Theos Think Tank – Clear thinking on religion and society Theos, the Bible Society backed thinktank on faith in contemporary society, has conducted a poll which suggests that 77% of UK adults believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means”. More interestingly, 61% of non-religious people agreed with the same statement. In other words, most people in the UK who describe themselves as non-religious believe at the very least in the ‘unexplained’.
This is a proper poll, conducted by ComRes, and you can look at the actual data tables here. 34% of people think that people’s thoughts can be influenced by spiritual forces, 27% that events in the human world can be, and 23% that events in the natural world can be. Only 25% believed that none of the above could be influenced by spiritual forces, and 22% said they didn’t know.
Those with Higher university degrees, those with no formal education and those with only primary education were the most likely to agree that spiritual forces influence the world, though the ‘no formal education’ and ‘primary education’ groups were a very small sample and don’t have much statistical significance. The most likely group to say that they didn’t were those still in full time education — 38% compared with 26% for those with higher university education. In other words, belief in spiritual forces is not a function of just not knowing very much. If this sounds like a big win for organised religion, it isn’t at all.
Opinion was mixed as to whether God was a universal life force (30%), a personal being (13%), or a higher spiritual being that can be called God (12%). The devil does rather better, on 14%. 39% of respondents believed there was a soul, 32% in life after death, 26% in heaven, 13% in hell, and 13% in the power of deceased ancestors. Just 13% believed that humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element, though 25% believed that humans are no different from any other animal, suggesting that one person in eight believes that animals are spiritual as well. 12% said they didn’t know.
So where is all this spirituality going?
The question “Which, if any, of the following have you ever undergone?” threw up 39% for one or more of tarot, astrology, reflexology, reiki, having your aura read, healing with crystals or having an ayurveda session. Before anyone suggests that this means Britain is moving sharply from organised religion to the occult, a parallel question of “which, if any, of the following have you ever undergone?” for church service, Christian wedding, attending mosque or temple or an informal Christian event like an Alpha Course or Christian Union event, the figures would most likely be approaching 100%. Asking the ‘ever’ question in a poll generally gives you the result you are looking for.
38% of people either tend to believe or believe strongly that prayer can heal people, against 50% who tend not to believe or don’t believe at all. Half of respondents (51%) believed that the impact of prayer was that it made you feel at peace, with 17% on each side for those who believed that prayer changes the world and those who believe that prayer does not work in any way. However, 21% of people pray a few times a week or even daily. Where does all this take us?
There is a myth, largely propagated by militant secularists, that the United Kingdom was once a fervently Christian nation, and is now essentially unreligious. Probably the simplest way to test attitudes for yourself over an extended period of time is the Google Ngram viewer. Google Ngram charts in real time that which could not have been countenanced twenty years ago: all the uses of a word in books in its vast, though not comprehensive, digitised collection of printed books. Consider this one: faith, Christianity, Islam. I’m going back to 1800, because if you go back much before that then the change in usage of words clouds the picture. What is interesting is that ‘faith’ was intensely popular in the 19th century, but ‘Christianity’, as a term, is about as popular now as it was then. You can do your own experiments to your hearts content. Examining the corpus of English gets rid of all kinds of methodological difficulties, including the notorious bias in responses to surveys, and most importantly, the absence of surveys before the 20th century. True, it has its own bias, since it correlates to education, but that is something we can take account of.
There have been historic periods of active Christianity in Britain — in the 1390s, when it was estimated that as many as one in three were Wycliffites or ‘Lollards’, in the Wesley revival in the mid to late 18th century, and again at the back end of the 19th century. In between, there have been periods of what secularists would call ‘advance’ and Christians would call ‘drought’.
Certainly when I was at school, the received wisdom was that Christianity was definitely on its way out, and had been since Matthew Arnold wrote On Dover Beach, describing how the Sea of Faith which ‘was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore’ was now withdrawn, leaving Arnold and his fellows ‘here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight’. Certainly the mixed view of spirituality suggested in today’s survey results is reminiscent of a darkling plain.
However, it is not remotely a spiritual desert. Life is there. People are enquiring. The great rationalist project to replace all forms of faith with scientific reason has not succeeded. Indeed, the victim of the false opposition between science and faith seems more likely to be science. Large numbers of people doubt climate change science, despite the fact that it is hugely attested and has overcome some of the best-funded hostile scrutiny of any scientific theory. Lots of people doubt the theory of evolution, without any corresponding belief in a form of creationism.
I cannot speak for other forms of religion, but Christianity helped to give rise to the modern world, and is no strange bed-fellow to science, to democracy, to feminism or to globalism. In Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas carefully charted the way that it was the rise of coherent faith which was the principal cause of the collapse of folk-beliefs in magic. To some extent, it is these folk-beliefs, of an incoherent, uncoordinated supernatural universe, which are returning, as demonstrated by the Theos survey work. It is these, not Christianity, which are anti-scientific.
Likewise, long before any form of democracy that we would recognise today came into existence in British politics, non-conformists, especially Baptists, were organising their meetings on democratic principles. The influence of 17th century Baptists on our form of government is through the rise of private enterprise in the 18th century, among others, where the non-conformist work ethic and the business governance that proceeded from it gradually impinged on more exalted levels of society. Like any survey, people will make of the Theos results what they will.
Perhaps the best conclusion should be: it ain’t over.
- Most people ‘believe in spiritual’(bbc.co.uk)
- Britons still believe in miracles, angels and ‘spiritual forces’ – study(telegraph.co.uk)