Every non-believer comes to atheism or agnosticism in their own way. For people of my generation, this has been against a backdrop of religious wars, which have been fought for most of our lives. This has contributed to a deep hostility towards religion in society generally – more than half of Britonsthink religion does more harm than good. A lack of religion is a common feature of advanced societies, and a new poll is the latest in a long line that show a marked decline in religiosity, particularly among young people.
Religion often seems to offer an explanation for fundamental questions, the type of question everyone considers at some point. How did the world come to be, for example. But cosmology and evolutionary biology can speak to this question, even if they are now operating at such a level of specialism and complexity that the answers can seem unsatisfying to the layperson.
As a humble humanities graduate, I try to keep abreast of developments in the world of physics. I do not always succeed, but if given sufficient attention science offers a deeply satisfying model for how we got to be here. As for why we are here, without religion we have the freedom to determine our own fate and to find our own purpose. Initial scepticism about God, often during early childhood, is consolidated later by the superior explanatory power of modern science. Science works.
We live in an age where we seriously plan to send human beings to Mars, where the life expectancy for westerners is Methuselah-like, but where beheadings, crucifixion and rape are commonly used weapons of war. For some, this stark choice leads to an obvious conclusion: that religion is a force for ill. For these atheists, their lack of belief is a defining characteristic, along with their conviction that religion is retrograde. Others have simply been brought up in the general cultural atheism of our time, where religion is not a major part of people’s lives. In this case, lack of belief is almost incidental; it is not a part of their belief system or values, it is simply an absence. There are varieties of atheism, just as there are spectrums of belief within religion – just see the huge disconnect between the Vatican and Catholics on contraception or divorce for examples of this.
The same poll also finds that lack of religious belief is much less common among older Britons than in 18- to 24-year-olds. Much of this can be put down to tradition and culture, rather than theology.
Despite my own atheism, I do retain a fondness for elements of the Church of England and the Anglican tradition; particularly its hymnal music, the King James Bible and many of the more quixotic rituals. I am quite sure I am not alone in this – in recent polling just 16% of Anglicans and Methodists said they had “no doubts” about the existence of God. Indeed, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, admitted that he had his own doubts about the Lord and Father of Mankind, before quickly adding that this was “probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say”. I once met a fairly senior clergyman, who told me: “My dear boy, I know vicars who are atheists.” Even Richard Dawkins has spoken of his “cultural Anglicanism”.
The great generational gulf is therefore one I attribute (at least in part) to these traditions, and to the sense of belonging and community that the church provides for older people. For many older Anglicans, community, I wager, is a much stronger incentive for church attendance than theology.
Although younger people are generally far less religious than their parents, there are reasons to think the reverse may be true for British Muslims, and atheism should not been seen as an inevitability. While this latest YouGov/Times poll is another benchmark in the decline of religious belief in the UK, much more study is needed to understand all that is driving this, and where religion may still be resurgent.