New Religious Movements

New Religious Movements, New Age, Paganism and Occultism, and Non-Belief

A major feature of the religious context in the UK over the past 50 years has been the decline of Christian observance, and an increase in number of those who follow alternative spiritualties or those who describe themselves as “non-believers”.  A large proportion of UK society in the 21st century either regard themselves as non-religious, or are not affiliated to any of the main established faiths.  The difficulty is interpreting what this indicates about British society.

Historical Context

Historically, this growth in alternative spirituality/”non-belief” particularly occurred in Britain after the 1960s.  It manifested itself in a collapse in Christian observance, a decline in Christian belief and the democratisation of the process of public ritual.

More generally it is associated with significant, important and valuably challenging changes in post-war British society such as:

  • the influence of post-modernism
  • growing individualization,
  • secularization of the state,
  • the increased influence of popular culture
  • an increasingly skeptical media
  • the influences of modern social and ideological developments (eg. the search for equality and the feminist movement and the growth of the ecology movement)

It also can be connected with a longer term increase in the influence of scientific rational thought and the decline in belief in the transcendent.

Numbers

In the 2011 census, 14.1 million people in England and Wales said they had no religion, representing around a quarter (25.1 per cent) of the population.[1] The figure is likely to be higher, as over 7% of the population did not answer the voluntary religious affiliation question.  This figure of 25.1% represented a significant rise from the census returns of 2001 where 14.8% described themselves as non-religious.[2] In a more recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey in 2015, which asked the question, ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?’ the nonreligious came out as accounting for almost half of the British population at 48.6%.[3] What is also clear is there has been an ongoing decline in those who define themselves as “Christian”, especially in terms of “Anglican” and traditional “nonconformist” Christianity (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc).

There is a significant age aspect to this. In the BSA sample, non-believers are younger than average: 35% are under 35, compared to 29% of all British adult. (To compare: just 6% of Anglican are under 35, and 45% are 65 or older.)[4]

Features and Beliefs

However, we need to tread carefully by what this means in practice.  There may be an increasing reluctance to define oneself in terms of a member of mainstream churches.  But that is not the same as saying one believes that there is no God or spiritual being.

Grace Davie analyzing the evidence on religious belief in the UK speaks of between one half and two-thirds of the population continuing to believe in some sort of God or supernatural force. Within this group however there has been a continuing shift away from those who believe in a personal God towards those who “prefer a less specific formulation.”[5]

The influence of humanist and atheist thought has grown.  The erstwhile British Humanist Association now known as Humanists UK claims 65,000 members[6] and the National Secular Society, both dating from the nineteenth century have political and cultural influence which goes well beyond their membership numbers.  Humanists  UK has taken a leading role in the campaign both against faith schools and to ensure that the religious education curriculum gives space for humanist thought.  It also has taken a leadership role in the campaign against religious influence within the state and secular institutions. These campaigns include supporting legal cases against acts of discrimination, and campaigns to promote the secular voice through Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.[7] The views of the “New Atheists”, a group of philosophical writers including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and novelists such as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Philip Pullman, have been spread through book sales and the dissemination of their ideas on the media.  There is a neo-religious secular assembly movement known as “The Sunday Movement” in keeping with a book entitled “Religion for Atheists”, written by Alain De Botton.

