THERE is not much to cheer the faithful in Linda Woodhead’s recent research into religious attitudes, but they might at least take some satisfaction from learning that atheism is doing about as badly as faith. Most of the “Nones” in recent surveys still believe in something, be they angels, ghosts, or the power of prayer. In Heart and Soul (Friday, World Service), Jane Little explored the multifarious nature of the spiritual in-betweeners.
Take Rowan. She doesn’t believe in anything. She believes in angels, though, and defines such an entity as “a super-sensibility” that arises “when matter seeks to know itself better”. I’m not sure I understand what she is talking about, but she certainly does, and will extrapolate with the subtlety of a late medieval philosopher calculating the number of angels that can dance on a pin.
Or Michele, the alternative-healing therapist who invites into her sessions “high-vibrational beings” whose energies might galvanise the body of a client who thinks he is just getting the half-hour back rub.
Angels are everywhere. People who could never contemplate bodily resurrection might nevertheless be convinced that their loved one has transformed into a winged being flying among the stars, as one online mourner for the famously atheist Stephen Hawking expressed it. After the terrorist attacks in two of our largest metropolises, it was through the hashtags #prayforlondon and #prayformanchester that so many expressed their sympathy and grief.
So common is this contradiction that we barely register it when somebody such as Russ declares that he is not religious, but that there is definitely somebody up there. He knows, because the baby girl he recently lost is now an angel, sending him signs of her presence.
The decline of dogmatic faith — theist or atheist — is not a trend confined to Western Europe. In Trump’s Evangelicals (Radio 4, Friday), we heard that the white, socially conservative Evangelicalism that we so strongly associate with middle America is also demographically challenged. We regard it as on the ascendant because of their particular influence in the current White House; but this constituency is increasingly unpredictable, and some regard this presidency as the last chance to create a legacy.
President Trump is, in this respect, delivering on his promises. By Paula White, Jerry Falwell, and many other of the leading Evangelicals in the United States, Trump is regarded as the most faith-friendly President that the US has ever had. One battle has now been won — over the Supreme Court. Another is currently being waged — over the Johnson Amendment, a piece of legislation dating back to 1954 which prevents churches’ taking overtly political stances.
In a 2017 executive order, President Trump promised an extension of religious liberty to all branches of government, and, at the same time, intimated that the Johnson Amendment would not be enforced. All eyes are now on the mid-term elections and how the religious vote might contribute.