Who are the atheists?

Who are the atheists? October 15, 2008

Religious belief is on the decline in Britain. Increasing numbers of people are telling the pollsters either that they have no religious beliefs, or that religion is unimportant to them. Now, Prof Rich Lynn would argue that this is due to a new era of enlightenment, with ever more intelligent and rational people contemplating life’s mysteries and deciding that the evidence suggests that all of this god stuff is a bit of a fairy tale (see previous post).

But according to David Voas, a demographer at Manchester University, in fact secular society in Britain is characterised by not by people who don’t believe, or even by people who don’t know, but rather by people who simply don’t care. Voas says:

The dominant British attitude towards religion is not one of rejection or hostility. Many of those in the large middle group who are neither religious nor unreligious are willing to identify with a religion, are open to the existence of God or a higher power, may use the church for rites of passage, and might pray at least occasionally. What seems apparent, though, is that religion plays a very minor role (if any) in their lives.

Voas calls them the ‘muddled middle’, but I don’t think they’re really muddled. High falutin discussions about the existence of God are interesting to a minority, typically well educated. Everyone else has better things to do with their lives.

Exactly where one should draw the line distinguishing the secular from the rest is unclear. Many nominal adherents are failed agnostics: they used to have doubts, and now they just don’t care. Arguably, most are secular for all practical purposes. If they are included, then at least half the British population could reasonably be regarded as secular.

So this is the picture of a secular society. It’s not one in which religion has been abandoned as a result of some careful analysis of the evidence. It’s one in which religion has simply become unnecessary.

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