The Changing Nature of Faith in Britain 29 July 2016
Mainstream thinking about religion in Britain is in a curious place. On one side are the atheists, loudly proclaiming that humanity – or an enlightened section of it – has got ‘beyond’ religion and that we are finally entering an age free of illusion. On the other side stand the traditionally religious, defending the beliefs and rituals developed by institutions over the centuries.
What both sides fail to see is the fertile middle ground in which faith is evolving and finding new forms. This quintessentially contemporary form of faith is questioning, exploratory, potentially messy in character – a bit like life itself; the quest for it impelled by a search for authenticity, its success stories rooted in experience. To describe it as ‘spiritual but not religious’ captures something of its freeform quality, but its adherents don’t necessarily situate themselves outside religious traditions or institutions; rather they seek new kinds of relationships with them.
The journalist in me wanted to put the faces and places to this emerging trend, so I went in search of individuals and communities who were consciously looking for new ways of living and believing. I found them with ease: the nuns who, expelled from their order, bucked monastic decline to found a new religious community; the latter-day hermits seeking solitude in the everyday; the Sufis pursuing a gentle, sensual spirituality; the contemporary Druids forging a relationship with nature.
These people form a snapshot of the spiritual pioneers of our times, the outriders who are neither prepared to give up on God nor content to receive what is handed down to them by believers of the past. (As Mircea Eliade and other thinkers have argued, the religious impulse has always been part of being human). Finding them confirmed my hunch that, behind the polarised view which categorises people into either believers or non-believers, the ways in which we humans shape our sense of the good and true is infinitely varied. And they are rooted in time and place, reflecting the conditions of our lives: the geography of the places in which we live, and the legacies of personal and national history.
Having chronicled their spiritual lives in The Secret Life of God, my further hunch is that these pioneers are giving voice to the half-expressed, half-hidden thoughts and feelings of a much wider population. Almost noone I know, including those who consider themselves to be atheists, seems to make sense of life in the tough, faithless way demanded by a thoroughgoing secularism. At times of crisis or when choices have to be made, an entirely different language tends to emerge, one that expresses a sense of mystery, purpose and a connection with a reality beyond the human. Often this is articulated vaguely in terms of things ‘meant to be’, but in the face of bereavement and life-threatening situations, some admit to having a direct, personal experience of the spiritual.
Recent surveys confirm the idea that something more might be going on than a simple decline in religious belief. A poll conducted by ComRes for the thinktank Theos found that over half of respondents believed in some sort of spiritual being or essence (59%), while three-quarters (77%) agreed that some things ‘couldn’t be explained by science or other means’. Research conducted in the States into the beliefs of the religiously unaffiliated found that 57% considered themselves to be religious or spiritual, while the majority (62%) of those who said they had ‘no religion in particular’ still described themselves as either religious or spiritual.* In providing a snapshot of the beliefs and experiences of ordinary people, such research reveals our changing religious sensibility.
Of course, it’s important to remember that those at the forefront of change are continuing a longstanding aspect of religious life: the fact that, in every spiritual tradition, there have always been those who question the orthodoxies of their age and fall foul of the authorities. The Christian mystic St John of the Cross, famous for his description of the dark night of the soul, was imprisoned for heresy by his own order; one of the earliest Sufi masters, Al Hallaj, is said to have been executed for expressing a sense of the divine within. And behind such freethinkers there must have been innumerable more folk quietly pursuing their own spiritual lives without feeling the need to speak out. Britain’s religious history is littered with dissent, with new denominations and breakaway groups at odds with the established church.
But the faithscape of contemporary Britain testifies to something that is distinctively twenty-first century. Growing out of a world in which we cannot fail to be aware that others have different ways of being and believing, it is irrevocably pluralistic. For better or worse, it is fostered by a culture which validates the experience of the individual and encourages self-fulfillment. And it is indebted to a history of secularism that helped to make questioning and doubt about the divine acceptable. Long may it evolve.
More details of ‘The Secret Life of God’, which is available on Amazon, can be found at www.thesecretlifeofgod.net