It has been reported that nearly half the population of England and Wales now considers itself to have “no religion”. This sudden rise – from 25% to 48.5% over just three years from 2011 to 2014 – seems a bit too steep to be totally credible. But then, the last survey in Scotland put the proportion of “nons” at just over half (52%). Even if we approach these figures with some scepticism, it is still sobering news for churches and other religious communities. So what explains it, and what does it mean for the future of religion in the UK?
You could account for some of this on the basis that people these days are not “joiners”: they don’t practise things in public, especially when these things take up precious time. Golf club membership is likewise in decline. Or, it could be that people are making things clearer about where they stand: they’ve found something else – whatever that might be – and religion no longer occupies that space.
Religion, it seems, comes from the Latin “re-ligere”, which has to do with “tying” and “binding”. And people don’t like to be bound: they feel they have enough ties – such as family commitments, working, paying taxes and giving to charity – without adding another one by taking up religion.
Moreover, to take the Christian Church more specifically, religious institutions have an image problem: rarely at the cutting edge of fashion, usually two paces behind. It has also had its fair share of scandals, from the clerical abuse of minors, to its long-running divisions over human sexuality.
Yet most people would acknowledge that the church does a lot of good: the care homes it runs, the charitable work it quietly does, the donations and care packages it sends to many far-off places, and its leaders, who often sound the voice of peace and moderation at times of public and international crisis. The prayers and the piety of that religious woman next door is normally welcomed, rather than despised.
It’s just that religion doesn’t seem very useful, very aspirational, very necessary for getting on, in life, in work, in love. If anything, it complicates things. And yet, the Christian gospel (if I can reach for an example in the area I know best) combines the virtues of a reflective life with a life of actions done with other people, modelling charity amid disagreement. Faith can integrate a life, on the basis that one is known and loved by the One who gave one life and gives life to all things, who always comes amid suffering and human wickedness to call us back to himself.
I wonder how much this “religion for life” – as something which binds wounds and ties the fragmented and diverse bits of our lives together, giving them focus and enduring direction – is something that people are aware of, when they think of religion (assuming that they ever do).
No small end in sight
All this does not mean that religion needs to end small, even if it is likely that, as numbers decline, the church will increasingly be rooted in smaller communities and smaller buildings, helping to accentuate the personal aspect of church, while being a place for sacred worship and still space.
When it talks, it will still speak with a voice neither shrill nor faltering; it will seek to weigh traditional values and structures together with new insights and modern demands. For instance, the Church of Scotland ordained its first woman minister in the 1960s, just as women were first becoming business chiefs and political leaders.
It will seek to spot what in any given social trend is to be affirmed, and what is to be denied. It will ask questions, represent other viewpoints, try to be a cradle of wisdom and cool heads with warm hearts, with the confidence that comes from knowing that my career, my health, my family are not everything, even while they are valuable gifts. It won’t pontificate, but will witness clearly to the truth as it has been revealed to it, not by claiming to own it, but pointing away from itself towards it. It won’t always be hard and it won’t always be soft.