Linda Woodhead

‘No religion’ is steadily becoming the norm in the British population, according to Professor Linda Woodhead’s sociological research . I have referred to this before but it continues to attract attention. Here I focus on whether the meanings of the words contribute to this pattern. Linda says:

The growth of no religion isn’t sudden; there has been a steady and gradual rise over a fairly long period. I suspect it’s been taking place for at least a century or more. The question is whether it’s speeding up now.

Those who count themselves as ‘no religion’ (‘Nones’) question organised religion and traditional religious authorities but are not necessarily anti-religious. Many subscribe to forms of spirituality and a range of views on about God.

Dr Fraser Watts, former President of the British Psychological Society and of the International Society for Science and Religion, has responded . He agrees with Linda’s position but divides up the Nones. Some are actively hostile to religion while others are indifferent to it. The main increase has been in those who are indifferent. Some Nones are ‘spiritual but not religious’, others not spiritual at all. Indeed,

if you ask people whether they are ‘spiritual’, many people are not sure what you are asking. I suspect that the spiritual group (or at least those who are potentially spiritual) may be larger than we have yet been able to demonstrate.

He offers some pointers. Spirituality prioritises experience. Although it does not have the same emphasis on belief that religion does, it is characterised by a belief that there is ‘something more’. Belief in the afterlife, the soul and angels is increasing. While religion ‘is generally still locked into a culture of duties and obligations’ spirituality reflects the pragmatism of the age: it ‘always looks for benefits’.

So to call yourself spiritual you don’t have to commit to anything. Even the ‘something more’ isn’t obligatory. I know a materialist atheist who talks about his spirituality. However I guess that the belief in ‘something more’, and perhaps a related practice or two, characterise the idea of being spiritual. Calling yourself spiritual doesn’t add up to a lot.

If this is what ‘spiritual’ means, what about ‘religious’? Religion has a clearer definition. In the Middle Ages to be ‘religious’ was to be a monk or a nun. A priest who wasn’t a monk was a ‘secular’ priest. Roman Catholics still sometimes use the words in these ways. However, from the late seventeenth century onwards, increasing elements of society were separated from church authority. The word ‘secular’ was used to describe those elements that were nothing to do with Christianity or God, and ‘religion’ came to mean its counterpart. Meanwhile atheists claimed it was possible account for reality without any reference at all to God or Christianity or prayer or life after death, so they needed a word to describe the package of beliefs and practices that were no longer needed. Put them in their own box, on a shelf in a cupboard where they can be forgotten. Religion.

This use of ‘religion’ was firmly embedded in English-speaking culture in the 1880s and 1890s. The campaigns of Thomas Huxley and his disciples succeeded in changing popular understandings of reality. They established the idea that ‘science’ and ‘religion’ were not only separate but opposed to each other.

This was when the word ‘scientist’ was invented, to divide up what had previously been known as ‘natural philosophy’. The point was to separate out empirical research from theorising about the nature of reality. 20 years earlier, when Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published, the separation was yet to be devised. But from the 1880s onwards, to the people who opposed religion in the name of science – and there are plenty still around today – science was to be based on reason, religion on dogma.

Most church leaders, instead of resisting the separation, welcomed it. In the short term it worked to their advantage. It meant they could insulate church doctrines from scientific disproof. They could offer the faithful a richer, more spiritual account of reality.

This is how religion came to be defined as commitment to dogmas that cannot be established by reason. When the unchurched conceive of religion like this, what on earth can it offer them? Nothing but a fantasy. When a church gets to define itself like this, it creates endless conflict for itself. It feels it ought to defend the doctrines on which it was founded, however unconvincing they have become. As a result it characterises itself by its belief in indefensibles. One church insists on rejecting evolution, another women priests, another gay marriages. The virgin birth and physical resurrection of Jesus become the only things about him that get talked about.

If this is what religion is about, anybody with an ounce of spirituality in them will rightly reject it. But it doesn’t have to be. Churches don’t have to maintain it. What the late nineteenth century church leaders did may have worked well in the short term, but in the long term it has been disastrous. Of course. It had to be. We are now paying the price.

‘Religion’ will carry on declining until churches learn to care less about the rules they have created, and more about the unfettered search for truth about the divine.