Jesus said that one of the signs of the End and of his return would be that “many will turn away from the faith” (Matt 24:10). Is that beginning to happen today?

Religion “does more harm than good”

The majority of UK citizens now believe that religion does more harm than good. The Huffington Post discovered that only 25% of British people think religion is a force for good. Professor Linda Woodhead (Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University) commented “This confirms something I’ve found in my own surveys and which leads me to conclude that religion has become a ‘toxic brand’ in the UK.”

Another survey revealed that only 7% of British people included religion as one of their three main personal values. It was in 11th position after respect for human life, human rights, peace, equality, rule of law, individual freedom, democracy, respect for other cultures, tolerance and self-fulfilment. It is interesting that in the European Union as a whole religion came bottom of the list of values. In most EU countries religion was not seen as an important value (with the exception of Malta and the Republic of Cyprus).

British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys discovered a large increase in the number of British people who say they have no religion: 31.4% in 1983, 36.8% in 1993, 43.4% in 2003 and 50.6% in 2013. BSA also asked people over a period of 13 years about “Attitudes towards whether being Christian is important for being truly British.” Those who thought it was not very important or not at all important formed a majority of 64.5% in 1995, 64.9% in 2003 and 75.1% in 2008. The percentages saying it was very important were 19.1%, 15.6% and 6.2% respectively.

A study recently published by the UCL Institute of Education found that 54% of men said they were atheists or agnostics and 34% of women.

It is interesting to note that America is becoming less Christian with church membership static or declining. Americans born between 1982 and 2000 are the least religious generation in US history and they are becoming less religious as they get older.

Growing ignorance of the Christian Faith

The Bible Society discovered that:
• 25% of children have never read, seen or heard the story of the Nativity.
• 43% of children have yet to hear, see or read about the Crucifixion.
• 29% of children don’t know that the Nativity story is part of the Bible.
• 30% of secondary school children (aged 12-15) did not know the Nativity story appears in the Bible.

On the other hand, this ignorance can show itself in more creative ways. One firm produced a “British Christmas Jumper” which bears Christmas trees plus symbols of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikh, atheism, Chinese philosophy and also the peace sign. The firm commented: “Britain has never been more multicultural, so we thought we’d create a Christmas jumper with a twist. We think everyone should be able to wear a British Christmas Jumper and celebrate the festive season – however they wish, no matter what their colour, creed or culture.”

Church Decline

Dr Peter Brierley recorded in June 2014 that the number of churchmembers in the UK in 2013 was 4.5% fewer than in 2008. Professor David Voas of the University of Essex wrote: “Two non-religious parents successfully transmit their lack of religion. Two religious parents in Britain have a roughly 50/50 chance of passing on the faith. The generation now in middle age has produced children who are only half as likely as they are to attend church, to identify themselves as belonging to a denomination, or to say that belief is important to them. Institutional religion in Britain has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay.” In the same year another survey discovered that 69% of the UK population do not trust religious institutions. The church came in 7th position after the NHS, police, social services, local authorities, judiciary and government/parliament. It is, of course, highly probable that the scandals about child sex abuse in a church context have contributed to this.

Secularisation

Assemblies

The National Governors’ Association has called for an end to Christian assemblies in state schools because they are “meaningless” for non-Christian children and because staff are “unable or unwilling” to lead them. The NGA claims that schools are “not places of worship but places of education” ignoring the fact that education should surely include experience of Christian worship which is important in itself and vital to an understanding of British history. The Church of England commented that stopping assemblies would “deny children the opportunity to experience something they wouldn’t experience elsewhere in their lives”.

Faith schools

An Opinium poll for the Observer found that 58% of UK residents believed faith schools should lose state funding or be closed down. Matthew Taylor, chair of the Social Integration Commission said that segregation between people of different classes and ethnic groups is being increased because of the increasing numbers of faith schools. He called on governors to publish regular reports on how pupils are mixing with other groups in society. One of the serious trends in society is that policies with laudable aims can easily lead to unintended damaging consequences. Of course, contact between different faith groups is a good thing but it can easily lead to pressure to avoid appropriately expressing important religious views for fear of causing offence to other groups. This leads to an undermining of religion.

The Church of England responded to Taylor by saying that former Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, went to Church of England primary and secondary schools and commented: “We Jews were different and a minority. Yet not once was I insulted for my faith.” In Birmingham some Church of England primary schools have an almost 100% school roll from Muslim families, serving children from local communities in the inner city.

