specialists don't understand it at all — I recently received an email from a parent protesting vigorously at Ofsted's comment that her children's school was not fulfilling its obligation to promote spiritual development in all subjects, and wondering if this meant that Maths lessons were now supposed to begin with a prayer.

A sixth former, the supposed beneficiary of twelve years of "spiritual development", once asked me whether I, as humanist, "believed in spirituality". When I responded by asking her what she meant, she replied, "Ghosts — that kind of thing." Even the Secretary for State for Education seems confused, referring to it as 'spiritualism' on Radio 4 recently.

My own view is that sentimental, muddled and superfluous words like 'spiritual' and 'spirituality' have no real place in education, and should not be enshrined in law. But as they are there, we need to use the words pragmatically, and there is, of course, much to be said for attempting to teach the things that people usually mean by "spiritual development": empathy with and concern for others, emotional literacy, a love of nature and concern for the environment, imagination and creativity, aesthetic awareness, even enjoyment of physical activity.

Non-religious humanists argue about its meaning and use too. Some want to 'claim' spirituality, others to abandon it to the religious sphere, and often humanists too are talking at cross-purposes, not always clear what we mean when we complain that religious people have "hijacked spirituality". Are we saying that religious people deny that we can have rich, fulfilled aesthetic and emotional lives or deny that we are religious — or is it something else we resent: the implication that we are materialistic, in the worst sense of the word? Some humanists retain a feeling that 'spirituality' is useful: to label a concern about moral seriousness (rather than just moral reasoning) and a high view of human potentiality far removed from crudely materialistic ambitions; for encounters with death; for intense experiences of the arts or nature; when tuning in to other people; or to express the feeling that there is something "beyond the material world, a kind of life force beyond our understanding". Others, though they understand the concepts, feel uneasy about using language carrying so much religious and pseudo-religious baggage, or dismiss 'spirituality' as 'meaningless' or "laughable nonsense", best shunned to "avoid repetitive, cumbersome explanation".

So do sceptics like me have to be cynical about this ubiquitous , pretentious language? I must confess I tend to suspect its use, having noticed long ago how often it is used to gain the upper hand in discussion, to pre-empt criticism or argument. It is possible to argue about beauty or ethics or facts — but difficult to argue with the 'spiritual', without sounding hopelessly materialistic and earthbound. But as a sceptic and a humanist, I'd like to defend and celebrate materialism and the earthbound. Materialism, the view that everything is made of matter, is a philosophy with a long and respectable history, though it is an idea that many people find hard to accept, hence the widespread yearning for the 'spiritual', and (sometimes deliberate, I think) confusion of the philosophical concept with 'materialistic' — the philosophy of the shopaholic. If scientists and philosophers do eventually conclude that we are simply a mass of chemicals, purely physical, our minds and our better feelings would still remain amazing, worth celebrating and cultivating, along with awe and wonder at the natural world — a "materialist spirituality" well evoked and defended by Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow, though he wouldn't use the word, and neither would I. Many of us who share and value deeply the experiences sometimes labelled 'spiritual' describe them differently, more clearly and precisely. 'Spirituality' — who needs it?