Where is the faith? 1 May 2013

Is religion becoming toxic in contemporary Britain?

Is the Christian tradition becoming obsolete in British society? The rise of humanist rationalism and declining numbers of believers

Oatmeal Web Comic

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suggest the Christian faith in Britain may be waning. Certainly census figures would suggest as much.

Where the church once held the population in thrall to its morality, it has recently suffered a number of slights to its integrity, from on-going internal and external challenges, to stances on homosexuality and abortion, to sex-scandals and accusations of improper behaviour.

Although sometimes divided ecumenically, Christianity in general is becoming less common as an identity marker and less common in terms of numbers too (although some Christian traditions are certainly growing).

It would appear then perhaps that the moral authority of the various Christian churches is in slow decline. Does this decline mean a loss of belief, or a shift in the contours of what religion means in Britain?

Popular discourse on religion offers examples of its decline beyond pure statistics. For example, popular online comic The Oatmeal, recently posted a cartoon that derived its humour by playing with religion’s perceived deficiencies. Titled ‘How to suck at your religion’, it picked out the weaknesses of various religions from hypocritical and judgmental stances to a perceived inability to cope with novel scientific breakthroughs; from their de-rationalisation of politics to taking a swipe at the Islamic faith’s aversion to pictorial representation (Caption: ‘Are you so dangerously extremist that even a silly web cartoonist can’t draw a picture of your prophet without fearing for his life?’).

If one is to take The Oatmeal and similar internet trends at their word, then religion is dogmatic and inflexible, reminiscent of robes, altars and blindness to the prerogatives of modern society. But is this a fair portrayal of contemporary religion, even if it persists in the hive-mind of the internet as a foregone conclusion?

If we must ask where this decline may have come from, one might ask if it is because of a certain lack of sympathy between the zeitgeist and the more conservative branches of Christianity. Particularly the Catholic church, but often other churches, have strong stances that run contrary to mainstream moral discourses. To take only one example, churches are often involved in the dissemination of the pro-life message. Yet for many, abortion is something that has become normalised in many cases: from unwanted pregnancies through termination for medical reasons, it has become a healthcare option and a late notice contraceptive option. So for many, Christianity – in its conservatism – can be appear out of step.

Interesting in this respect is an open letter, disseminated across the internet, from an anonymous retired nurse to the Archbishop of Westminster. In this, the Catholic church is admonished for favouring ceremony and grandeur over the simplicity and morality of the Christian texts. It would appear perhaps then that in a world of extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty, the Catholic flock does not appreciate the pomp with which it is associated with.

One might ask, this exception aside, if this conservatism is the result of a generational shift in attitudes. Whilst this may be generally true, societally speaking, it is not a sufficient explanation for the drop in support of the Christian faith. Therefore, it is worth going beyond this assertion and looking at some of the further changes in the landscape of British religion.

While the Christian faith faces problems connecting with contemporary issues and struggles to react to changing thought landscapes, there has been a surge in support for atheism. Certainly the atheist camp has recently found a great many outspoken champions, from Ricky Gervais to Alain de Botton. It has seen a surge in popularity and a general vindication as a position – as one can see from the popularity of such God-bashers as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Indeed, the zealous rationalist has become a stable figure in religious discourse.

But with the greater growth of the atheist camp, there is also a curious growth in the mystification of atheism and indeed the beginnings of something that looks rather like a religion. One can cite the ten principles of Alain de Botton (resilience; empathy; patience; sacrifice; politeness; humour; self-awareness; forgiveness; hope; confidence) that form his Manifesto for Atheists. Or perhaps, the intriguing formation of an atheist ‘Church’, which is more properly by its organisers known as the Sunday Assembly. At the first Assembly, over 300 people crowded into a deconsecrated church in London and although this has faced a backlash from those who see this as contrary to the rationalism on which the atheistic position is generally based, it presents a curious trend towards the structures of the church. Indeed the organisers of the Sunday Assembly voluntarily and deliberately mimic the structures of the church and its service, yet with a content derived equally from mass culture, science, literature and comedy.

