The story so far: interestingly similar data is appearing in surveys to describe world-views in very different regions of the world, and these appear to tell a tale about a large and expanding group with “middle” views, views which are not religious or atheist as defined in surveys organized by Western market research organizations. Let’s go for more numbers.
There is widespread agreement that significant numbers of people are peeling themselves away from traditional belief groups, which explain the reports about drops in church attendance, particularly in North America and Europe. Recent data suggests that while most Americans still consider themselves religious, only about 37% to 40% of US citizens are regular churchgoers. In the UK, numbers of churchgoers are estimated to have fallen to 6% to 10% of the population.17
But the fact that the number of self-described atheists is still small suggests that these “church backsliders”, in general, are not becoming atheistic. The majority of them are forming a third group: they are joining a middle-ground cluster which is arguably humanity’s fastest growing world view group.
For reasons of inoffensiveness, let’s call this cluster of people “the middle grounders”. This group is clearly in expansion mode, and looking at the figures, may be growing faster than any other high profile world-view cluster, including Islam, Christianity and atheism. Pro-secularists often claim ownership of the “nons” group to bolster their arguments about the collapse of theistic beliefs—but, as mentioned above, this is an unsafe assumption. (Nor should they be added to the “regular churchgoers” category.)
Who exactly are these people? It appears safe to assume that members of this group will range from people we might define as “new agers”, to people who have drifted away from traditional religion, but have not drifted particularly far. People who travel frequently or have a wide range of contacts probably meet members of this group on a daily basis. This researcher has a Facebook post in front of him in which a friend writes: “Don't believe in God, but I am praying to the universe today.”
A CURIOUSLY LARGE SMALL GROUP
How big is the middle grounders group? Is it just the “nons”, the 16% to 36% who define themselves as “non-religious” or “none of the above” in global surveys of world views? Now here’s where it gets interesting. When we look at detailed findings of world-views, it appears that we may have to add to this group a number of people we list on the religious side—and perhaps a very large number.
For example, going back to the details of the survey of world-views in the “atheistic” 27 European Community countries, we see that 77% are believers in a higher consciousness. Of these, we find that 51% of people “believe in God”, while 26% believe in some sort of force or great spirit.18 Clearly, a large proportion of spiritual people are not conventional believers, but are modern “in-betweenies”.
So another element of our emerging hypothesis could be to say that an unknown proportion of people who are listed as believers may actually also be middle grounders. To see whether this might be true, we need more numbers.
LIGHT DAWNS IN EASTERN EUROPE Let’s start our search in the most unlikely place. Outside East Asia, the three countries often listed as the least religious in the world, the places where (the media tells us) atheists dominate, are Estonia, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
In support of this assertion, we usually find the Eurobarometer Poll 2010 quoted, which shows that only 18% of people in Sweden and Estonia believe in God, and only 16% of people in the Czech Republic have that particular belief. That seems clear enough. These are atheist countries, right?
But no. That same poll also asked respondents whether they believe in some sort of ultimate force or great spirit. “Yes” answers came from 44% in the Czech Republic, 45% in Sweden and 50% in Estonia.
So then we do the math: the number of citizens who believe in the existence of some sort of deity-like presence, called God or The Force or something else, is actually 60% in Estonia, 63% in Sweden, and 68% in Estonia, according to the exact same survey. They are certainly not all churchgoers. But contrary to conventional wisdom, in all three countries, atheists were a minority, and the dominant groups were the middle grounders – people whose beliefs are hard to define except for one thing: they don’t think of themselves as atheists.
Broad-ranging reviews of data indicate that even the most solid-seeming traditional religions may be quietly full of middle-grounders, who may even be a majority.
For example, our default assumption may be that Jews are Jewish people belonging to the Jewish faith. We would be wrong. One study of their world-views found that 50% of Jewish people in America admitted to doubts about the existence of God, suggesting one in two are middle grounders or atheists19. The 2012 WIN/Gallup poll found even starker contrasts. Researchers concluded that only 38% of the Jewish population worldwide considered itself religious, while 54% saw itself as non-religious. (And just 2% categorized itself as atheist.)
In other words, it appears that the MAJORITY of Jewish people worldwide should be classified not in the “religious” section of our demographic charts, but in the middle grounders section, people with flexible, shifting, or hard-to-define beliefs.
TRANSFORMATION OF CHRISTIANITY
A similar change appears to have taken place in Christianity, with progressive, liberal Christians drifting away from the hardline values of older generations. In recent decades, it is generally accepted that the faith has been swept by a quiet wave of universalism, in which belief in a literal version of “hell” for non-Christians, has been replaced by a respectful, non-judgmental view of people of other faiths. It is difficult to estimate how many Christians have moved to this position, since the broad, flexible nature of Christianity means that in any individual congregation there may be members from the full spectrum of belief, from conservative to liberal to atheistic.