Church Establishment

In April 2014 Yasmin Alibhai Brown wrote in the Independent, calling for an end to the establishment of the Church of England: “Religion is a vital part of a decent, civil society. When archbishops speak up for the poor (and irritate Iain Duncan Smith), when rabbis offer support to asylum-seekers, when Sikh priests give food to the hungry in their temples, when Muslim imams encourage charity, when faith leaders oppose state violence, they are the nation’s conscience. But, bit by bit, religions are demanding special rights and dispensations, and with well-honed piety are emasculating human rights, equality and autonomy. (They actually use the concepts of human rights and equality to get their own fiefdoms, segregation and legal adjustments.)”

However, she concluded: “This column is a song for secular democracy – the only fair, safe and universalising governance system. America, hyper-diverse and the most fiercely Christian nation in the West, is a secular state. Yes, we can be, too. And must be.”

Nick Clegg also called for disestablishment. Arun Arora, director of communications for the Archbishops’ Council responded: “Critics of establishment commonly fail to understand the duties of establishment where priests serve all the people in a parish and not simply their congregations. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

It is interesting that Anil Bhanot, managing director of the Hindu Council UK, also responded, saying disestablishment would “weaken British democracy” and undermine the voice given to faith groups by policy makers.

Mary Warnock commented: “I would not like to live in a country that was entirely secular. As long as no one is in a position to tell me how to interpret it, or that I must believe in the literal truth of holy writ, then I like there to be an established church, a repository of a long-shared cultural heritage, with a ceremonial function, and a source of genuine belief for many people, of whom I am not one.”

David Cameron’s controversial commitment to “Christian values”

David Cameron (who, of course, has upset the church with some of his reforms) reiterated his commitment to “Christian values” in his 2014 Christmas message. Earlier in the year he had written in the Church Times: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives. … Being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgement on those with no faith at all. Many people tell me it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country precisely because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths, too.”

In response, various well-known humanists wrote to the press objecting to his saying that Britain is a Christian country: “Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a ‘Christian country.’ Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities … We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society. Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society. Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. This needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury responded to the secularists’ letter by saying: “Judging by the reaction, anyone would think that [David Cameron] had at the same time suggested the return of the Inquisition (complete with comfy chairs for Monty Python fans), compulsory church going and universal tithes.”

There was also controversy over a backbench bill that will enable local councils to have prayers before its meetings. The National Secular Society had taken Bideford Council to court over the matter. Cameron had appointed Eric Pickles as Faith Minister in August 2014 in succession to Baroness Warsi. His job is to work with religious and community leaders “promote faith, religious tolerance and stronger communities within the UK.” He facilitated the progress of the bill.

The Catholic Bishop of Shrewsbury said: “Christianity is the single most important element in England’s history. From our legal system to our constitution, it is at the very foundations of national identity. There is a danger of airbrushing this from our memory and the intolerant secularism that we are seeing expressed does not allow for acknowledgement of that contribution and its importance to our present life.”

Charles Moore summarised the Christian contribution to Britain: “The United Kingdom has been explicitly Christian for more than a thousand years. Its monarchy, Parliament, morality, law and education; its flag, national anthem, key texts, much of its literature, art and architecture; its health care, many of its charities and endowments, public holidays and festivals, the structure of its week and its place-names – all these and many more are Christian in origin.”

Is Britain still a Christian country?

The historian Simon Schama (himself Jewish) believes Britain is becoming more religious. He said recently: “My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong. We were arrogantly isolated from that, thinking religion was just an ornamental part of Britishness. Now look at the success of the Alpha Evangelicals, how important Christianity has been to the community of West Indians, the huge place of Islam. Britain is becoming a more religious place, not less.” A poll conducted by OnePoll in April 2014 found that 35% of non-religious people in Britain believe in God and 43% of them pray at times. Also 32% want a religious funeral.

In 2013 the European Social Survey published the results of a 2012 survey on the question: “Regardless of whether you belong to a particular religion, how religious would you say you are?” The results were as follows and show more people regarding themselves as ‘highly religious’ in 2012 than in 2002:

Religiosity score  2002  2004  2006  2008  2010 2012
Low (0-3)              39.7   39.9    46.0    45.9    47.1   44.8
Medium (4-6)       36.1    34.6    31.2     30.5   29.9   29.1
High (7-10)           24.2   25.6    22.9     23.6   22.9   26.2

