On Palm Sunday the BBC news included results from an interesting new survey of religious attitudes and beliefs, analysed by Professor David Voas.
There are several very interesting aspects of the findings. One is that there seems to be a growing divergence between spiritual and religious beliefs. Over 20% of non-religious people believe in life after death. However, many religious believers do not believe in life after death, including almost a third of those religious believers who admit to having occasional doubts about God.
I suspect that belief in life after death is a marker for a cluster of spiritual beliefs, and that it probably goes together with such things as belief in guardian angels. Though there is clear evidence for decline in belief in God since WWII, it is fascinating that belief in life after death has actually been increasing, both in the US and UK.
This is one of several strands of evidence that point to a decline in religion, but an increase in spirituality. A growing number of people seem to have a strong intuition that there is ‘something more’, though they don’t formulate that in traditional religious terms.
It is equally clear that many people who regard themselves as Christian are very uncertain about traditional beliefs. Most Anglicans and Methodists have doubts about the existence of God. Indeed, only 16% do not. Of course, many fewer evangelicals have such doubts.
I don’t want to suggest that doubt is a problem. Indeed, I would join with many religious writers (such as Harry Williams, former Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge) who think that doubt is an important component in faith.
The problem seems to me that such doubts are covert and unacknowledged. Liberal Anglicans seem caught in a no-man’s land, with neither the religious certainty of evangelicals, nor the open-mindedness that would make them hospitable to people whose beliefs are broadly spiritual (including belief in life after death), but who have doubts about elements of traditional religious belief.
Another intriguing aspect of this survey is the big difference that emerges between men and women. It is well known that more women go to church than men. That applies not only to belief in God, but also to belief in life after death.
There has been much discussion of the reasons for these gender differences. I increasingly favour the view that it arises from gender differences in cognitive style, with women being more intuitive and men being more rationalistic.
The religious landscape in the UK is changing very rapidly and this survey provides a fascinating snap-shot of a rapidly changing scene.