Have we sacrificed religion for materialism?

Religious or Spiritual or Neither? Have we sacrificed religion or spirituality for materialism?

Battle of Ideas – Knowing Me, Knowing You
Barbican Centre
20th October 2012

Statistics for regular church attendance – in decline for the past 50 years and still declining – suggest the British have little enthusiasm for formal religious practice, especially compared with North Americans, for example. Many people instead describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. What does this mean? Is it a half-baked, DIY, mix-and-match mishmash, or is it driving at something deeper? In any case, doesn’t the prevalence of this attitude suggest that the spiritual drive is alive and well; that the search for ultimate meaning and purpose is part of many people’s make-up? If it is, can we understand this in purely naturalistic terms (psychological, biological or social)? Or is it evidence of a ‘divine sense’ implanted in us? Or does it point to something else – perhaps precious, yet impossible to state in clear terms? Would it be right to call this ‘religious sensibility’ and to say that, even if old-fashioned religious practice has declined, belief has not?

For many people, there persists the soothing idea of an English God who turns up on Sundays, maintains a low-key presence and is careful not to outstay his welcome (as described by the philosopher Roger Scruton). For some agnostics and ‘liberal’ Christians, this embodies the compromise with the secular world that religious sensibilities ought to seek. Meanwhile, for some, religion is a cultural practice rather than a matter of dogma or faith. In particular, Judaism, Hinduism and Sikhism and even Protestantism in its Anglican form can be seen more as cultural practices than dogmas. In branding religion as an irrational set of ideas, do we neglect the succour people find in the ritual and traditional aspects of temple, church and mosque?

Do campaigning atheists, characterising religion as ‘evil’, miss the point of an innate propensity for faith? Do we all yearn to be touched by the miraculous, to apprehend something beyond day-to-day reality? Is there is a religion-shaped hole in our hearts? Is this why religious themes continue to occupy a prominent place on the public agenda, even as religious practice declines?

Dr Piers Benn
writer and philosopher; author, Commitment and Ethics
Andrew Copson
chief executive, British Humanist Association
Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; editor, Culture Wars; editor, Debating Humanism; co-founder, Manifesto Club
Elizabeth Hunter
director, Theos, religion and society think-tank
Linda Woodhead
professor, sociology of religion, Lancaster University; author, The Spiritual Revolution: why religion is giving way to spirituality
Helen Birtwistle
PGCE history teacher; former resources and communications manager, Debating Matters Competition
Produced by
Dr Piers Benn writer and philosopher; author, Commitment and Ethics
Helen Birtwistle  PGCE history teacher; former resources and communications manager, Debating Matters Competition
Source: Battle of Ideas
Tiemo Review
Surrounded by tropical plants, the sounds of birds singing and running water meant that although in the Barbican Centre, the venue that I was in seemed appropriate for a discussion on God, spirituality and religion. Our very own ‘Garden of Eden’ in which to consider our religious, spiritual or neither dilemma …..

According to Linda Woodhead (professor, sociology of religion, Lancaster University) 31% of us class ourselves as spiritual, 27% religious, 8% atheist and 34% of us are either agnostic, not religious or simply don’t know. In fact Linda claims there is a steady decline towards religious practice or beliefs. However individuals categorising themselves as spiritual is on the increase. We apparently believe in a spiritual life force and that there is “something out there”, but our belief in God is decreasing.

Andrew Copson (CEO, British Humanist Association) provided one of the counter arguments, suggesting that we no longer favour religion of spirituality but have moved toward materialism. According to Andrew, humans by and large are motivated by their own needs and wants and not by any other external source. God was around 10th or our list of things that give us a sense of meaning or purpose to our lives (after families and more materialist items). Ironically some would argue (including myself) that the source of all things come from God and to put him anything but first shows a lack of acknowledgement and appreciation.

We also heard from Dr Piers Benn; “Can it make sense to say that you are religious and not spiritual? Very thought provoking point, which generated a number of questions from the audience. He defined religion as something to believe in, belong to and the need to be doing i.e. “good works and practice”. A question as to whether or not religion provides a ‘home’ for spirituality illustrated how complex defining the two separately can be as (in my opinion) there are a number of significant similarities.

I very much liked the comment made by Elizabeth Oldfield (director, Theos, religion and society think-tank) who stated that religion helps her narcissism. 


Perhaps the curb on our narcissistic culture/materialism is what we should be focusing more on.  It appears that as a disillusioned society we no longer look to God for guidance but focus on what the media, our peers or significant others tell us. This at the best of times can be misleading. Andrew mentioned original sin and our ability to get things wrong. Surely the decline of our relationship with God, our pull toward materialism and the way the world is today is evidence of our continued negligence to focus on what is the true meaning and purpose to life…..

What do you think? Feel free to post your thoughts below.

Tiemo Talk of the Town
4th November 2012

Links and further reading – Battle of Ideas

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