Irreligious or multireligious?

The number of people who are irreligious or do not belong to a religion is growing steadily in the West. This does not mean that the significance of religion is diminishing in society, but that the form religion takes is changing.

Increasingly in different studies, people have stated that they do not belong to any religion. Linda Woodhead , Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, has studied the situation in Great Britain. According to Woodhead, “no religion” is the biggest group when looking at British young people.

However, defining religion or irreligion is not straightforward and according to Woodhead, not all those professing to have no religion are purely secular.

“Many engage in spiritual activities in private, but consider traditional public religious communities and religious leaders as well as so-called conservative religious values as alien to them.” In addition, many respondents described themselves as spiritual, but not religious.

In terms of age distribution, the values of young people seem to have diverged from those of older people.

“In this sense, young people in Britain do not follow their parents’ religious footsteps, but have a markedly more critical attitude towards religion.

The gap between values becomes even more pronounced when examining the attitude of young people towards the official institutionalised religions, which are thought of as antiquated in comparison with new forms of religion.

“In the relocation of religion in society, its cultural side as well how religion and what has been sacred have become routine and secularised are highlighted. Through this, meaning and values are being sought in a modern and pluralistic society,” estimates Woodhead.

Religion’s new forms

According to James R. Lewis, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tromsø and who has studied new forms of religion and religiosity in the Nordic countries, it is quite typical nowadays for people to move between religious movements and traditions.

“In multireligiosity different alternative combinations of religious movements and sub-cultures come together into open spiritual participation in many different directions.

People seem to have many different spiritual interests at the same time.”

Instead of the permanence and exclusivity distinctive of traditional religion and religiosity, Lewis talks more of dispersed religiosity and spirituality.

He does not however ascribe to the significance of religion diminishing in society and culture.

“Contrary to some assertions, religion is not dying, but it is changing in form. “

Professors Linda Woodhead and James R. Lewis were keynote speakers at EASR 2016: Relocating Religion conference held in Helsinki and organised by the Study of Religions at the University of Helsinki in collaboration with the Finnish Society for the Study of Religion and Åbo Akademi University.