Just before this year’s anniversary of 9/11 the British Social Attitudes survey on religion was released. The findings were widely reported in the media – partly because they showed the country to be on a declinist trajectory that many observers had noted for decades – and partly because they showed a speeding up of that same trajectory.
As Katie Harrison noted in her column earlier this week, the survey showed that more adults in Britain now identify as being of ‘no religion’ than identify as being part of any religion. At 53%, people of ‘no religion’ now outnumber followers of all the other religions combined. Fall-off in membership in the Church of England appears to have been especially steep with the figures showing that just 15% of adults in Britain now regard themselves as Anglicans (a steep fall from 2000 when half the population claimed to be followers of the national, established church). Among young people the figures are even starker. In the 18-24 age bracket a mere 3% of people said that they were Anglicans, as opposed to 40% among those aged 75 or over.
The optimistic case that a believer might put on this is that young people will grow up to something like the religious affiliation of those older people. Perhaps declinists are at risk of making the same mistake that Joseph Stalin famously made in thinking that the old women in Russia’s churches would die out in time. The mistake being that the old women are always replaced by other old women: there is a constant supply. Yet the fall-off is now so stark, that absent a considerable religious revival in Britain, the trajectory would appear to be irreversible. It would require a considerable form of evangelism to turn that 3% into anything like a majority through the rest of those 18-24 year old’s lives1.
Of course for some people all of this is a subject of celebration. For others a source of great pain. But the one thing which both responses must agree on is the magnitude of the effect that such changes will have.
The principal effect is the way in which it changes the population’s view of what it is, what it is doing here and what its purposes in life might be. Those who are positive about the change acknowledge all this with an accentuation of what they see as the throwing off of religious ‘shackles’. Those more inclined to mourn such change note (among other things) the great break with the language of the past, including the unbridgeable gap in understanding of the literature, art and music of what had been the Western inheritance.
But what is equally important, and what both sides might be able to agree upon is that changes such as these alter the way in which we look out as well as in. That majority of young people who have no interest in religion present a fascinating case-study. For though they may be free to understand themselves better than ever, they may find it harder than any of their ancestors to understand the world. To be religious, or even just to be brought up within religion is at the very least to imbibe a degree of religious literacy. Youth is the best chance that religious literacy – like all other kinds – has of getting to us, or we to it.
Everybody has their own examples of the story I am about to tell. Some will have many of them. But one of the most striking conversations I have had over the last year was with a very brilliant film-maker now in middle age. He knew that I had written about terrorist groups a lot and chose to question me in a spirit of genuine inquiry. “What do ISIS actually want?” he asked. Somewhat startled that he didn’t know, I politely told him that they appeared to want was to invite the world to Islam, engage in a great battle that would herald the end-times and from there achieve paradise.
My conversation partner looked at me as though I was some variety of maniac and then replied, “Well that’s impossible”. I conceded that it was remarkable but not that it was implausible. And I restated their aims again. After which I was told, “That may be what they say but what do they really want?” I tried again in various forms before we eventually agreed that we appeared to be talking different languages. Some of us have had this experience many times by now.
If I had told the undoubtedly intelligent person with whom I was conversing that ISIS were going to continue to do what they were doing until such a time as coalition forces moved out of Afghanistan then we would have understood each other and the group in question. Had I said that ISIS’s main pre-occupation was to campaign for greater environmental awareness in the Arabian peninsula, or a fairer taxation-scheme across the region then this would also have been easy enough for us to discuss and analyse. Their aims were utterly alien to him, however, not just in their outlandishness and undesirability but in their foundations and that even taking them at their word was impossible for him.
Why should anyone wish to die? What kind of cause would regard death as an end in itself? These and many other questions could be answered or understood at any time in history by almost any variety of believer. To the modern secular mindset, however, the world of religious faith appears so impossible to appreciate that it cannot even be taken especially seriously. The religiously untutored mindset looks out at the world and wonders why that world does not come from the same point of view as it does, often concluding that it probably does, but just doesn’t know it yet.
This mistake – this category error – may yet prove to be one of the most striking consequences of the era of non-faith. We may believe our direction of travel to be the inevitable one but what if it is not? Indeed what if this withdrawing roar is the prelude to a far greater returning roar? The religious mind – however reluctant – can consider this, anticipate it and even prevent it. It is only the untutored, inevitable secularist who considers any such talk impossible. At least for now.