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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump