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Secular, Non–Religious, Atheist and Humanist are not the same thing, and why it matters

Secular, Non–Religious, Atheist and Humanist are not the same thing, and why it matters

Ben Ryan argues that it is important to get our terms right. 22/10/2019

Last week an article was shared by a friend of mine on Twitter with the intriguing headline “UK secularism on the rise as more than half say they have no religion”. It appeared in the Guardian in July and was a report on the latest annual British Social Attitudes survey data. It shows all sorts of interesting things but, with an absolute inevitability, not what the headline said. UK secularism may (and probably is) on the rise, but that is just about the one thing that the data did not prove about attitudes to religion in the UK.

What it does show, first and foremost, is that non–religion (i.e. people choosing on the form to list their religion as ‘none’) is on the rise, as it has been for many years. 52% of respondents now have no religion, which is a significant generational shift from 1983 when only 31% had no religion.  The same period saw (as the graph below shows) a steep decline in Anglican adherents, and a significant growth in “other Christian” and “non–Christian” faiths (notably Islam), driven particularly, though not exclusively, by migration patterns.


The only moderate surprise is that it took so long for non–religion to actually account for over 50% of the population, when many estimates had it doing so rather earlier than 2017 (when it first hit that mark).

The survey also showed that atheism is increasing. Note, this is not necessarily the same as non–religion, though it is often treated as such. One in four respondents explicitly said they did not believe in God, up from one in ten in 1998. That is a remarkable shift, but still means that only half the non–religious are prepared to rule out belief in God. This too is a widely known phenomenon. The Theos reports Post–Religious Britain: The Faith of the Faithless (2012) and The Spirit of Things Unseen (2013) both explore the sheer weirdness of contemporary non–belief, which far from exhibiting the simple replacement of a comprehensive Christian values and beliefs with a materialist atheism, rather show a  confusing, shifting mass of individually constructed and rarely coherent spirituality. Among other things, the research for The Spirit of Things Unseen revealed that more 60% of the non–religious believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means.” Only 25% agreed that humans have no spiritual element.

Certainly there is no reason to believe that a majority of the British, or even of the non–religious, could be described as secular humanists (another term that gets lumped into the mix with regularity), which is a specific non–religious worldview with a set of defined propositions and positions.

It would be true to say that the UK is becoming more secular, in the sense that ‘secular’ is a broader term that is most usually defined as meaning ‘not connected with religion’. The headline of the Guardian piece however referred to secularism, and that is something different again from non–religion, from atheism, from humanism and from secular.

Secularism is not about personal views on religion but about the political and social role of religion in public life. There are a range of different secularisms, which is why Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, can state his belief in a vision of secularism with clear roots in Christian theology, but one entirely opposed to, for example, the French model of laïcité. It is entirely possible to be a Christian and in favour of a secular state under a particular model of secularism. Similarly, it is entirely possible to be an atheist and supportive of the role of an established Church (though unusual, this is present in a particular strand of conservative thinkers, with a small ‘t’, who consider it critical to the British constitution and traditions, among others).

Now it may very well be that the UK is seeing a rise in secularism as well as non–religion (I would suspect that that is true), but that is simply not what the Guardian article actually showed. There is a point here beyond simply being pedantic. The lazy conflating of terms that are addressing similar but distinct beliefs and positions does actually have consequences.

It matters, for example, because the assumption that non–religion and atheism are the same thing means that it is often assumed that the non–religious have no need, or desire for, spiritual care. In fact, surveys among NHS patients have persistently shown that this is not the case (an issue partially resolved by new NHS guidance that requires hospitals to take into account the spiritual needs of non–religious patients as well as religious ones). The remarkable growth and popularity of wellbeing sessions, yoga, and other spiritual practices is only one strand of a story that shows a high level of demand that often seems to confound managers in various institutional settings, who assume that non–religion can be equated with materialist atheism.

It matters in terms of representation, and who gets to speak for different groups. Just as not all Christians are the same, and plenty might resent being spoken for by only one denomination, so the non–religious are a far less homogenous group than is often imagined. Their needs and desires are far broader and more complex than is often assumed, and how they are represented is not often considered with as much care as might be hoped.

It matters that secularism is a political, legal and social question on which the dividing lines are not clear–cut. At a time when the UK is learning the hard way that major constitutional change is actually quite painful and difficult, it is worth at least considering who is on what side when it comes to what would be a massive change for the way in which the UK’s settlement has been worked out.

Finally, it matters that these issues are genuinely complex, intersecting, and not the same. We are having a national conversation about religious education in schools and what sorts of values and education we want transmitted to future generations. Those aren’t small stakes, and lazy conflations and assumptions aren’t going to make them any easier, but instead force people into unnatural, unhelpful and wrong–headed alliances. Progress comes from clarity – so we could at least start by being clearer on stories like this about what we’re actually talking about.


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Image: Casimiro PT/ 

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Home Affairs Adviser at Church of England. He was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism.

Watch, listen to or read more from Ben Ryan

Posted 22 October 2019

Atheism, Belief, Secularism


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