With atheism on the wane in Britain – according to a new survey – public advocate for the Christian faith, John Dickson predicts that we may be entering an era when the number of people claiming to be atheists declines.
Dickson believes the key finding of a YouGov survey of 1660 people in Britain, commissioned and published by The Times, relates to the definition of atheism.
When asked if they do not believe in “any sort of God or greater spiritual power,” the proportion of fell from 38 per cent in 2016 to 36 per cent in 2017 and 33 per cent in 2018.
Faith in God remains steady at 29 per cent from 2017 to 2018 while the proportion of agnostics rose from 12 to 14 per cent and those believing in “some sort of spiritual greater power” inched up from 23 to 24 per cent. The survey also finds a slight rise in the number who say they pray.
“What they believe in is a kind of universal spirit that created and ordered everything.” – John Dickson
Dickson, an author and founder of the Centre for Public Christianity, warns that the survey should be treated cautiously, because questions have been raised in the past about the methodology used by the YouGov company. But he welcomes its insight into people’s belief in a universal spirit rather than the God of the Bible or Koran.
“This is a new contribution because other surveys have found that when you just say to people ‘Do you believe in God?’ and just leave it at that, some people are saying, ‘no,’ they don’t believe in God, because they hear that word and only think of the Judaeo-Christian God or maybe the Islamic God – and that’s not what they believe in. What they believe in is a kind of universal spirit that created and ordered everything,” Dickson tells Eternity.
“Nearly half of the atheists in the Pew survey actually weren’t atheists in the strict sense.” – John Dickson
He says the new survey should be seen in light of a huge Pew survey released last year, which asked those who indicated they were atheists a follow-up question: what God do you not believe in?
“They allowed people to change their answer to a universal spirit behind the world. And they actually found that of the 19 per cent who said they don’t believe in God initially, a full 9 per cent – so almost half – admitted that they do believe there’s a universal spirit or power behind the universe,” Dickson says.
“That’s pretty close to the idea of God anyway. It turned out what they were denying was any association with a religious account of God, but they still believed there was a being that you could pray to and which orders the world and so on.
“And so it turned out that nearly half of the atheists in the Pew survey actually weren’t atheists in the strict sense. So this new survey did the smart thing and asked if people believed in any kind of God … as people become more sceptical about religion they’re going to say in surveys ‘I’m not religious’ and you mustn’t conflate that with atheism.
“Or they’re going to say ‘no, I don’t believe in God,’ but actually what they mean is that they don’t believe in one of the formal ideas of God – ‘I still secretly believe that there’s some higher power or spirit.’ They’re saying there is some spiritual being that orders the universe – that’s the key thing that’s worth uncovering.”
Dickson is also a bit sceptical of the recent increase in Australians ticking “no religion” on the national census, believing it is almost meaningless.
“I can really see us entering a time when the number of those claiming to be atheists decreases.” – John Dickson
“What has happened in the last 10 years is that people have felt much freer to say ‘I’m jack of religion, I don’t like religion at all, so I’m ‘no religion,’ right?’ But all we’ve done is given people space to admit that in public – and I think that’s a good thing. So ticking ‘no religion’ has increased, but I don’t think that tells you anything about who believes in God, who prays to God. You can be sure that a significant percentage of those who circle ‘no religion’ do actually believe in some kind of universal spirit, they do actually say prayers and so on. So it’s a really interesting phenomenon.”
Whether or not we accept all the data of this survey, Dickson believes the phenomenon of new atheism has alienated a lot of people around the world.
“I can really see us entering a time when the number of those claiming to be atheists decreases and that becomes a smaller group of really committed atheists. A lot of others will be undecided. And yet I don’t think that belief is God is going anywhere,” he says.
“I do think that atheism has, not quite run its course, but I do think people have had a really good look at it since the new atheism came along; some people have embraced it, others have used it just as a reason not to get involved at all in religion or it has just confirmed their suspicions.
“But a lot of people I meet in my engagement with sceptics around the world are really turned off atheism because of the new atheism. They think it’s mean, they think that it makes claims way outside the expertise level. [They find Dawkins an unreliable guide to history, for example] and so there are a lot of people who are sceptical of that kind of atheism.”
The YouGov survey also suggests more people are attending church, although not regularly. Asked how often they attend church, not counting weddings or funerals, those who said “never” fell from 63 per cent in 2016 to 61 per cent in 2017 and 56 per cent in 2018. Those saying every week fell in the past year, from 6 to 5 per cent, but those saying “several times a year” grew from 6 to 7 per cent and “once a year or less” was also up, from 20 to 24 per cent. Factoring in “not sures,” the figures suggest that 39 per cent sometimes attend, up from 36 per cent in 2017 and 34 per cent in 2016.
The proportion who “never” pray fell from 54 to 50 per cent from 2017 to 2018. Those praying daily fell from 11 to 10 per cent and those who do “several times a month” fell from 7 to 6 per cent, but the proportion who pray “a few times a year” increased from 10 to 13 per cent.
The figures also show that attendance at Christmas services has increased in the past few years. The Church of England’s figures for its “worshipping community” – those who attend regularly but not necessarily every week – found that 83,000 new worshippers joined congregations last year compared to 59,000 who left.