A 2013 Theos survey reported that:
• 61% of non-religious people believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means.”
• 59% of non-religious people believe in the existence of some kind of spiritual being.
• 52% – think spiritual forces have some influence either in the human world or the natural world.
• 51% believe “prayer works, in the sense that it makes you feel more at peace”.
• 30% believe in God “as a universal life force.”
• 30% believe in spirits.
• 25% believe in angels
• 39% believe in the existence of a soul
• 38% think prayer could heal
• 32% believe in life after death
• 26% believe in heaven
• 16% believe in reincarnation
• 13% believe in hell
• Only 25% of the non-religious – agree with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”.
• 17%) of people said that prayer works “in the sense that it can bring about change for the people or situation you are praying for.”
• 13% of people say they prayed “daily or more often”, 8% say they prayed a few times a week and 34% said they prayed occasionally.
The Report went on to comment: “For all that formalised religious belief and institutionalised religious belonging has declined over recent decades, the British have not become a nation of atheists or materialists. On the contrary, a spiritual current runs as, if not more, powerfully through the nation than it once did.”

It is also a fact that a substantial amount of belief in the supernatural is more superstitious than Christian. A survey conducted by OnePoll on the 27 March 2014 found that belief in the supernatural and superstition ran at 55% against 49% believers in a God. The most popular supernatural beliefs were in ghosts (33%), a sixth sense (32%), UFOs (22%), past lives (19%), telepathy (18%), the ability to predict the future (18%), psychic healing (16%), astrology (10%), the Bermuda Triangle (9%), and demons (8%).

60% of people in the UK think of themselves as Christian, which is more than go to football matches. 23% say they are very or fairly religious. 55% say they believe Britain is a Christian country. 58% say they think Britain should be a Christian country and 50% agreed with David Cameron’s comments on the subject. Also, whereas 39% of people in 2011 agreed that “God created the earth and all life on it”, the percentage in 2014 was 41%.

British Religion in Numbers published a helpful survey of polls ranging back to 1965 over opinions as to whether Britain is a Christian country:

On the question: “Is Britain a Christian country?”

% Agency                      Agree   Disagree   Don’t Know
3/1965 NOP                   80          19                 1
12/1989 Gallup               71           21                8
4/2007 YouGov               39          51                9
12/2007 YouGov             43          57                0
11/2010 ComRes            50          47                3
2/2012 YouGov               56           33               11
4/2014 YouGov               55           33               12
4/2014 ICM                    56           30               14

On the question: “Should Britain be a Christian country?”

% Agency                 Agree   Disagree   Don’t Know
1-2/1968 ORC            81         15                   3
3-4/1984 Harris          67         31                   3
6-7/1987 Insight         69         22                   8
2/2012 YouGov          61          22                 18
4/2014 YouGov          58         23                  19
Linda Woodhead said recently: “In culture and institutions Britain is more Christian than not. What is happening is that people are leaving the churches, not faith.”

The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, commented: “The evidence is overwhelming that most people in this country by a very substantial margin have religious belief in the supernatural or a deity. To that extent atheism doesn’t appear to have made much progress in this country at all …Our state, its ethics and our society are underpinned by Christian values.” He added: “As I go around and look at the way we make laws, and indeed many of the underlying ethics of society are Christian based and the result of 1,500 years of Christian input into our national life. It is not going to disappear overnight. They (the atheists) are deluding themselves.” He also said that he believed people were hesitant to express their religious beliefs because of the “deep intolerance” of religious extremist in British society.

Lord Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “A Christian nation can sound like a nation of committed believers, and we are not that. Equally, we are not a nation of dedicated secularists. I think we’re a lot less secular than the most optimistic members of the British Humanist Association would think … A Christian country as a nation of believers? No. A Christian country in the sense of still being very much saturated by this vision of the world and shaped by it? Yes.”

Professor David Voas commented: “There is general agreement that young people increasingly do not regard themselves as belonging to a Christian religion, much less practise it. What is still debated is whether they are prone to ‘believing without belonging,’ in the phrase popularised by the sociologist Grace Davie. Many other scholars echo the view that religiosity is being transformed, not eroded. They point to the persistence of supernatural belief and the relative popularity of ‘spirituality.’ Levels of atheism have not grown a great deal in the past 30 years, and stand at under 20% … people are just less likely to associate with, or relate to, a particular religion.”

Conclusion

The serious decline in church attendance in many places is, of course, a cause of real concern. Although it may seem that there is a massive turning away from the Faith (which will happen in the End Times) the reality is more complicated. It is instructive to keep a sense of history in this matter. An 1851 survey showed only 40% of the population were in church or chapel on any one Sunday. In 1881 another survey showed that only about 33% of the population were attending. So organised religion, although much more important in those days was in decline even then. The Faith will not die out. Spiritual renewal will come. But turning away from the Faith will also happen, as Jesus predicted.

 

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