Religion is in its death throes according to A C Grayling, who was Professor of Philosophy at the University of London. Having a keen interest in astronomy, I wonder what planet he is living on.
There is, of course, a decline of Christianity in Britain and the West but it is arrogant to think that this means Christianity is finished in the world. It is rather old-fashioned colonialism. Christianity is alive, well and growing in many parts of the world, in Africa and China (despite its atheist regime), for example. But he explains claims that religion is growing as “the volume and the irritation and the frustration [being] ratcheted up” by religious people who feel threatened by the decline of religion. This is, of course, wishful thinking on his part as an atheist.
John Gray, Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, said recently that “The vocal fervour of today’s missionary atheism conceals a panic that religion is not only refusing to decline – but in fact flourishing” He pointed out that “The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development. Russian Orthodoxy is stronger than it has been for over a century, while China is the scene of a reawakening of its indigenous faiths and of underground movements that could make it the largest Christian country in the world by the end of this century. Despite tentative shifts in opinion that have been hailed as evidence it is becoming less pious, the US remains massively and pervasively religious – it’s inconceivable that a professed unbeliever could become president, for example.” He added that science cannot determined human values: “None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science. How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.”
Nevertheless we need to take the decline of Christianity in the West very seriously. The question often arises as to whether the UK is still a Christian country. The Pew Research Centre published a report in April 2015 stating that on current trends the percentage of the UK population identifying themselves as Christians will fall from 64% in 2010 to 45% in 2050. Similarly, less than 50% of the population will claim to be Christians in France, the Netherlands, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Australia and New Zealand by 2050. 16% of the world’s Christians will live in Europe but 40% will live in sub-Saharan Africa.
One illuminating indication of the decline of Christianity in the UK is a quotation from Lindsay Meader, Rector of St James’s church in Piccadilly, which has significant number of gay and lesbian members, and chaplain to the Apollo Theatre. She said: “I’ve had people who work in the theatre say: ‘It’s much harder to come out as Christian in the theatre than to come out being gay.’ I think we’ve come to a stage in society where actually it’s easier to come out as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, intersex, than sometimes it is to come out and actually say: ‘I follow a particular religion.’”
Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University has said: “We are living through the biggest religious transition since the Reformation of the 16th Century.” She added: “Western governments will have to work hard to convince the world of the value of liberal democracy and the forms of religion and belief which have supported it, and I am not sure they yet grasp the scale of the challenge.” Even more serious was her comment: “Religions have a natural dynamic towards more sectarian fundamentalist extremes, and we are losing the moderating forces internally and externally that used to regulate and deal with these tendencies, including Parliamentary interest and involvement.”
However Grace Davie, Professor emeritus in Sociology at the University of Exeter wrote: “Looking at the figures, there are the committed religious people, the committed secular people, and in the middle, there’s this grey area. The pendulum is swinging gradually towards the secular end, while everyone is wondering what the growth in Islam will mean. There’s no room for complacency, but there will be a future for Christianity,” she says. It will just be a different future. It will be smaller and more committed, but not necessarily more extreme.”
Caroline Wyatt, Religious Affairs Correspondent at the BBC commented: “That increasing lack of belief is not confined to religion alone, but appears to be affecting almost every other sphere of authority – while new technology allows individuals to access more knowledge than ever before about the world around us, while apparently leaving us no happier. Faith in politicians, government, the mainstream media and in many other institutions has diminished, yet the human search for meaning, identity and principles that unite us as a society has not gone away.”
A recent WIN/Gallup Poll concluded that the UK was 59th out of 65 nations in terms of the proportion of the population self-rating as a religious person. The 2015 Britain Uncovered survey on the attitudes and beliefs of Britons in 2015 found that 61% of Britons associate with a religion but it is only a minority of that group (29%) who actively practise their religion with 21% describing themselves as atheist. 61% of Britons agree with the view that “These days religion is a negative influence in the world rather than a force for good.”
The Christian Concern Easter 2015 Poll conducted by ComRes found that 47% of Britons still think that Britain’s Christian heritage continues to bring benefits to the country today (32% say the opposite). 55% welcome the fact that Easter is a Christian festival (33% don’t). 52% believe that Christians should be able to refuse to act against their conscience without being penalized by their employer. For example 72% think it is wrong that health care workers should be threatened with the sack for offering to pray with patients.
Andrew Brown wrote in April 2015 about the challenge facing the Church of England: “Institutionally, the Church of England is set up to be entirely embedded in the nation around it, from the parish system all the way up to the coronation service. The idea that it could somehow reinvent itself as a religion for outsiders and the marginal may be profoundly Christian, but it is sociologically incredible. The God that the English still more or less believe in is less and less likely to be found in churches, or at least in church services.”