A third of the “non-believers” are, according to Callum Brown and Gordon Lynch, interested in spirituality.  Many, though not participating any longer in church ritual, might on the other hand be involved in popular public ritual (i.e. taking flowers to the place of a death, Remembrance Day ceremonies) They also may well be engaged by one of the growing proliferation of spiritual practices which are available through private practitioners, on the high street, at community centres or via self help advice available on the internet or on the book shelf.  There are also pilgrimage centres for such spiritualties, such as at Glastonbury, Stonehenge, Avebury, and Findhorn.  “New Age or Self-Spiritualities”[8] have gained an increasing public presence in the market place.  In the 2011 census for example, 240,000 people (0.4 per cent) identified with groups which did not fall into any of the main religious categories.[9] The most common were Pagan and Spiritualist, accounting for 57,000 people and 39,000 people respectively. In all of these alternative spiritualties, there is a strong attachment to autonomy and self-authentication, and a rejection of “authority”.  There is also a strong emphasis on meaning and value in life being mediated through personal relationships with partners, family and friends. Christopher Partridge has examined in depth the emerging alternative spiritualties and argues that these are replacing traditional belief structures especially amongst the young.  Influenced by the work of Paul Heelas, Partridge defines the characteristic of these new spiritualties.  Under this heading, we might include “mind, body and spirit” practices (with a focus on healing/wellbeing including such practices as Yoga, Reiki, Tai Chi, Mindfulness) , Paganism (Druidery, Goddess Spirituality, Heathenry, Wicca, Eco-Paganism, Ethnic “paganisms” ) and New Age spiritualties (belief in angels, emphasis on spiritual unity and harmony, Age of Aquarius, spiritual evolution, age of Gaia).

The characteristics which they share include an emphasis on the experiential as opposed to doctrinal beliefs.  There is an overriding vision of a union with the divine essence which pervades all, of a divine ground of being underlying all being, and of the potential or spiritual evolution. There is an interest in gaining access to wisdom which is hidden, the esoteric (what in traditional terms might be described as Gnosticism). There is an emphasis on the self, and self-realization/self-discovery.  There is a respect for what is believed to be ancient or primal wisdom, going back to the beginnings of history. There is also a strong influence of practices and spiritualties from the East.

Grace Davie uses the term “market” to try and define the developments in the UK.  A market, she would say, depicts a wide range of religious or spiritual options from which individuals can choose what suits them best.  But on the other hand she (as does Partridge) recognizes that many of the new spiritualties are non-materialist in values, and may emphasize areas of communal concern such as ecology.  But this “empathy” is critiqued by other academics who argue that the world of capitalism has subsumed and packaged spirituality for its own consumerist purposes.

Stephen Bullivant, in examining the religiosity of so called non-believers looks at BSA surveys. In 2008, the last time the question was asked as part of the BSA, roughly four in ten Nones (i.e those not affiliated to any religious group) said that they didn’t believe in God.  A little under three in ten said that they didn’t know whether there was such a Being or not, and didn’t believe there was any way to find out.  These two positions therefore represent around two-thirds (i.e., 65%) of Nones. A further 16% opted for denying ‘a personal God’, but affirming ‘a Higher Power of some kind’.[10] (Report on non-believers St Mary’s University 2016)  Bullivant also argues that the strident voice of the New Atheists is an indicator of the power religious belief continues to carry in society.[11]

Areas of Dialogue and Debate

Many Christians would ask:

  • Is there a throwing away of what Christians would regard as real and authoritative thought about human life and existence? What do we mean by the term spiritual authority?  Can we as individuals judge what is of worth?
  • From where do we gain spiritual authority; is it from revelation, experience or reason, or a combination of all three? Is spiritual experience alone a wise guide to the presence of the divine?
  • Is God a personal being with whom we have a relationship, or a force or energy to be harnessed?
  • Do we save ourselves or is salvation a free gift from God?
  • What is the nature of humanity; who are we and what is our purpose? What is the meaning of human fulfillment and how is it achieved?
  • What is the nature of human failure or sin? How do we deal with failure and our own weaknesses? How do we cope with suffering and death?  Can we rely on our own resources or do we need to depend on God’s beneficent grace?
  • What is the place and function of the individual within community? To what extent is social commitment something which is important and how far is this reflected in these traditions?

Speaking of our Faith to members of New Religious Movements (NRM’s)

Revelation, Tradition and Religious Experience

The established religious traditions are built on doctrine and teaching which has developed over many centuries, these new spiritualties would also claim to be linked with the ancient past.  The issues which these new spiritualties have raised regarding the nature of revelation and the nature of authority may have a legitimacy.  Christianity is often rejected because it is seen as boring and out of touch with modern reality. It is also often criticized for attitudes and values which, we have to acknowledge, have caused hurt. But one wonders if sometimes the Christianity which has been rejected is often a stereotyped one which fails to reflect either deep thinking or deep knowledge both about its teaching and its spiritual practices.

