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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

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.