“Britain is unusually irreligious” what the polls say

There is a lower proportion of religious people in Britain than in 58 other countries according to a 2015 poll.[1]

The number of Britons identifying as Christians has fallen by almost 5% between 2011 and 2016 according to a Lord Ashcroft poll. In August 2016 the percentage stood at 51.4%. The number self-identifying as having no religion has risen from 35.8% to 40.5% in the same period.[2] A YouGov poll put the percentage of Britons with no religion at 47%.[3] In January 2016 weekly Church of England attendance fell below one million for the first time.

However, the polls do not all agree with one another. The 2016 British Social Attitudes Survey shows that the decline of religion in Britain has levelled out. They actually show the percentage is lower, but also shows that there was a 1% rise in Britons describing themselves as Christian (42% to 43%) and a 1% reduction in those claiming to have no religion (49% to 48%). It added that, according to its research, the proportion of Britons describing themselves as Christian is the same as seven years ago. However experts say that this is a temporary halt before the oldest and most religious generation dies out. The number of people claiming to be Church of England dropped from 22% in 2006 to 17% in 2015.

Whichever poll one looks at, the percentage of nominal Christians is very low, and polls of church attendance show a far lower percentage of the population.

Theresa May stirs up controversy over her Christian faith

In a recent interview, Theresa May was asked by a journalist how she dealt with the difficult decisions a prime minister has to make. She responded: “It’s about, ‘Are you doing the right thing?’ If you know you are doing the right thing, you have the confidence, the energy to go and deliver that right message … I suppose there is something in terms of faith. I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.” Her father was a vicar. She attends church regularly.

Bob Morgan “a commentator on society and politics” wrote an article criticising the prime minister for speaking in favour of Christianity. The main significance of the article was to show his embarrassing ignorance of Christianity. It was entitled “Theresa May’s Christianity – Another Way Of Dividing The Country.”

Stephen Evans, Campaigns Director of the National Secular Society commented: “The Prime Minister would do well to remember that she governs on behalf of everyone, including those of minority faiths and of course the majority of citizens who are not religious. While it is fine for Theresa May to have a faith, what she mustn’t do is abuse her position to promote Christianity or impose her own religious values on others.”

Ignorance and uneasiness about Christianity

On the other hand, Baroness Warsi, who was Minister for Faith in a previous government, urged Theresa May to reinstate the post of faith minister which was quietly dropped after the last election. As a Muslim, she said that the decline of Christianity in Britain was having an adverse effect on other faith groups. “I said back in 2012 Europe needs to be sure about its own Christian heritage for me to be able to understand my minority faith and for that heritage to be accurately reflected. It was an argument I consistently made in government. It wasn’t particularly popular in an ever secular society – an ever secular government.”

Sadly, she added a comment showing the hostility towards religion in Whitehall circles. “When I was the minister for faith there was a great catchphrase, they used to call me the minister for fairies, goblins and imaginary friends.”

David Isaac, chairman of the Equalities and Human Right Commission, recently encouraged employers to allow Christmas parties and decoration, sending Christmas cards etc., rather than thinking this was offensive to people of other faiths. He said: “Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right and it shouldn’t be suppressed through fear of offending.”

An editorial in the Guardian laments the fact that people such as David Isaac (and Theresa May) feel they have to say that people should be able to speak freely about their faith and to celebrate it. It says it is a symptom “of a deep unease and confusion about the role of Christianity in British life.” It adds: “The nervousness over Christmas, or even over expressing religious belief, is an absurd expression of a real void at the heart of soulless technocracy [i.e. society controlled by technical experts].”[4]

UN moves to remove compulsory school worship

In June 2016 The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child produced a paper recommending that the government repeals the requirement for compulsory attendance by children at school worship at publicly funded schools. The Rev Nigel Genders, Chief Education Officer for the Church of England responded: “Children flourish when they can develop spiritually and emotionally as well as academically.  We believe time set aside daily to be still, contemplate life’s challenges and learn about faith in action is crucial. It is possible to opt out of collective worship but in our experience this very rarely happens not least because children themselves enjoy this time of the school day.” I am aware that some schools do not really hold public worship and others may not hold helpful worship. But it is sad if children have no experience of worship as part of their education. They are being deprived of an important aspect.

