2016: Terry Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, delivers the ninth annual Theos lecture
Different words for snow
30th November 2012
There is a common misconception, often peddled by those with an anti-religious agenda, that the British have outgrown religious belief, and find the idea of faith in God antiquated and irrelevant to modern life. Instead, it is said we find ourselves in the Age of Science or Rationalism, in which men (and a few women) in white coats answer all the big questions – or tell us that they aren’t really questions at all.
There are various reasons for this but two are particularly relevant if insufficiently noted. One pertains to the bluntness of our vocabulary. We have “religious”, “non-religious” and increasingly “spiritual”, and we seem to believe that that is sufficient. This is a legacy of a long-standing and deep-rooted Christian national culture, in which most people who did believe in God were assumed to believe roughly similar things about him (and it was, of course, him).
The second pertains to the curious illusion we have that we are consistent and coherent in our views, religious and otherwise. The reality is different for the vast majority of people, who come to their “religious” (or “non-religious”) beliefs through the messiness of lived reality, rather than through consciously developing some systematic a/theology. Most people read some books, meet some people, attend some places, have some experiences, and cherish some hopes, and from them weave a mixed religious tapestry, which is patched up, altered or sometimes replaced as they get older.
In the light of these factors, an historically limited vocabulary for our religiosity is not only restrictive but positively misleading. A new Theos report, Post-religious Britain?: The faith of the faithless, confirms that the religious landscape is indeed far more complex than at any time in historic memory.
The report found that only 9% of the public were consistently ‘non-religious’ in their beliefs and behaviour, meaning that they called themselves ‘non-religious’, didn’t believe in God, never attending church as a worshipper, and didn’t believe in a soul, life after death, angels etc. At the other end of the spectrum, we know from other research, there is a roughly equal proportion of people who are consist in their embrace of “religiosity”.
But between them, there is a substantial majority who have different kinds of religious belief. So, for example, Post-religious Britain? found that over a third (35%) of people who never attend church say they believe in God or a Higher Power. Nearly a quarter of atheists (23%) believe in a human soul. And almost a third (29%) of those who label themselves “non-religious” believe in some sense of God.
What such statistics show – there are far more in the report – is that labels we traditionally work with are no longer an effective way of delineating religiosity (assuming they every really were) because they disguise rather than outline the reality of the public’s views on religion.
The Inuit famously have 26 (or is it more?) words for snow. There is just so much of the stuff around and, to the trained eye, one kind of snow is so very different to another. Perhaps we in Britain need a few more words to describe the vast and varied landscape of semi-, partial-, hesitant-, sceptical-, spiritual-, rationalised-, superstitious-, reluctant-, enthusiastic- forms of religious belief today.
Holly Weldin (former Theos intern) and Nick Spencer (Research Director for Theos).