The central tenet of the Assembly is to ‘live better, help often, wonder more’. Yet, Sanderson Jones, co-founder of the Sunday Assembly, in conversation with the Rationalist Association, is well aware of criticisms that the Assembly poses issues for atheism. Particularly, this argument runs that atheism is contradictory because it is now a religion, despite its foundation being a rejection of religion.  Contrary to this, Jones argues that he wishes to learn from the church, only without the supernatural content:

“We want to learn loads of things from religion but learn it in an evidence-based manner. People pray and feel good. Why is it that believing in God helps athletes perform better? But what is happening then? What is the power of internal enquiry? What’s the way to do it best? Our goal is to collect the best evidence-based tips, tools and techniques from all sources that will help turbo-charge your life.”

empty churchStill, why this curious retrenchment of ritual in the midst of a rationalist movement? An explanation for this revival of a facsimile of religious behaviour may be found on sociological territory. Indeed, any anthropologist worth their salt, and many Durkheimian sociologists, would attest to the power and importance of rituals in holding together societies.

The work of Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, may also shed some light. Woodhead recently oversaw oversaw the Religion and Society project, one of the largest projects researching faith in the UK in recent history. What she has highlighted in conversation with Nick Spencer (watchable on the Vimeo website) is the inherent community and tribalism of human societies. This is something Woodhead sees as fundamental in contemporary approaches to religion. In this respect, this is to suggest a flexible approach to contemporary belief that relates less to a strict adherence to a religious line and more to a voluntary and flexible approach to faith, based in the ritualization of everyday life.

What Woodhead’s work would suggest is that the situation is more complex than religion becoming obsolete. Although Christian ‘identity’ appears to be in decline, rituals would appear to not be. Woodhead argues that there is an increasing ritualization of everyday life. In conversation with Nick Spencer, Woodhead cited a number of examples of this, including the increase in importance of engagement parties or baby showers, and the growing instances of celebrating life events such as leaving high school.

Furthermore, religion could be a means of finding a moment of peace in an increasingly connected world. Woodhead suggests that, free from the shackles of rigidity, religion or rituals of any form can be an escape from the pace of contemporary life and indeed increasingly religion is approached in a pick-and-choose manner, depending on the individual’s wishes.

This bears resemblance to sociological thought that considers the twenty-first century as an era of self-building, something Anthony Giddens has referred to as the reflexive self. In brief, this refers to the individual’s conscious effort and ‘work’ in building identity in our century, rather than it being given by pre-existing social structures, like religion or politics.

So is perhaps this loose approach religion becoming a facet of such cherry-picking? Are the actions of free, reflexive individuals moving away from given templates but choosing that which suits them best? Apart from criticisms regarding the actual freedom of individuals to build identities or religious frames, and the contradictions inherent in cherry picking aspects of religions that are built as holistic world-views, this loose approach is perhaps indicative of an environment of greater flexibility that contemporary society is breeding.

However, one mustn’t ignore the Census results that suggest that some religions are growing. The soaring growth in the number of atheists (from 15% in 1991 to 25% in 2011) is perhaps most noticeable but there was also growth in the numbers of Muslims, Buddhists and other minority religions.

If the church needs to be more humble and less dogmatic, but atheism is seeing a resurgence in the ritual aspects of religion; we are left with a muddled picture of contemporary religion in shifting times. With the growth of minority religions, there is perhaps a fracturing of the traditional alignments of faith and a willingness to build one’s own community and ritual structures. Religion is however far from done with, even if the term itself appears to be becoming pejorative.

In Woodhead’s terms, ‘Religion has become a toxic word, it means dogmatic, narrow minded and so forth’; however our ritualistic behaviour continues. Whether this manifests in Easter church attendance, engagement parties, Bar Mitzvahs or even high school proms, ritualistic performances continue. They give shape and meaning to events.

So while the world around organised religion may be changing, ritual behaviour is not disappearing. The question then is not simply how many have faith in the UK, but where this faith is located in the busy lives of its citizens.

About Helen Traill

Helen Traill was born and raised in Edinburgh, having graduated in Sociology from both Durham and Edinburgh Universities. Helen continues to find opportunities to think, write and talk about the workings of the world and the ways we might understand it.

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