David Cameron wrote in Premier Christianity magazine that Christian values “are the values on which our nation was built” and said he is an “unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country.” However, as I have noted elsewhere, he shows little understanding of the faith when he wrote in a Downing Street press release in June 2015 disapproving of the idea that “religious doctrine trumps the rule of law.”
A YouGov poll at the end of March 2015 recorded the little influence religious leaders have in the UK. Only 28% said they took any notice when religious leaders commented on politics or economics and 23% when they spoke on personal morality.
George Osborne, the UK Chancellor, has announced what will prove to be the end of the present Sunday Trading laws because it will boost the economy.
There are calls for the end of compulsory religious school assemblies. Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romaine said: “Collective worship belongs to a previous century when everyone was religious and everyone was the same religion, but not in multi-faith Britain today, and it is unfair to make children of one faith, or no faith, sit through worship of another faith every day. Collective worship also confuses the role of schools, which are to educate and be objective, and the role of churches, synagogues or mosques, which are confessional and subjective. Faith should come from the home, family and places of worship, but not from the school system, where knowledge and values should be the only task.” Dr Romaine is very liberal and he supports the legalisation of brothels, voluntary euthanasia and same-sex marriage.
In June 2015 The Guardian commented: “Christianity is now only the largest among many contending religions or life stances; among schoolchildren it may not even be the largest any more. In these circumstances, the state cannot mandate the practice of any one religion, nor demand that any one be taught as if it were true. But precisely because they are all contested it is vital that religious education teaches children how to live with others who inhabit entirely different imaginative worlds, whether these are explicitly religious or not.”
In the United States the Pew Research Center found that more than 25% of American men say they are not affiliated to any religion compared with 20% in 2007. 70% of Americans identify themselves as Christian compared with 78% in 2008.
Whereas we must address the serious decline in Christianity in the west, we must not ignore the fact that while many people outside the Christian church reject or disregard religion they do retain their own spirituality. “Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has become a popular phrase. Professor Michael King of University College London estimates that one fifth of British people are spiritual but not religious. A Pew Research Center survey in the US found that one fifth of the population were religiously unaffiliated with 37% of them regarding themselves as spiritual but not religious.
Mark Vernon, who was an Anglican priest but became an atheist, has written a book called “How To Be an Agnostic.” In it he writes: “People associate religious institutions with constraining doctrines, and bad things that are done in the world. That may be outright fundamentalism, the oppression of women or some kind of conflict with liberal values.”
Craig Hospital, a Rehabilitation Hospital in Colorado, says on its website: “Some people use the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ interchangeably, but spirituality is really a broad term; religious ideas and concerns are only a part of a much larger concept. So, while some people’s spirituality is very much related to God or a higher power and might include worship in a church, synagogue, or mosque, for others spirituality may have nothing to do with religion and things like praying or going to church. Some examples of spiritual activities are meditation, traveling, reading, learning or doing something new, focusing on nature, and becoming deeply moved by music.”
Non-religious people can experience awe. Journalist, Oliver Burkeman, writes: “Spirituality I take to refer to things that are not expressible in words. There’s an aspect of human experience that is non-conceptual.” Another journalist, Tom de Castella, writes: “Awe and wonder is how spiritual people often describe their relationship with the world. There’s a sense that life is more than pounds and pence, of work, childcare and the rest of the daily grind … There are moments that seem transcendent in their lives – a beautiful sunset, a football crowd filling a stadium with noise, or a moving piece of music.”
However, it is a cause of concern that Professor Michael King and others produced a report of research which aimed “To examine associations between a spiritual or religious understanding of life and psychiatric symptoms and diagnoses.” It concluded that people who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder such as anxiety or depression.
Atheist Philosopher Julian Baggini comments on the yearning for something more that spiritual people have in his book “The Shrink & the Sage”: “My short reply is that you can yearn for higher as much as you like, but what you’re yearning for ain’t there. But the desire won’t go away.” This is, of course, a statement of faith by Baggini. He cannot prove scientifically that what people are yearning for is not there. In fact, what spiritual but not religious people are yearning for ultimately is God. And they are seeing something of God in creation but not recognising him. As Paul puts it in Romans 1:20, 25: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” but some people “worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.”
Christianity is declining in the West though not in some other parts of the world. Even amongst those who have no interest in religion or the church there is clear evidence of a spiritual yearning for something more and of experiences of awe. The church needs to be imaginative, rather than confrontational, in reaching out to those who are spiritual but not religious. However, the decline of Christianity is very serious not just in spiritual terms but also socially. As Professor Linda Woodhead has warned, it weakens the foundation of liberal democracy.