It is clear that there is a widespread disinterest in or antagonism towards religion in the western world. A report from the Pew Research Centre conducted in April 2015 showed that just 21% of British people regard religion as very important in their lives. Only some 20% of English people claim to be Church of England nowadays compared with 40% in 1983. China, France, Japan, Russia and South Korea are the only countries less religious than Britain.
However research carried out in 2015 by the Barna Group and ComRes found that 57% of people in England identify as Christians (9% are practising) and 43% of people believe in the resurrection.
A 2015 YouGov survey discovered that in Britain 14% of men and 6% of women believe they are destined for Hell. 48% believed they would go to heaven.
In the United States 23% of the population are unaffiliated religiously compared with 16% in 2007. 89% believe in God. 53% say religion is very important to them and 50% attend worship at least monthly.
It is interesting that Jonathan Freedland, Executive Editor of The Guardian, wrote an article in September 2015 in which he said that people like Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne and H G Wells would not have anticipated that religion would still be very much around in the 21st century. He added that their “prediction of the future proved wrong: faith is still here, apparently stronger than ever. For that reason alone, for the role it plays in shaping our world, religion has to be taken seriously – more seriously than Dawkins-ite atheists, who dismiss it with talk of ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ or ‘sky-pixies’ will allow … It cannot be explained or justified in the clear, stainless-steel language of pure reason. Some of it is absurd and bizarre. But you might as well ask a man why he supports this football team rather than that one. Ask a woman why she loves this man rather than that one. Reason is what separates us from the animals. But it does not account for all that makes us human.”
Many people now call themselves “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Science doesn’t satisfy the way many people feel about the universe. They experience awe, wonder and mystery, perhaps inspired by a beautiful sunset or moving music. They are not able to express these feelings in words. Professor Michael King of University College, London says about 20% of people in the UK are spiritual but not religious. In the West our enhanced physical quality of life has created spiritual hunger. Since the 1990s do-it-yourself spiritualities (“New Spiritualities”) have come to the fore, emphasising personal transformation and therapeutic healing. In terms of spiritual activity, spiritual but not religious people may be involved in meditation, focusing on nature or becoming deeply moved by music
So the picture is certainly not simply one of secularisation. Spirituality is alive and well alongside religion.
Britain no longer a Christian country?
David Cameron is clear that Britain remains a Christian country. In his 2015 Christmas message he said “we celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace. As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”
However in 2015 the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, convened by the Woolf Institute and chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss, published a report “Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good.” It concluded that the UK is no longer a Christian country and that public life should therefore become more pluralist (multi-faith). The next Coronation should be multi-faith and some of the bishops in the House of Lords should be replaced by leaders of other religions. Schools should no longer be required to have collective worship.
The demise of the Church of England?
In October 2015 Simon Jenkins wrote an article entitled “England’s churches can survive – but the religion will have to go.” He referred to a report that over 25% of churches have less than 20 worshippers on a Sunday. He added: “Like millions of people, I don’t go to church, but I do go to churches -85% of the public visits a church every year. We regard them as the community’s ritual forum, its museum, its art gallery, its concert hall, its occasional retreat for peace, consolation and meditation.” This, of course, is additional evidence for spirituality in society.
Jenkins believes that churches should be handed over to local councils to be used for various purposes (village shops, farmers markets, Wi-Fi cafes, sub-post offices) and “The chancels could be allotted to local worshippers of all faiths.”
He concludes: “The secularisation of churches has been a long time coming. The reason is because the nationalised Church of England, so avid to reform others, is so averse to reforming itself. It wants public money for its upkeep yet closes its doors to other faiths.” (For the record the C of E does not receive any public money. Also some congregations, including small congregations, are growing).
Religious views can be ignored
In September 2015 the British parliament discussed a bill to allow Assisted Dying. Before the debate an editorial in The Independent stated that the debate should “be conducted on purely secular and not religious terms, drawing on the considered advice of the medical profession and of others directly involved in caring for the very ill. If the clergy want to weigh in again, so be it, but that does not mean MPs should attribute any particular force to their views.”
I am aware that in a democracy the majority opinion rules and that majority may be secular. But it is a sad evidence of the decline in Christian belief that such a statement should be made. As it happens the bill was rejected by 330 to 118 votes.
Religious education challenges
In November 2015 Mr Justice Warby said that the Education Secretary made an ‘error of law’ when she stated that the GCSE due to come into effect in September 2016 would “fulfil the entirety of the state’s RE [religious education] duties”. Three families supported by the British Humanist Association had taken the issue to court saying that teaching atheism must be included in RE.
The judge said: “It is not of itself unlawful to permit an RS GCSE to be created which is wholly devoted to the study of religion.” But the assertion that the new GCSE “will fulfil the entirety of the state’s RE duties” was incorrect.
The Education Secretary sidestepped this judgment and produced a document which said RE should “reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian” and that “there is no obligation on any school to cover the teaching of non-religious views.”
The government also said that “Schools should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” But “It is not necessary for schools or individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own, but nor is it acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background.”
However, Andrew Brown, writing in The Guardian makes an interesting point. He says: “Humanism gains its strength in Britain today because it is not taught. Instead it is simply assumed to be the only rational ground on which decisions could possibly be made. The tenets of humanism are taken to be facts, while other moral or metaphysical positions are simply beliefs. Humanism is approached in a completely ahistorical way, much as devout Muslims approach the Qur’an, as if it had no roots and could never be superseded by any other belief system. Teaching humanism as a belief system alongside Christianity, Islam or Hinduism is the first step towards getting people to notice that this is what they actually believe (and so are free to disbelieve).”
I certainly believe schools should teach that humanism is a belief system, as Brown says, rather than the only rational ground of thought.
BBC Cuts to religion
The BBC is making significant cuts to its religious broadcasting and has been criticised for side-lining faith at a time of massive global upheaval. The Bishop of Norwich criticised it for doing this at a time when we “need – as everyone acknowledges – more religious literacy in the nation.”
The government is in favour of giving local authorities freedom to extend working hours on a Sunday which is another sign of secularism as well as the tendency to put economic advantage above more important considerations. 64% of local authority executives in England and Wales favoured such extension. However the Union of Shop, Distributive, and Allied Workers (USDAW) revealed that 91% of retail staff in large stores are opposed to longer opening hours on Sunday, primarily because of the potential detrimental effect on their family life.