Should we care that Britain’s lost its religion?

Should we care that Britain’s lost its religion? by Daniel Finkelstein.

On Monday the National Centre for Social Research published data revealing that the proportion of people in Britain who describe themselves as having no religion has reached its highest level: 53 per cent. And only 15 per cent of people regard themselves as Anglican.

This has been coming for a while. Thirty years ago, the political satire Spitting Image showed a man knocking on a door, announcing he was from Jehovah’s Witnesses and asking: “Do you believe in God?” The reply was: “No. I’m Church of England.” Now people don’t bother with the second part of this answer. Yet, gradual though it has been, it is hard to overstate how big a change this represents in our national and political story. …

In some ways this is a liberation. It means no longer having to accept restrictions on social behaviour and arbitrary discrimination because of an unprovable claim that an invisible deity did or didn’t approve. To review, say, the role of religion in the politics of Ireland is a dispiriting experience. And you don’t have to be a student of history to discover that claims of religious supremacy were used to deny many groups, such as Jews and Catholics, fundamental civil rights.

When advancing liberal causes that mean a lot to me — gay rights, abortion rights, assisted dying — it has often been the case that the church and other religious groups have been the main source of opposition. It is powerful to be able to point out that while faith must be respected, it is no longer the mainstream and cannot expect to carry all before it.

Yet there is more to be said than this. The decline of religion is not only a liberation. There is a troubling aspect to it too. …

It is at least possible that the decline of religion will leave a hole that will be filled by something worse, rather than something better. Extreme nationalism, for instance, might provide an alternative sense of belonging for many. It has been persuasively argued that fascism emerged as an alternative religion. And Bolshevism certainly had similarities.

On a more prosaic note, the decline of religion threatens the survival of important social institutions that give comfort to the vulnerable and the sick and help create a sense of community. I belong to such a community myself, and value it more than I can say.

I am not arguing that charity, community and fellow feeling are impossible without religion; only that we are living through a time of great change and should appreciate that we are. And that this change represents a very serious challenge.

Britain was a Christian country. And now it isn’t. That’s not something we can just overlook.

hat-tip Stephen Neil