But what we can say is that Christian movements with very modern views are much in evidence and in growth mode. For example, members of a US movement called Progressive Christianity emphasize their passion for ecology and science (and particularly Big Bang cosmological evolution, a theory which of course came from a church minister, George LeMaitre). Many members of this group are supportive of gay rights. In Europe, Australia, China and other places, we find fast-growing non-standard groups meeting outside traditional church services: consider the creation of huge networks of house churches, the “Messy Church” movement, the “Fresh Expressions” group of the UK (which meets in offbeat areas such as skateboard parks) and so on. At several locations these groups are growing faster than traditional churches are shrinking.
This appears to be a move by mainstream Christians into the middle ground, or at least positions characterized by generosity and openness of view. Again, we cannot rely on anecdotal evidence but need to look for empirical data.
A 2013 survey on religion and politics in the United States from the Public Religion Research Institute gives us some figures to work with, at least for that country.20 With each generation, the popularity of religious conservatism has clearly declined as people move towards a liberal or progressive attitude, it says. The study indicates that 47% of the generation aged 66 to 88 are religious conservatives. Only 34% of Baby Boomers feel the same. The number for Gen Xers is 23%. And Millennials? Only 17% are conservatives.20 In other words, the majority of US Christians appears to be already moving into the middle ground. They are people who are likely to love orthodox science and spend time fighting for the rights of their gay friends.
In the UK, a movement called Christian Atheists, centred around Oxford, quickly grew into from nothing into a solid movement with several books explaining the details of their faith.21 A similar but separate movement, called Sea of Faith, is reported to have hundreds of members, including up to 50 church ministers.22
A poll released in Canada in 2011 indicated that 53% of respondents said they believe in God. “Interestingly, 28% of those identified as Protestants, 33% of Catholics, and 23% of those who attend weekly religious services do not,” the National Post reported. So the list of people who are churchgoers includes many with religious views which are non-standard to say the least. Walled-off Christianity has been replaced by an open-door version of the faith.
There was also a significant difference between the number of Canadian people who believed in heaven and those who believed in hell, a clear marker that universalism has quietly spread. The survey said that 89% of Canadians were “completely comfortable” with being in the company of individuals with beliefs different to theirs, the defining characteristic of universalists.23
While it is natural to assume that a Christian universalist outlook can be found mainly in the intellectual, non-fundamentalist branches of that faith, there is growing evidence that it also is growing rapidly in mainstream evangelical Christianity. Arguably the best known evangelical leader in the world is Rob Bell, named by Time magazine in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In a 2011 bestseller, he held up Christian universalism as something all Christians should “long for”.24
What about Islam? News reports so often focus on the fact that Muslims are not allowed to convert to other beliefs that one could be forgiven for assuming that all of them must be religious in the most hardline sense. And there have been stories about Muslims in some countries who expressed support for atheism and were jailed.25 But on reviewing reports of actual practices, it appears that in most places, the non-conversion rule is so rarely applied that when action is taken on it, the story makes headlines. One in four human beings is Muslim, and they do not appear to be the “separate” people that conventional Western wisdom paints them to be.
In this paper, our aim has been to use empirical data at every point. But here we fail. It’s hard to find solid figures for what people in Muslim countries actually believe, compared to what their governments want us to think they believe. In the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, citizens are only allowed to have one of six official faiths. The country may have as many “nons” as other countries, but we would never know. Our suspicion is that when governments (or clerics) try to force their citizens into hardline positions, what they actually do is push them towards the middle ground. There are certainly discussions taking place within Islam about the taking of a tolerant, universalist attitude, as is evidence by the existence of academic papers and on-line discussions of the subject. Furthermore, we’ve all met Muslims with extremely modern, sophisticated views.
But what figures we do have for followers of Islam indicate that that groups falls in line with other groups. The 2012 WIN/Gallop poll found that 74% of Muslims consider themselves religious, 20% do not consider themselves religious and 3% said they were atheists. Even if we just go with these figures, the indication is that the middle ground exists there in numbers almost identical to those in the rest of the world.
Furthermore, there is evidence that a liberal universalist attitude is present within groups of Islamic religious practitioners. It can be seen, as mentioned above, in academic discourse.26 Long before “ISIS” was associated with a murderous group in the Middle East, it was the acronym for the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society. Another example: a Muslim-originated faith group called Subud (originally from Java, Indonesia) has branches all over the world—and is entirely universalistic, with Muslims and people of other faiths engaging in joint acts of spiritual transcendence twice a week.26
HUMANITY’S GEOGRAPHICAL HEART
As mentioned at the start of this paper, most of the world’s population lives in Asia. What’s the situation with middle-grounders there?