Reflection on spiritual knowledge makes one realise that its authenticity is often difficult to test partly because it is based on experience rather than a body of teaching, and partly because the knowledge proclaimed is by its esoteric nature untestable.  Christianity would proclaim that it has a universal message about God’s offer of love to all humankind which is open to all to access.  Some  alternative spiritualties would seem to have an exclusivity about them in that they in that they seem to claim access to secret spiritual knowledge.

The Issue of Authority

NRM’s reflect the modern distrust of authority and unease with the spiritual “expert”.  This in itself raises a question about spiritual authority.  Are we as individuals the best judges of our own integrity as human beings or is our understanding deepened by the contribution of others?  And if the latter, who should such people be? This is no new matter and is a reminder of the concern about “false prophets” in the Gospels, and Paul’s warnings to those who proclaimed that they were spiritual experts because of their so-called spiritual gifts.

Revelation

Christianity claims to be built on the revelation of God as revealed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  Though Christianity accepts that God is active through his Holy Spirit in all human life, Christians would claim that the model of redemption in its fullness is based on the Way of Christ.  An area worthy of discussion would be the concern that some of the more common beliefs found in alternative spiritualties are in contradiction to Christian teaching, e.g. Beliefs such as “reincarnation, The Age of Aquarius, etc.

The Nature of God and how human beings interact with the divine, the issue of Salvation (Liberation)

The Christian path is ultimately about a relationship with God in which the emphasis is that fulfillment comes out of following the will of God and responding to God’s initiative.  NRM’s too are often about harnessing the spiritual forces and about self-improvement.  An area for debate is whether salvation or redemption is the consequence of one’s own efforts and knowledge rather than being based on the free and gracious gift of God.  One other area for discussion would be how far we control our own destinies.  Often as human beings our reality is one where we have to deal with struggle and failure.  It is how we are able to face life’s vicissitudes which determines our integrity as human beings.

Human Nature

Here the debate may be with regard to some alternative spiritualties emphasising the need to find an energy which may empower one.  What is often stressed is self-growth but there seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge what Christians would consider the fallibility of human nature and the inevitability of suffering and death.  For Christians there is an emphasis on following the Way of Christ which results in transformation through the acknowledgement of sin, forgiveness, and the experiencing of the gift of God’s love in reconciliation.

Human Identity

New spiritualties are reflective of modern culture and our common concerns regarding gender, the environment, and human purpose.  They may well challenge some of the traditional thinking of the Christian church and its failure to respond to modern currents of thought and modern social issues.   The debate may revolve around the question of whether humanity alone is capable of establishing life in its fullness.  The Christian would want to claim that human life in its wholeness may only be understood and supported in the context of a relationship with the divine.

Focus on Individual and/or Community

Much of the new alternative spiritualties are about transforming oneself as an individual and releasing one’s potential.  A modern challenge for both Christians and NRM’s is the issue of where is the emphasis to be put.  Is it on the individual or on establishing and serving community and for whose purpose?

Further Reading

Cudby, P. The Shaken Path,  A Christian Priest’s Exploration of Modern Pagan Belief and Practice Christian Alternative pub. 2016

References

[1] 2011 Census, England and Wale: Religion. Office of National Statistics. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/religioninenglandandwales2011/2012-12-11

[2] 2001 Census: Religion. BBC News.  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/uk/03/census_2001/html/religion.stm

[3] NatCen Social Research. (2017). British Social Attitudes Survey, 2015. [data collection]. 3rd Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 8116, http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-8116-3

[4] As Above

[5] Davie, G. Religion in Britain, a Persistent Paradox. Pg. 73 John Wiley & Sons Pub. 2015

[6] Humanists UK, https://humanism.org.uk/about/

[7] Thought of The Day. Humanist UK. https://humanism.org.uk/what-you-can-do-to-help/thoughtfortheday/

[8] Davie, G. As above. Pg. 158.

[9] 2011 Census, As above.

[10] Brown, C. Lynch, G. ‘Cultural Perspectives’ Ch. 4 of Religion and Change in Modern Britain. Routledge. 2012.

[11] Davie, G. As above. Pg. 192.