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Not atheist, not religious: Typical Briton is a 'fuzzy believer'

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While churches remain a feature of the British countryside, most people don't attend them anymore. Photograph: John Hughes/Alamy

A blue plaque on a white stucco house just off the seafront in Brighton is a rare monument to atheism in a country where religion is a minority belief.

It marks the former home of George Holyoake, the last man to be jailed for refusing to believe in God and an overlooked hero of the secular cause.

Holyoake, a free-thinking radical, was jailed in Cheltenham in 1842 after suggesting, at the end of a lecture on socialism, that religion was a luxury the poor could not afford. The town's conservative establishment prosecuted him for his outspokenness – one priest called it devilism – and it is said he was threatened with being taken from Cheltenham to Gloucester jail in chains.

After his release from prison, he retreated for the last part of his life to Brighton. It was an appropriate refuge: the city is now, according to demographers, the least religious place in Britain.

Yet even today Holyoake would stand out as an exception in Brighton – a man prepared to speak confidently about his lack of belief rather than fudge the issue.

Most people in the Sussex city do not go to church: 27% said they had no religion in the last census. But most still described themselves as Christians. In Britain, cultural ties remain strong, even as belief fades.

"People here look at you a bit strangely if you say you are a regular churchgoer," says Bill McIlroy, a member of Brighton's humanist and secular association. "But while many people here don't believe, they have still got a misplaced respect for the church."

That sense of tradition frustrates campaigners against the influence of what is now politely described as the faith community.

"People cling to the idea of religion as a source of morality," says Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society. "There is a general apathy: people don't want to make a fuss."

Many Britons have at best a shallow belief in God: the most recent British Social Attitudes survey found that just a third of the population held firm religious beliefs, with another third deeply sceptical and the final third uncertain.

But far fewer are prepared to go further and describe themselves as openly atheist. It was telling that Nick Clegg caused a stir when he did so soon after becoming Liberal Democrat leader.

"People prefer to talk about spirituality rather than religion, which can mean anything you want it to," says Sanderson.

Even Holyoake – who went on to invent the term secularism – professed himself more sceptical about religion than opposed. "You cannot be an atheist – you do not look like one," his memoirs record the magistrate telling him during his trial for blasphemy.

Holyoake held firm: "Though sorry to say what might outrage them or look like obstinacy, yet out of respect to my own conscience I must say that I was an atheist."

But by the end of his life he preferred to use the newly devised term agnostic. That still best fits the mainstream British view.

According to demographer David Voas at Manchester University: "The part of the population that is properly religious is a minority, but so is that part which is overtly secular. In the middle is an informal group of fuzzy people who don't really care."

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TAGGED: ATHEISM, RELIGION, SOCIETY


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