Religious or Spiritual or Neither?

Saturday 20 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Conservatory

Statistics for regular church attendance – in decline for the past 50 years and still declining – suggest the British have little enthusiasm for formal religious practice, especially compared with North Americans, for example. Many people instead describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. What does this mean? Is it a half-baked, DIY, mix-and-match mishmash, or is it driving at something deeper? In any case, doesn’t the prevalence of this attitude suggest that the spiritual drive is alive and well; that the search for ultimate meaning and purpose is part of many people’s make-up? If it is, can we understand this in purely naturalistic terms (psychological, biological or social)? Or is it evidence of a ‘divine sense’ implanted in us? Or does it point to something else – perhaps precious, yet impossible to state in clear terms? Would it be right to call this ‘religious sensibility’ and to say that, even if old-fashioned religious practice has declined, belief has not?

For many people, there persists the soothing idea of an English God who turns up on Sundays, maintains a low-key presence and is careful not to outstay his welcome (as described by the philosopher Roger Scruton). For some agnostics and ‘liberal’ Christians, this embodies the compromise with the secular world that religious sensibilities ought to seek. Meanwhile, for some, religion is a cultural practice rather than a matter of dogma or faith. In particular, Judaism, Hinduism and Sikhism and even Protestantism in its Anglican form can be seen more as cultural practices than dogmas. In branding religion as an irrational set of ideas, do we neglect the succour people find in the ritual and traditional aspects of temple, church and mosque?

Do campaigning atheists, characterising religion as ‘evil’, miss the point of an innate propensity for faith? Do we all yearn to be touched by the miraculous, to apprehend something beyond day-to-day reality? Is there is a religion-shaped hole in our hearts? Is this why religious themes continue to occupy a prominent place on the public agenda, even as religious practice declines?

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Speakers
Dr Piers Benn
philosopher; author, Commitment and Ethics; visiting lecturer in ethics, Heythrop College, London and Fordham University, New York

Andrew Copson
chief executive, British Humanist Association

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Elizabeth Oldfield
director, Theos, religion and society think-tank

Linda Woodhead
professor, sociology of religion, Lancaster University; author, The Spiritual Revolution: why religion is giving way to spirituality

Chair:
Helen Birtwistle
history and politics teacher, South London school

Produced by
Dr Piers Benn philosopher; author, Commitment and Ethics; visiting lecturer in ethics, Heythrop College, London and Fordham University, New York
Helen Birtwistle history and politics teacher, South London school
Recommended readings
Can you be spiritual and not religious?

As religious observance is on the wane, people's desire to connect at some higher level faces a quest for new forms

Piers Benn, Independent, 12 October 2012

My Take: 'I'm spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out

The increasingly common refrain that

Alan Miller, CNN, 29 September 2012

Britain's 'last witch': Campaign to pardon Helen Duncan

Campaigners looking to clear the name of Britain's last convicted witch may apply for a judicial review.

BBC News, 15 June 2012

Politicians still don't

Sixty years has passed since Gandhi said “those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is”, but many of those most interested in politics still do not know.

Theos, 24 January 2012

Commitment (The Art of Living Series)

In this work, Piers Benn delves into the relationship between commitment and meaningful life, and asks whether commitment must be based on truth to provide such meaning. He also explores obstacles to commitment such as boredom, sloth and indifference. Drawing on his own experience of dithering and procrastination, he suggests that a sceptical, cautious attitude to important matters can both be a virtue, and a real obstacle to human fulfilment.

Piers Benn, Acumen Publishing, 23 November 2011

Doing good is not the preserve of the religious

The link between religion and social participation is a fiction – but we must concentrate on shared civic principles, not the divide

Andrew Copson, Guardian, 26 September 2011

Count me out of atheism's creed

The desire to belong has made atheism into its own religion. But non-belief is no basis for a group identity.

Dolan Cummings, spiked, 25 October 2007

The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality

Comparing existing evidence from the USA and Europe, with a UK–based study of religion and spirituality, this fascinating book addresses the most pressing question in the study of religion today: are new forms of spirituality overtaking traditional forms of religion?

Paul Heelas, Linda Woodhead, Benjamin Seel, Bronislaw Szerszynski & Karin Tusting, Wiley-Blackwell, 4 November 2004

Modern Spiritualism

The Modern Spiritualist movement dates from 1848 when the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York produced knocking sounds that were alleged to be messages from a spirit. Spiritualists communicate with the spirits of people who have died.

BBC

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