A blow to the New Atheism? Britain is losing its religion - and becoming "spiritual" instead

A study by Theos shows the apparently limited appeal of scientific materialism. But is it evidence that hardline atheism of the Richard Dawkins variety has little popular appeal?

Modern Britain is "spiritual" but not religious. That's the headline finding of an opinion poll, and accompanying report, released this week by the Christian think-tank Theos. The ComRes poll - which confirms a trend identified in several previous surveys - found that well over half those questioned (59%) said that they believed in some kind of spiritual being or essence. There were substantial, though minority, levels of belief in specific concepts such as spirts, angels and "a universal life force", whatever that is. One for the Jedis, perhaps.

Even a third of people who described themselves as non-religious were prepared to own up to having some such ideas, while a mere 13% - and only a quarter of the non-religious - agreed with the statement that "humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element". And more than three-quarters of the survey agreed that "there are things that we cannot simply explain through science or any other means".

Theos seems to be impressed by the apparently limited appeal of scientific materialism, seeing in it evidence that hardline atheism of the Richard Dawkins variety has little popular appeal, despite the high media profile it has garnered in recent years. Its director, Elizabeth Oldfield, writes that it is "notable is that those same voices have not managed to convince us that humans are purely material beings, with no spiritual element". The implication is that there's a huge untapped reservoir of spiritual longing and that it would be wrong to attribute the decline in religiosity in this country, stretching back decades, to a spread in actual unbelief.

Yet it's hard to see much comfort in these figures for the future of religion. To return to the headline figure, the 77% who believed that some things couldn't be explained "through science or any other means." Any other means, presumably, includes religion itself. And even many scientists doubt that science is close to explaining some natural phenomena. Consciousness, for example, is often called the "hard problem" because even in the age of MRI scanners it remains profoundly elusive. A sense that life has mysteries, that there are things - love, for example - that will always remain beyond a reductive scientific explanation, doesn't necessarily make someone religious. The poll found quite low levels of belief in more specifically religious concepts: a mere 13% believed in Hell (Heaven was twice as popular, implying a national spirituality skewed towards the feelgood), while a quarter believed in angels and around a third in life after death.

Take the findings about the power of prayer. An equally small proportion (17%) believed that prayer could "bring about change for the person or situation you are praying for" as believed that prayer had no effect whatsoever. By far the most popular view was that prayer "makes you feel more at peace". Such an idea of prayer as a kind of therapy is of course at least as compatible with atheism as it is with religious conviction.

It's wrong, I think, to equate the kind of nebulous "spirituality" that surveys such as this latest one invariably discover with either a yearning for religion or as a debased survival of it (as in the famous remark attributed to GK Chesterton that when people stop believing in God they will believe in anything). Organised religion is at least as much a form of communal belonging as it is a vehicle for private spiritual fulfilment. Its specific doctrines and often arbitrary codes of conduct, to say nothing of its claim to pronounce on matters of private and public morality, have very little to do with such basic questions as the existence of God or whether there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by Richard Dawkins. "Spirituality" may often take a religious form or employ language that we think of as religious, but it makes more sense to think of it as being just part of the human condition - even if a minority of people are indifferent or positively hostile towards it.

Another point is that words like "spirituality", and even "God", are infinitely flexible, capable of accommodating everything from the most devout religious belief to purely scientific wonder at the beauties of the cosmos. The other day, Oprah Winfrey told an atheist guest on her show who had spoken in such terms that if she believed in "the awe and the wonder, and the mystery, then that is what God is" and "I don't call you an atheist." But the guest, Diana Nyad, responded that it was quite possible to have a spiritual sense without God; "there’s spirituality because we human beings, we animals, we plants and maybe even the ocean and the stars, we all live with something that is cherished and we feel the treasure of it."

Even Richard Dawkins is prone to making similar declarations. In The God Delusion, for example, he wrote that "a quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief." For many people of course there is a natural connection, but the Theos survey, like others, would imply that it is often quite weak.

An interesting question is the extent to which "spiritual" ideas impact on people's lives in modern Britain. The Theos survey discovered that 40% of the sample (and a small majority of women) had at some time engaged in a "New Age" activity - for example, a Tarot card reading or a Reiki healing session. These activities seem to be equally popular with those who describe themselves as religious and those who do not, which may trouble more orthodox members of the clergy. But these findings don't prove that spiritual matters questions are more than peripheral to most people's day-to-day existence, most of the time - or that they think much about them when they aren't answering loaded questions from pollsters.

We could well, in fact, be looking at the kind of "benign indifference" that Kate Fox, in her bestselling Watching the English, identified as the default national response to matters of spirituality and religion. Theos can portray their findings as a challenge to the New Atheists, imagining that they are on a mission to convert a naively believing world to godless materialism (as a minority of them, perhaps, are). But if anything it's even worse news for traditional religion. It seems that the churches have shed their congregations despite the fact that atheist materialism remains a minority taste. What this suggests is that much of religion's former success derived from social convention rather than inherent human spirituality, which can survive anything, including disbelief in God.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue