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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Responding to George Osborne's tax credit U-turn should have been Labour's victory lap

He changed the forecast, we changed the weather. But still it rains.

The Labour Party should have rested on its laurels in the Autumn Statement. While Gideon name checked his Tory colleagues for their successful lobbying, he should have been reading out the names of Labour members who changed his position.  I'll let the Tories have the potholes, (even though it was in Labour manifesto) but everything else was us. 

He stopped his assault on tax credits. Not because he woke up in his mansion in a cold sweat, the ghost of Christmas Future at the foot of his bed, ringing out the names of the thousands and thousands of children he would plunge into poverty. Nah, it's not that. It's as my sons might say "no way George, you got told!" The constant pressure of the Labour Party and a variety of Lords in a range of shades, supported by that media we are all meant to hate, did for him. It's the thousands of brilliant people who kept the pressure up by emailing politicians constantly that did it. Bravo us, boo nasty George!

As Baron Osborne thanked the Tory male MP for his brilliant idea, to spend the Tampax tax on women's services, I wanted to launch a tampon at his head. Not a used one you understand, I have some boundaries. He should have credited Paula Sheriff, the Labour MP for making this change. He should have credited all the brilliant women's groups, Yvette Cooper, Stella Creasy, Caroline Lucas and even little old me, for our constant, regular and persistent pestering on the subject of funding for refuges and women's services. 

On police cuts, his side should not have cheered him at all. We are now in a position when loud cheers are heard when nothing changes. So happy was his side that he was not cutting it, one can only conclude they really hate all the cutting they do. He should not have taken a ridiculous side swipe at Andy Burnham, but instead he should have credited the years and years of constant campaigning by Jack Dromey. 

I tell you what Georgie boy can take credit for, the many tax increases he chalked up. Increases in council tax to pay for huge deficit in care costs left by his cuts. Increases in the bit of council tax that pays for Police. Even though nothing changed remember. When he says levy or precept it's like when people say I'm curvy when they mean fat. It's a tax. 

He can take credit for making student nurses pay to work for free in the NHS. That's got his little privileged fingers all over it. My babies were both delivered by student midwives. The first time my sons life was saved, and on the second occasion my life was saved. The women who saved us were on placement hours as part of their training, working towards their qualifications. Now those same women, will be paying for the pleasure of working for free and saving lives. Paying to work for free! On reflection throwing a tampon at him is too good, this change makes me want to lob my sons placenta in his face.

Elsewhere in Parliament on Autumn Statement day Jeremy Hunt, capitulated and agreed to negotiate with Student Doctors. Thanks to the brilliant pressure built by junior doctors and in no small part Heidi Alexander. Labour chalks up another win in the disasters averted league.

I could go on and on with thanks to charities, think tanks, individual constituents and other opposition MPs who should have got the autumn cheers. We did it, we were a great and powerful opposition, we balanced the pain with reality. We made Lord sorry the first Lord of the Treasury and his stormtroopers move from the dark side. We should have got the cheers, but all we got was a black eye, when a little red book smacked us right in the face.