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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage