According to an article by Damion Thompson in the Spectator published on 13th June, 45% of people in the British Election Survey classified themselves as having no religious affiliation. They are the nones. The decreasing importance of religion in people’s lives is a common factor across all Western Countries. Even in America religious faith is declining, albeit from a much higher starting point. 36% of 18 to 24 year olds in the USA do not claim to belong to a religious group.
If they are not religious what do these nones actually believe about supposedly religious issues such as morality, life after death and communication with God? In the modern Western secular society there is a consensus about these issues but it is not determined by any priest.
Fundamental to secularism is a belief that science can explain the workings of the natural world. The superstitious mind of the Middle Ages has now almost entirely disappeared. People no longer believe that natural disasters are a sign of God’s displeasure. The fear of God and malevolent spirits has largely ceased to be a factor in day to day life.
This is helped by the fact that we are living longer. In medieval times, dealing with death was a constant issue in every community. People only lived 30-40 years on average. Life was hard. Churches preached that life on Earth is only temporary and we should be more concerned about our life after death. Fear of going to hell was truly terrifying. We still fear death but eternal damnation is no longer an issue among secularists.
The control of religion on general issues of morality has largely ceased to exist. Sunday is no longer a day of rest for religious contemplation. Despite opposition from the religious community, sex before marriage and divorce after marriage is now common place. Homosexuality amongst consenting adults is no longer seen as a sin, indeed gay marriage has just been legalised.
Yet despite the declining influence of religious morality there is no evidence of any less ‘goodness’ around. Charity and generosity of spirit hasn’t disappeared. Indeed we have become a more tolerant caring society, concerned for all peoples whatever their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Morality seems to be determined by consensus across society. This consensus has emerged independently in many countries practising Western democracy. It seems to be based on feelings of egalitarianism and fairness combined with a rational view of the world. It is maintained both by law and peer pressure.
The nones apparently have no need for religion or any set of religious beliefs. There are however dangers in being a none.
In the last two hundred and fifty years the secular society, in which science and industry has thrived, has delivered a massive increase in health and freedom from want in the western world. However, having no priests, the values of the secular society are not explicitly trained on to the next generation. Religious beliefs have survived centuries through training the young. Secularists are careless of their heritage. There is apparently no co-ordinated attempt to train secular values in our schools. There is a risk that at any time these fragile values could be tossed away in reaction to the political situation of a moment. Hitler after all was voted into power in a secular Germany before he created his racially biased police state.
One danger is if the increasing population of immigrant communities with no tradition of secular behaviour, fail to adopt these secularist values. Islam may become the biggest religious organisation in the UK in the second part of the twenty first century. Islam, Catholic and many other religious faiths are supporters of non-secular values of discrimination against women and homosexuals. It is a scandal that these religious groups are supported by a supposedly secular government in training these negative values onto the next generation.
Another danger is that the lack of any concern for the future has gone too far. Climate change is coming yet most people are relatively unconcerned because they do not see it as a direct imminent threat. We live in a materialistic world where everyone is striving to do their best for themselves and their children. Issues that are decades away have relatively little impact on their thinking.
This is why we need a new philosophy of life to be actively promoted, one that maintains the values of a secular society but also saves the planet for our children.