2016: Terry Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, delivers the ninth annual Theos lecture
Is spirituality coming out of the closet?
17th October 2013
It’s been a very spiritual week for me. Not, sadly, in the sense that I’ve had lots of time to spend in silence, prayer and meditation, but because spirituality is having a bit of a moment.
Today we have published a new report, The Spirit of Things Unseen: belief in post religious Britain which looks at the kind of spiritual things people believe, and it found some surprising things. Although formalised religious belief and institutionalised religious belonging has, in the main, been declining in recent years, Britain has not become a nation of atheists or materialists. Over three quarters of adults (77%) and, astonishingly, 61% of self-described nonreligious people believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means”.
This is notable, not least after a decade of relentless new atheist polemic telling us that scientific knowledge is all the knowledge there is. Also notable is that those same voices have not managed to convince us that humans are purely material beings, with no spiritual element. Only 13% of adults believe this – and only 25% of those who describe themselves as nonreligious. This implies that three quarters of nonreligious people think that there is something more to humans than meets the eye (or the microscope).
These new data confirm other studies. Our own research, published last year Post Religious Britain?: the faith of the faithless? found that those who are not affiliated with a particular religion are not a homogenous group. There is huge diversity amongst this group, and a significant proportion continue to believe what we might term “spiritual” things. The excellent academic work of Linda Woodhead and others over a longer period also points to this: that between the committedly religious and the consistently atheistic there is a large - perhaps a majority? - group of people who fit in neither of those boxes.
The Spirit of Things Unseen was commissioned by CTVC, an independent production company, and so convinced are they of the level of interest in this area that they’ve just launched a new podcast to cater to this audience, entitled things unseen.
One place you might not expect to find people interested in these things, however, is the RSA. The self-proclaimed centre of “21st century Enlightenment” is better known for profiling work on neuroscience, technology, civil society, and enterprise. It’s been perceived, perhaps unfairly, as a place steeped in secular modernism.
That, however is changing. Last night I took part in a panel discussion as part of a 20 month project on “Taking Spirituality Seriously”. Alongside a philosopher, a Guardian columnist and the head of the RSA’s a Social Brain centre, we discussed why it might be time for us to stop being embarrassed about our spiritual sides. Jonathan Rowson, heading up the project tweeted
He used the term “coming out of the closet” advisedly, and has written elsewhere about how the impact of the liberal enlightenment on our lives means that if someone were to come across us praying we would feel embarrassed. As a chess grandmaster with a PhD partly undertaken at Harvard, who also happens to meditate, he thinks it has to change. Given the large, highly informed audience in the RSA’s Great Hall, who reacted overwhelmingly warmly - even to me dropping the “G bomb” (God) into the conversation - it might be beginning to.
Watch the video of the #RSAbeyondbelief event here.
Image from Theos