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Religious ‘nones’ are not necessarily atheists, Theos report suggests

25 November 2022


MORE than half the adults in Britain identify themselves as having no religion — but that doesn’t mean that they have no religious belief, or that they are hostile to religion, an in-depth study from the think tank Theos suggests.

Its three-year investigation, carried out in conjunction with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, found a more subtle and nuanced picture of what it means to be non-religious than the statistic of 53 per cent would suggest. One third of “Nones” disagreed that “Religion has no place in the modern world.”

In the report, The Nones: Who are they and what do they believe?, published this week, the Nones are found to include those whose beliefs — and sometimes even practices — are all but indistinguishable from many who tick the Religion box, “as well as those for whom none of this really matters very much.

The results come from a quantitative survey of 5153 adults, conducted by YouGov on behalf of Theos and Faraday between 5 May and 13 June 2021: a month or so after the 2021 UK census.

“Understanding people who tick the ‘Not religious’ box as simply atheists, or alternatively that they’re all spiritual but not religious, does a disservice to them. Paying attention to [the different flavours identified] may enable us as a society to have better conversations about religion and its place in the modern world,” the 80-page report concludes.

The report identifies three clusters among the Nones: “Campaigning Nones”: atheistic and hostile towards religion; “Tolerant None”: broadly atheistic but accepting of, and sometimes warm towards, religion; and “Spiritual Nones”: characterised by a range of spiritual beliefs and practices, as much as many people who tick the Religion box.

Those defined as “Campaigning” represent 34 per cent of the Nones, and are disproportionately male: 68 per cent men versus 32 per cent women. Seventy-nine per cent of this grouping do not believe in God, as compared with just over half of Nones overall, and 11 per cent of “Spiritual Nones”, although almost one fifth qualify as agnostic.

Most possess a high level of science knowledge and low levels of belief in anything spiritual or supernatural. Their motives and beliefs about the world are ruled by “science, logic, and evidence and rationality”: they regard the authority of science as the only way of getting reliable knowledge about the world, and believe that it can dictate and inform how life is lived.

Their stance towards religion is extremely hostile, but, even among this sceptical group, 20 per cent appear to believe in some form of the supernatural or spiritual. Eighty-nine per cent agree that religion has no place in the modern world. They are the most hostile to religion, who “know their Dawkins chapter and verse”, and agree with him that religion is a form of child abuse, harder to eradicate than smallpox.

Of this group, 78 per cent agree that “Science disproves the Bible”, compared with one third of Spiritual Nones, and more than half of Tolerant Nones. They are also more likely to voice their opinions regarding the Bible. Campaigning Nones “are the Nones that many individuals typically picture when someone describes themselves as atheist,” the report finds.

Tolerant Nones are more accepting of religion. The majority are millennials, and they are the most highly educated. They are generally atheistic, although about one quarter are agnostic. They have confidence in science, but recognise its limits, with more than half believing that there are some things that science will never be able to explain.

They believe that religion has some helpful things to say about ethics, and recognise the potential of religion for positive moral and social contribution: in summary, they embody the idea of “Live and let live.” This serves to demonstrate, the report concludes, that “individuals who do not believe in God do not always hold hostile views towards religion.”

Thirty-eight per cent of this grouping believe that “All religions have some elements of truth in them,” compared with 14 per cent of Campaigning Nones, and 59 per cent of Spiritual Nones. They think that parts of religion are not only truthful, but beneficial to society. Just under one third view the Bible as “A useful book of guidance and advice for our lives but not the Word of God,” and 32 per cent as “An irrelevant collection of ancient myths.”

Spiritual Nones represent 32 per cent of the Nones. The data on them suggest that they believe that there are other relevant, insightful, and truthful forms of knowledge than purely what science provides. These are “epistemological pluralists”, valuing and accepting religion and its place in society more than those who hold a staunch scientific epistemological framework.

The statement, “I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others,” was selected by 12 per cent of them. Twenty-nine per cent say that they are agnostic, stating, “I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out,” and a further 36 per cent believe, not in a personal God, but in a higher power of some kind.

Of the Nones altogether, 42 per cent believe in some form of the supernatural; 17 per cent in the power of prayer; 16 per cent in reincarnation; 14 per cent in the healing power of crystals, and an equal number in the supernatural power of ancestors. One fifth state that they “Definitely/probably believe in life after death” (compared with 37 per cent of the total population).

Twenty-seven per cent believe in ghosts, but only 11 per cent in heaven, leading the researchers to ask, “Is this the way in which Nones understand life after death? Not through belief in a form of heaven or hell, but rather through belief in ghosts, which are by their very nature understood to be the soul or the spirit of an individual that remains on earth after they have died.”

They are compatible with the idea of prayer and angels, and also more compatible with non-religious understandings of spirituality and the supernatural. Thirty-nine per cent of Nones viewed the Bible as “An irrelevant collection of ancient myths”; 15 per cent viewed it as “Beautiful literature but otherwise irrelevant to us today.”

“None” is a mark of affiliation; one that contrasts with the affiliation to religion or religions, the report concludes. “It is a social marker, a way to identify oneself.”

The first results from the census were published in June, and more statistics are due to be published soon.

The Theos report makes reference to the first British Social Attitudes survey in 1983, when 40 per cent of the population said that they belonged to the Church of England, but “there appeared to be 17 or 18 million missing from the pews, if that were the case,” it suggests.

It points out that self-designation is a measure of religiosity, but not the only measure, and certainly not the most reliable.

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