Spectres and secularism

In the wake of some give-and-take about what constitutes a religious and what a secular perspective on the recent post about the 'death' of conservative Christianity, I was much taken by a brief BBC Newshour story a few days on, of all things, ghosts. Did you know that, according to a recent Theos poll, almost four in ten Britons believe in ghosts? Five out of ten believe in heaven, and, and seven out of ten believe in the human soul. Apparently the belief in ghosts has actually grown over the past four decades.

This, mind you, is Britain, where attendance in churches has been on the decline (with notable exceptions) for years.

In that context, I appreciated the relatively straightforward, no hype article by The Times of London's Ruth Gledhill, who wrote up the Theos results.

Four out of ten people in Britain believe in ghosts and more than half believe in life after death, according to research to be published today.

Research by Theos, the theology think-tank, shows that seven out of ten people believe in the human soul and more than five out of ten believe in heaven. One in five believes in astrology or horoscopes, one in ten in Tarot or fortune telling and nearly three in ten people believe in reincarnation.

ComRes, the company that carried out the research, surveyed more than 2,000 people for Theos. The results suggest that we are more superstitious than 60 years ago, at a time when orthodox religious belief is declining and secularism is on the rise.

It seems to me that these results do suggest an increase in superstitutious behavior and a decline in "orthodox" belief. My quibble is the use of the word "secularism," a term that, as our commenters have shown, is subject to many meanings. Is "secularism" another word for separation between church and state? Does it allow religious groups to operate within certain boundaries? Or does it indicate a surging group of people indifferent to religion?

Gledhill includes what seems to me to be the "money quote" from Theos director Wooley's comments -- a central point for those who believe that even those who don't have "traditional" beliefs aren't indifferent to religion:

Paul Woolley, the director of Theos, said: "The enlightenment optimism in the ability of science and reason to explain everything ended decades ago. The extent of belief will probably surprise people, but the finding is consistent with other research we have undertaken.

"The results indicate that people have a very diverse and unorthodox set of beliefs. Our research may point to a slight increase in scepticism about aspects of the supernatural over the last ten years."

Of course, if you are going to believe in ghosts, you might as well do it in Britain, where they have ancient settings more suited to supernatural visitations.

But seriously -- I wonder why we aren't getting more coverage of the "unorthodox" forms of belief over here from the mainstream media? Isn't it possible that these fight isn't between faith and "secularism" but between traditional beliefs and various ancient forms of supernaturalism? And that's not to mention the marshmallow middle ground of American civil religion, wonderfully dissected by Ross Douthat on the Atlantic website.

Belief in reincarnation, astrology, Tarot and other forms of faith in the supernatural has been around almost as long as many of the world great religions. Ignoring the possibility that such practices shape and affect the behavior ordinary Americans seems like walking over the elephant in contemporary religious life. Is it because both traditional and progressive elites find this idea rather unpalatable? It also poses a challenge to those who claim that 'secularism' is on the rise -- without defining what 'secularism' is.

By the way -- do you really think that guy is Charles I?

Please respect our Commenting Policy