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Future of Religion in Britain

‘No religion’: What doesn’t kill belief will only make it stronger

18th February 2015

This is the eighth in a series of blogs looking at the future of religion in Britain. To read the others click here

Mapping religious ‘landscapes’ always involves a degree of generalisation and reduction. On the 2011 census for England and Wales, respondents described their religion in 58 different ways, as well as choosing from the five standard options also offered. Those standard options–‘Christian’, ‘Muslim’ etc.—are themselves proxies for an array of traditions. But, for all of the options we do have, the big trends shaping Britain today and for the foreseeable future point to the role of new ‘religious’ positions that don’t fit easily into existing boxes.

We see this especially in the growing popularity of the ‘no religion’ boxes in social surveys – the largest single category in the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey in every year since 1993. At first glance, this looks like a secularization story. Increasing ‘no religion’ looks like religion becoming less and less meaningful as a way of understanding contemporary society. But closer scrutiny suggests something quite different.

“No religion” does not mean no religion

In the first place, more ticks of the ‘no religion’ box hints at the growth of ‘spiritual but not religious’ orientations, accounting for roughly one ninth of the British population – a number typical across northern European countries which also have large atheist populations. Alongside nonreligious sceptics, the alternatively spiritual often resist categorisation as a point of principle. These outlooks valorize open-mindedness, toleration, free-thinking, individual experience, connectivity and complexity, and may reject explicit cultural labels like ‘pagan’ or ‘humanist’. They want to exist permanently outside of the box.

But even more important, in terms of numbers at least, is the growth of more roundly nonreligious worldviews. Rather than indifference to religion per se, the rise of nonreligious worldviews entails an array of new ways of living and thinking about life – what I have called ‘existential cultures’ in my work. Much like religious and spiritual ones, these nonreligious worldviews involve philosophies about where we humans come from, about what happens to us when we die, and about the meaning of life and the moral imperatives that answers to these questions imply. As with religion and spirituality, nonreligious beliefs are also shared by family and friends and are ritualized in life-cycle ceremonies like birthday parties, weddings and funerals.

Instead of a secularization story about the decline of culture and belief, then, the rise of the nonreligious starts to look much more like a case of cultural transformation. People aren’t ceasing to think about and, through cultural life, experience life’s big questions, but they’re thinking about and experiencing them in new ways.

Why New Atheism really is new

Given that we humans, religious and otherwise, share an awareness of our own mortality, the idea that nonreligious people still have an existential life ought not, perhaps, to be as surprising as it sometimes is. On the other hand, it is really only quite recently that being nonreligious has truly gone mainstream in the UK and demanded serious attention. It was as recently as 2009 that over half of the British population selected the ‘no religion’ in the BSA survey for the first time; and the ONS reports that it was only in 1976 that religious weddings ceased to be more popular from civil ones. Secularization trends might not be new, but the emergence of ‘secularity’ as an established way of life is.

Nonreligious cultures – that is, movements of people actively professing and evangelising about having no religion – have gone mainstream, too. Like their nineteenth century forebears, today’s nonreligious cultures are dominated by elites, fronted by highly educated, middle-class white men: Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling and Alain de Botton are, in this sense, the Leslie Stephens, Bertrand Russells and T.H. Huxleys of our day. And even the ‘radically inclusive’ Sunday Assembly (dubbed the ‘atheist church’) is firmly rooted in Camden, Islington and Hackney in London, pockets of the UK that are as dominated by the intelligentsia as north Oxford, and equally nonreligious.

But nonreligion is a feature of everyday life in a way it was not 100 years ago. Atheist messages are plastered not only on the side of city buses but on novelty greetings cards and soap packaging. (The label of a Soap and Glory shower gel not only promises users that they can have ‘soft, smooth sexy skin whenever [they] want it’ but also reasons that ‘cleanliness is essential when godliness is improbable’. And this is not an isolated case.)

The rise of the New Atheism and other nonreligious cultural movements can be seen as part of an on-going process of transformation, through which a new generation of unreligious Britons work out ways to understand and describe themselves in relation to life’s big questions. While we have often focused on the claims that movements like New Atheism express about religion, actually on the ground it is clear that they are also being used to help people build and articulate better senses of themselves as something other than religious and more than just nonreligious. What is more, these personal projects also help people engage more actively with religious friends and neighbours.

Nonreligion will make religion more—not less—important

The future of religion in Britain is not, then, really a story of cultural decline. The idea that religion is becoming less meaningful in contemporary societies does not really stand up to scrutiny. In the UK and elsewhere, there are still large numbers of people who identify themselves as religious and practice their religion in both new and traditional ways. Even unreligious people necessarily engage with this religion, as they do with religion encountered in the news, in personal and national histories and in the arts. This makes the idea of Britain as a secular society, characterized by widespread ‘indifference to religion’, not very convincing. Instead, people have a general standard of ‘religious literacy’, used to negotiate contemporary social and political life and they will need this in the much longer term.

But they increasingly need a standard of ‘nonreligious literacy’, too – something that is slowly developing, through the emergence of nonreligious cultures and through the research funding, policy forums, column-inches and pub conversations given over to atheism, nonreligion and secularity. Through these discussions, the problems with the boxes we have relied on to describe religious landscapes in the past are being worked through, and new boxes are being created. These will involve their own reductions and distortions, but they will also give a people a handle on their beliefs and cultural commitments, and make these available to be engaged with critically as well to be shared with others in meaningful dialogue.

Dr Lois Lee is a Research Associate at the Centre for Religion and Political Theory in the School of Public Policy, UCL, and founding director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN). Her new book, Recognizing the Nonreligious: Reimagining the Secular will be published this year by Oxford University Press.

Image from wikimedia, available in the public domain.