This is based on a “British Social Attitudes” survey which asked a sample of British people whether they regard themselves as belonging to any particular religion and, if so, to which one? The editorial reports “when the survey first asked these questions in 1985, 63% of the respondents answered that they were Christians, compared with 34% who said they had no religion (the rest belonged to non-Christian religions)….In the latest 2010 BSA report…only 42% said they were Christians while 51% now say they have no religion. Admittedly, some other surveys – including the last census – have produced different findings on these issues, usually to the advantage of the religious option.”
And now it is census time again. A copy arrived on our doorstep this week. And, as it did for the first time 10 years ago, so this time around Page 12 includes the (voluntary) question “What is your religion?”
The British Humanist Association argues – reasonably, I feel – that this question is framed in a leading way. They are running a campaign to get out the non-religious vote, so that Census 2011 better reflects what they consider the more accurate BSA results. However, the census question (and the BSA result) also arguably (mis)leads in a way which, if corrected, might disappoint the more strident believers that godlessness is “the way, the truth, and the life”. The question fails to pinpoint what I recently heard author Cole Moreton (“Is God Still an Englishman?”) describe as the 30 million Brits who shun the church but nurture a desire for a spiritual dimension to life that is not satisfied by atheism or humanism.
As he puts it in an article called Welcome to the Church of Everywhere, “The Church of Everywhere consists of all those people who believe in a god of some kind but don’t belong to a religious organisation. Polls routinely show two thirds of us in the UK have faith in a higher power. Take away the three or four million in church each week and four million members of other faiths, and you are left with about 30 million people who believe but don’t belong.”
This still represents a significant shift in the spiritual landscape of Britain away from organised religion but, with respect, not as far away from a God-centric spirituality as a somewhat premature atheistic triumphalism might like to believe.
Having grown up with the perspective of living in a non-Christian household, it has always seemed to me that the decline of the hold that Christianity has over the national psyche is a reaction to the bad rather than the rejection of the good. As my (Jewish) dad once put it, “the trouble with Christians is that they are not Christian enough!” He meant that too often they weren’t living those wonderful qualities that are associated with – although, of course, not exclusive to – genuine Christian practice: love, forgiveness, compassion, empathy, generosity, courage. British people (from a diversity of ethnic, religious, and non-religious backgrounds) still deeply value and express these spiritual qualities.
I would also stand right alongside atheists and humanists in rejecting the very unspiritual practices that have infiltrated organised religion in European history, from the medieval inquisitions which my forbears endured to today’s ongoing resistance to equality in spiritual leadership roles for women.
Given that, why would a sensible, University-educated individual choose to follow a religion in the 21st century? Well, the problem I would have in not following the religion I have felt led to embrace, Christian Science, is that…well, I have indeed felt led to embrace it after multiple profound experiences of the love of God – including physical healing – and despite my own misgivings about all that has been wrong over the centuries with various religious organisations.
There is also something else, though. And that is the fact that a genuinely lived Christianity is absolutely beautiful to encounter. For me, that’s not a dogmatic Christianity. Not a doctrinal type. Not ritualistic or mystical Christianity. But that deeply loving, selfless and spiritual, relentlessly forgiving approach to one and all that strives not to judge others except from the basis of their inherent value as a child of God; that strives daily to better understand and follow the actual example of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels; that sees the spiritual heart of the Bible and endeavours to embody that in day-to-day interactions with others; that heals when others might hurt, that loves when others might hate, that turns the other cheek when others are tempted to turn a cold shoulder.
Mary Baker Eddy – the founder of Christian Science – once described Christians in a way that is not the image of a Christian many hold in thought today, or often read about in national media – whether because of the reporting or because of the attitudes and actions of some more vociferous Christians. She wrote “I became early a child of the Church, an eager lover and student of vital Christianity. Why I loved Christians of the old sort was I could not help loving them. Full of charity and good works, busy about their Master’s business, they had no time or desire to defame their fellow-men. God seemed to shield the whole world in their hearts, and they were willing to renounce all for Him….Their convictions were honest, and they lived them; and the sermons their lives preached caused me to love their doctrines. The lives of those old-fashioned leaders of religion explain in a few words a good man. They fill the ecclesiastic measure, that to love God and keep His commandments is the whole duty of man.”
Today’s challenge for those of us who call ourselves Christian is to find ways to let that 50% of the population who aren’t committed to being either religious or non-religious know that we care…so that they will care what we know. Perhaps what’s needed is less institutional Christianity and more living of those amazing Christian qualities that opens the hearts of others to feeling that “There is a God of total love who totally loves you, and that can heal you and enable you to heal others!”
Perhaps it is an intuitive spiritual yearning for that kind of healing love which led many of the 75% of people who did so to answer “Christian” on the last UK census. And perhaps it will lead them to do so on this one, too!