It’s interesting how appearances can deceive. If I talk to people about religion and spirituality here in the UK, what I’m struck by is a prevailing desire, it seems, for things to be “secular”. In business for example, the two things you don’t discuss is politics and religion. It’s an unspoken assumption, and you could get a sense that that is to the great relief of all concerned! But what is really going on? Are we a nation of agnostics, or is it really something that today we simply choose to keep to ourselves?
So, in this context I was not surprised to see that spirituality, loosely defined, is very much alive and kicking, if at least beneath the public surface. According to a recent survey, 77% of people believed in the power of spiritual forces. I say “not surprised” because while there’s been a significant turning away from organised religion as traditionally conceived, most of us still hold some degree of spiritual belief, much no doubt to the indignation of the likes of Stephen Dawkins (author of The God Delusion). This keeps coming out in studies. The last census, in 2011, showed that those calling themselves Christian was now at 59%, although many dispute the validity of that figure because of problems with the question asked. Anglican (“Church of England”) Church attendance is now down to about 1.1m, in a population for England of 53m. According to Professor King of UCL, about one fifth of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. While the number who say they don’t have a belief is rising and is now around 25%.
So if we’re not (yet) a nation of agnostics, the picture as Theos say is more complex. So why do we keep this to ourselves? Is it because we don’t like getting into a discussion about something that is personal and we fear the disapproval of others? Is it because it is so complex today that what you think might not be what another does and you don’t want to get yourself into tricky territory? Certainly I’m aware personally that to use the “S” word (in hushed tones: “that means “Spiritual””), can today be seen as “Woo-woo,” as a marketing consultant recently described it to my wife. If you get up and talk about your beliefs, people fear you are going to try to convert them and back off. Images come to mind of Jehovah’s Witnesses at your door (“And how are you this morning?” “No, thank you”, etc) or a preacher in the market place ignored by everybody, who pass by with a quicker step and embarrassed. In the US, being religious is part of what people do, and they are quite open about it, which makes the contrast with the UK and I think a lot of Europe really striking. Then we also wonder at the rise of “mental health” issues like depression. Between 8 and 12% here have depression in any one year, apparently. This is also a very materialistic age, we are told, and for many religion has been replaced by science and technology and the pursuit of “more”. We also find that politicians are seeking to add to measures like GDP other metrics that measure happiness, realising that our priorities maybe need to shift.
If people don’t want to talk about it then there’s another possibility too. There’s something in this about our right to silence and to our own individual contemplation of the divine or the One, or whatever sense spirituality means for you and me. Silence does not imply consent, either to no belief or to having belief. We might also simply be present with the awe and majesty of What Is.
There was a well-known phrase attributed to Queen Elizabeth I when she re-introduced Protestantism in 1559 into the official orthodoxy which passed by the name of the Church of England after the Marian Catholic persecution of 1553 – 1558. She did not, she said, seek “to make windows into men’s souls”. The right to personal privacy in matters spiritual is a long-established tradition in the UK, as is “religious toleration”. As Theos say in the report mentioned at the beginning, it is now more complex and more interesting.