We have already noted that several of the major cultural groups in India, from Buddhism to Jainism to schools of Hinduism, do not have the concept of a monotheistic God that we find in most other world views considered spiritual. Many have no gods. Does this make them non-religious or atheistic in the Western sense of the words? Clearly not. The festivals of these groups feel very religious indeed, with rituals, ceremonies, high priests, and the acknowledgement of the existence of other dimensions. They have complex world views. For example, Jainists are atheists who believe that 63 “illustrious persons” have appeared on earth, and include chakravatins, who are “lords of the material realm” and have golden skin.
A further illustration can be found in a reference to North Korea. Amusingly, during the writing of this paper, an atheist zealot group sent us a meme showing how ridiculous people’s religious beliefs were, using an image showing outrageous supernatural claims made by the country’s leaders, and apparently accepted by the highly gullible population. The distributors of the meme seemed to think they were doing what they normally do, poking fun at religious people, while being unaware that they were discussing an atheist leader in an atheist society.
Which leads us to an observation. It could be argued that members of most Asian world-views havealways been in the middle ground. They have never fitted into the “religious or atheist?” dichotomy pushed by Western pollsters. Both Hinduism (1 billion people) and Buddhism (490 million people) in practice leave copious amounts of space for people to hover flexibly between a more austere, religious style and a more liberal, secular style of practice, to have a belief in an ultimate deity or a belief that no ultimate deity exists. The same flexibility can be seen in Taoism, Zen practices and the world views which are dominant in ostensibly atheist East Asia.
COMING FROM LEFT FIELD
There is yet another area in which we see very large numbers of people moving towards the middle ground, the part that is neither traditional religion nor atheism—although they are approaching from a different direction. China has officially been atheist for more than six decades. But changes are afoot.
As recently as 1997, the number of Christians in China was calculated at being less than 20 million. The Chinese government estimates the number of Christians today at about 90 million (which upsets them, since membership of the Chinese community party is only 87 million).27 (Other surveys indicate it is already well above 100 million.) This rate of growth is astonishing by any measure. One forecast for 2030 is 250 million28. Given their starting point, in a strictly atheist society, it is hard to picture these new Christians adopting the full panoply of elements which go with the most conservative branches of US Christianity. They are more likely to reach the middle ground and stop somewhere along the path, with plenty of unique elements of their own.
One final example: the growth of Christianity in Africa, with a full range of beliefs, from conservative to liberal, is well documented.
THE GREAT CONVERGENCE
“The great convergence has begun,” says Scott Lawson, a former church pastor who now works with a trade-aid organization in Asia. “People everywhere are focusing on what we share, not what divides us.”29
It’s not just individuals who are moving to the middle ground, but organizations too. Major charities, such as Save the Children and Oxfam, started as Christian organizations, but have quietly excised references to religion in their articles of association. The International Red Cross adopted its name and symbol from a famous group of Roman Catholic volunteer healthcare workers, but don’t feel the need to mention this in their paperwork. Groups such as these are still motivated by the same strong humanist convictions they started with, but see the advantages of removing any elements that could be interpreted as walls.
Yet we should ask ourselves, is it right to think of people involved in this convergence as anything like a united group? To answer that, we’d have to know exactly what they are thinking. The simplistic nature of the surveys which have taken place make that difficult.
The present researchers, having pored over documents around this area of study for some months, can offer some general conclusions.
Middle-grounders are a group made up of various elements. Some are not members of a specific church or temple, but are also not atheist. Others have a background that may be thought to be religious, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, but which they consider largely cultural. Still others have a religious background, but choose to interpret their faith in a modern, liberal way.
The over-riding characteristic of the middle grounders is that they have genuine respect for those with other world-views. Whereas both religious fundamentalists and people in “pro-skeptic” groups take a harsh, inflexible view that other people’s beliefs are simply wrong, evil or poisonous to society, middle-grounders are by definition open-minded and tolerant. For example, the US movement called Progressive Christians has “respect for other religions” built into its charter30, and attendance is encouraged from seekers, skeptics and agnostics—who are not preached at, but encouraged to share their views.
“The middle ground rocks,” a Muslim who does a lot of charity work tells a researcher. She tells the story of a group of Muslims who took over a church soup kitchen on Christmas Day, so that the Christian volunteers could take a break. In turn, the Christian volunteers signed up to work at a Muslim charity when the Islamic Eid holiday came around.31
Vittachi, Nury. 2015. “Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence”. Science 2.0. Posted: July 13, 2015. Available online: http://www.science20.com/writer_on_the_edge/blog/atheism_peaks_while_spiritual_groups_move_toward_convergence-156528