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Why is Non-Religious Pastoral Support Important?

With 37.2% of serving personnel declaring they have no religion, non-religious pastoral support (NRPS) is an important provision that should be made available to all those who seek it

At its most basic level pastoral support is a conversation between two human beings, centred around the existential needs of one of them.


It is sometimes suggested that non-religious personnel are a fundamentally different group and that they do not have needs in the same ‘spiritual sphere’ as religious people. But existential questions around meaning and purpose are not aspects of our existence that are reserved for religious people. Non-religious personnel are equally concerned with the narratives of meaning which people create for themselves – these could be about love, work, relationships, ambitions, parenthood, about successes and failures, or they could involve reinterpreting experiences, incidents, and circumstances.

Consequently, non-religious pastoral support is spiritual guidance through a crisis, and requires a specialised knowledge of the non-religious worldview with a philosophically-informed, existential core to it. From this core, introspective spiritual and psychological exploration can commence.

The key task in non-religious pastoral support is to be able to authentically walk alongside the person in their situation, being with them in a manner that genuinely shares their worldview, as they try to make sense of what is happening to them. Providing them with the opportunity to be understood, be valued as a human being, explore beliefs and values, express feelings honestly, and find meaning and purpose in life.














Through this exploration the provider aims to help people feel capable of controlling their own destiny, and to take responsibility for their decisions and actions from the past and in the present. The notion of self-determination can lead to the search for and/or exploration of meaning and purpose, which can be described as having four different facets: purpose, values, efficacy, and self-worth. This exploration can often uncover new things about oneself through self-realisation, and hopefully a contented partaking in one’s existence, along with the discovery of answers to existential questions specific to that individual.

In terms of uniqueness, the spirituality or existential aspect of non-religious pastoral care is what separates it from general wellbeing support, or counselling.  Counselling is solution focused and looks to address a problem, has more stringent boundaries and clear processes (time, contract etc.), while other general wellbeing or welfare support does not contain a philosophically-informed, existential core to it. Providers are often qualified in celebrant services and therefore the same personality who the Service person has got to know, can offer so much more than welfare or counselling including assisting with key life milestones like marriage, the birth of a child and the death of a loved one.

As a basis and part of our professional credibility, providers of pastoral care conceptualise non-religious spirituality to include: (Taken from Royal College of Nursing ‘Spiritual Care a Pocket Guide’):

  • Hope and strength.

  • Trust.

  • Meaning and purpose.

  • Forgiveness.

  • Belief and faith in self, others, humanity as a collective, or the known forces of the (scientific) natural world.

  • Peoples’ values.

  • Love and relationships.

  • Morality.

  • Creativity and self-expression.

To find out more about non-religious pastoral support, the NHS has actively employed it within its hospital and trusts for a number of years, having identified the positive mental health and wellbeing impact it can bring. Follow the links below for further information:

NHS England - Guidelines for managers on Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious care
Pastoral Support  - Fit for the Twenty First Century?
Why inclusive spiritual care matters for all faith and belief groups
Britain’s religion and belief landscape

Who we are

Humanists and Non-Religious in Defence (HAND), founded in 2010, is a Diversity and Inclusion Network of the Ministry of Defence (United Kingdom). HAND was established to promote Humanist and non-religious worldviews as being equal to those of major world faiths and to ensure compliance with the Equality Act (2010) and the Defence Diversity and Inclusion Strategy (2018). Air Marshal Richard Maddison is the HAND Defence Champion and Francesca Stavrakopoulou is a patron of HAND.

Our history

The HAND network originated as the UK Armed Forces Humanist Association (UKAFHA) and later became the Defence Humanist Network (DHN) to include MOD civil servants before renaming as the Humanist and Non-religious in Defence (HAND) network in 2021.

The need was identified as non-religious members of the UK Armed Forces had seen a steady increase in numbers, accounting for 37.2% of Regular (an increase from 15.5% in 1 October 2012) and 29.1% of Reserve members (an increase from 17.7% in 1 October 2012), according to the UK Armed Forces Biannual Diversity Statistics: 1 October 2022.

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