Paranormal activity

Sadly, although there has been decline in religious observance, there is widespread superstition in British society. The growing popularity of Hallowe’en shows this. A recent survey revealed that half of Britons clam they have experienced paranormal activity in their home. One third say they have been frightened by it and one in eight have moved out of a house because of this. One in six claim to have seen a ghost. 62% won’t buy a house near a graveyard.[5]

Atheist beliefs

It is interesting that some atheists believe in life after death.

A survey conducted in 2013 by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture found that 32% of atheist or agnostic Americans believe in life after death and 6% believe in bodily resurrection. (Also 79% of those who are spiritual but not religious also believe in life after death and 17% believe in bodily resurrection).[6]

Also Andrew Singleton, a sociologist of religion at Melbourne’s Deakin University in Australia, did a survey in 2015 and reported: “The analysis reveals that afterlife belief is varied, individualistic and mainly arrived at with little to no reference to orthodox religious teaching. People variously believe in heaven, reincarnation, life on another plane or something more abstract. Those who follow faithfully a religious tradition are largely ignorant of detailed theological doctrines about life after death and like other kinds of believers, exercise their own authority and judgment over matters of belief.”

He found that some believed in heaven, others that some aspect of their being survives death and others believed in reincarnation either as a human or other species.[7]

[1] http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21704836-britain-unusually-irreligious-and-becoming-more-so-calls-national-debate

[2] http://lordashcroftpolls.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/The-New-Blueprint-Full-data-tables-Sept-2016.pdf

[3] https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/08/14/funding-farmers-lose-memory-personal-importance-re/

[4] Editorial: The Guardian view on Christianity in Britain – neither here nor there, Sunday 4 December 2016.

[5] http://www.express.co.uk/news/weird/724495/Haunted-British-homes-paranormal-activity-research

[6] http://relationshipsinamerica.com/religion/do-people-still-believe-in-life-after-death

[7] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13576275.2015.1099521?journalCode=cmrt20&

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, when 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.

Non-religious spirituality

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.”

Conclusion

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.

It should go without saying that our prime concern should be to pray for and, where possible, assist those affected by such traumas. It is, of course, a Christian responsibility to love one’s neighbour. This means we must defend and rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed and set them free; oppose injustice; provide food, shelter, clothing for the needy, hungry and oppressed (Psa 82:2-4; Isa 58:6-10). All this includes the foreigner (Zech 7:9-10). See also what Jesus says in Luke 12:33a and 14:13.

However, there is another reaction we should have to these traumas. The disciples asked Jesus: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3). Jesus replied at length but he first of all mentioned wars, famines, earthquakes and pestilences and he called them “the beginning of birth-pains.” This is a technical term meaning the birth pains of the Messiah, i.e. the traumas which will herald his return. He made it clear that they were early signs. Some Christians regard them as irrelevant but Jesus didn’t and, as you will expect, I’m going to agree with Jesus!

Someone will say: “But these things are always happening and have done throughout history. They will get worse just before Jesus returns (Luke 21:25-28) and it’s only at that stage they will be signs.” However, Jesus makes another very significant statement. He urges us all to keep watch – not at some time in the future but now – day by day.

He says: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matt 24:42-44). He goes on to tell the parable of the ten virgins to confirm his command to watch.

Mark reports him as saying: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:32-37).

How do we keep watch for the Lord’s return? I have noted elsewhere that Jesus wants us to think and live eschatologically. We are to pray regularly “Your kingdom come.” We are to celebrate communion and so “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” We need to live our lives in the light of the coming judgment (a very neglected truth today) and redemption.

Part of this keeping watch is to note the signs “the beginning of birthpains” which Jesus mentions in the immediate context of his command to watch. We must avoid naivety – thinking these very early pointers mean the Lord will come imminently, because many more things need to happen. But we are to see them as reminders of the Lord’s coming. They jog our memory. They help us to keep watch. This would not work if we only think of future signs. The signs will grow in intensity in the future. But we need to notice the lesser signs now.

The Lord’s command to us is to keep watch. Are we doing so, and, if so, how?