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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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, Academy 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

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
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