Britain is fast becoming one of the least religious countries in the world. Although vestiges of the religious establishments that formerly set the pace of British public life still manage to exert power, more and more British people are leaving the faith of their parents behind.
A recent study by the National Centre for Social Research found that more than half of the adult population does not have a religion, but more encouragingly 71 percent of 18-25-year olds report the same thing. Today’s figures show a marked difference from the first survey in 1983, when only 31 percent of the public was a-religious.
But some, of necessity, remain upbeat. In 2016, when staggeringly low attendance was revealed, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, above, insisted that the C o E is:
Still a major part of the glue that holds society together.
In response to evidence that British people are increasingly non-religious, The Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, commented that “‘no religion’ is not the same as a considered atheism […] The Church remains relevant.” And although this statement does hold an important truth, it also, unsurprisingly, obscures another. It would, after all, be remiss for the Church to suddenly admit that sometimes absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
The church once had a monopoly on many things, from licensing sex between a couple to being the gatekeeper to the afterlife. It was sufficiently successful in manufacturing a need for itself that it was very difficult to lead a full life without religion. However, the core messages were very often superfluous, evil or simply incorrect, and had no more special relevance to the lives of medieval peasants or a pious First World War couple than they do to our lives today.
Declining religiosity is of course bad news for the church; in the information age, even people in the most isolated religious communities can read about other faiths, listen to all manner of apostates and discuss ideas that place the importance of religion in precarious position. Not only does the increasing amount of information we have access to seem to erode our willingness to accept the teachings of church leaders, but what we’re looking for in religion doesn’t seem to be quite the product that they are selling. Whilst Church leaders are presumably thrilled by having any attendance whatsoever, this fosters an increasing impotence of religious organisations in pursuing their political agendas.
In reality, the decline of religious belief in the UK rests on a foundation of indifference towards the church. This is not enough to break its power. What we need is a strong, united movement to divest religious leaders of their privileges and the disproportionate influence that their institutions have upon our lives.
In this regard, we have a long, uphill struggle ahead of us.