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One third of non-religious still believe in a spiritual being

25 October 2013


Reaching out (left to right): Tony Morris, Jane Little (who presents the podcast), Elizabeth Oldfield, and the Very Revd Andrew Nunn at the launch of Things Unseen in Southwark Cathedral last week. Story, below

Reaching out (left to right): Tony Morris, Jane Little (who presents the podcast), Elizabeth Oldfield, and the Very Revd Andrew Nun...

"THERE are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Hamlet's rebuke to his sceptical friend had a fresh echo last week, in a new report that suggests that most people, including those who are non-religious, agree with Shakespeare's prince.

Of the 2036 people surveyed last month in an online poll carried out by ComRes, 77 per cer cent said that "there are things in life we simply cannot explain through science or any other means." Three-fifths (61 per cent) of non-religious respon-dents agreed.

The report The Spirit of Things Unseen: Belief in post-religious Britain was published by the think tank Theos on Thursday of last week. Fifty-nine per cent of those who responded believed in "the existence of some kind of spiritual being". This was true even of 34 per cent of those who categorised themselves as non-religious. A quarter of all those who responded believed that spiritual forces had no influence on earth.

Thirteen per cent of all the respondents, and 25 per cent of the non-religious ones, agreed with the statement "Humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element." Fifty-three per cent of religious people said that prayer could heal people, compared with 12 per cent of the non-religious.

One sixth of all those who responded said that they, or someone they knew, had "experienced what they would call a miracle". Among the non-religious, the figure was half this. Nearly half (45 per cent) of those who responded said that they never prayed; this rose to 81 per cent among the non-religious.

The researchers found that spir-itual beliefs were not the preserve of the elderly, but occurred across the age groups, those aged under 34 being slightly more likely than older people to hold spiritual beliefs.

The report was commissioned by the production company CTVC for the launch of its new podcast, Things Unseen, which seeks to reach both religious and non-religious people. The authors suggest that "a spiritual current" runs through Britain, "despite the decline of formalised religious belief and belonging".

On the day of the launch, the Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said: "We can respond to a changing religious landscape by being nostalgic or creative.

"This excellent initiative has chosen a creative approach to meeting people where they are, rather than where churches wished they were, and opening up universal themes of human experience and questions about it. I strongly endorse this approach."

IN CASE anyone was getting too excited about the suggestion that there was a "spiritual current" running through Britain, the Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent, Gordon Lynch, had some words of caution. He was one of the members of a panel convened at Southwark Cathedral for the launch of the report The Spirit of Things Unseen on Thursday of last week. 

"People tend to approach these questions in the same way as 'What is your favourite colour?'" he told the audience. In other words, preferences shift easily, and people might answer differently from day to day. Similarly, he was wary of reading too much into the report's suggestion that there might be a concentration of spiritual beliefs among those aged under 34.

"Young people are keeping open the possibility of the supernatural," he said. "It is a way of not shutting things down . . . but it isnot an earnest spiritual pursuit."

The panel, which included the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, and Tony Morris, who writes about Buddhism, was asked to interpret the report's findings. They asked: what should be made of the fact that 11 per cent of those of no religion believe in angels? Or that almost half of those questioned never prayed?

Audience members had their own questions. Were people tired of having to use an intermediary to get to God? Was it natural to get more interested in spiritual things at the end of your life? Could it all be unlocked by looking at Hegel's theories?

Dean Nunn suggested that the findings pointed towards an individualism that had been promoted under Lady Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. Mr Morris drew a parallel with the search for personalised medicine.

In the end, the meaning behind the report's numbers remained, appropriately, a mystery.


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