At the end of last week the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmed gave a damning appraisal of the current state of religious understanding in Britain. ‘The public has such “poor religious literacy” that a modern audience would be baffled by the Monty Python film The Life of Brian – because it would not understand the Biblical references’.
Ahmed, in an interview with the Independent claimed that failings in religious education over two generations were undermining public understanding of contemporary national and international issues. “You had generations that missed out. We have poor religious literacy in this country and we have to do something about it,” he said.
Certainly if you spend time with children and teenagers discussing religion and belief, you will quickly appreciate that this is undoubtedly the case. The recent withering Ofsted report on the state of religious education in schools is a reminder of this, but this needs to be appreciated in the context of Ahmad’s comment that this has been an ongoing issue for generations and is in no way a recent phenomenon. Schools should take some of this blame. RE has too often been considered a poor relation to other subjects for years despite being compulsory. But much of the blame should be placed at the feet of successive governments and the national curriculum which has required schools to teach the understanding of religion and faith in an incoherent and piecemeal way for quite some time.
Is it really fair though to blame education for the decline in religious knowledge? Surely schools cannot be expected to fill a role that parenting and the churches have neglected. As interest in religious faith has waned over the decades, the churches have done precious little until fairly recently to address this. Through a lingering form of cultural Christianity especially tied to Anglicanism we have been mislead into thinking that health of the Christian faith in this country is in a far better state than is actually the case for too long. It is of little surprise that we are now seeing a marked drop in those professing to be Christian in national surveys and the Census as many who have considered themselves Christian by birth die off and are replaced by those brought up in households with little if any attachment to a faith.
So where does this leave our increasingly godless generations? The growth in those describing themselves as non-religious may be read by some that atheism is fast becoming the approach to belief (or lack of it) of choice, but the reality is far more complex.
On the day before Aaqil Ahmed’s piece in the Independent, the Christian think tank, Theos released a report entitled The Spirit of Things Unseen: belief in post-religious Britain, which sought to understand the nature and types of spiritual belief held by those who do not align themselves to a recognised religion as well as for those who do.
The poll carried out by ComRes found that only 13% of adults – and only 25% of the non-religious – agree with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. 61% of the non-religious believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means”, 34% believe in some form of spiritual being or beings and 19% pray at least occasionally. On the flip side of this, of those describing themselves as Christian, 25% said they never pray, only 38% believe in Heaven and just 18% believe in hell. Given that these are key elements to the Christian faith, it implies that there are still plenty of people who call themselves Christian without any great understanding of what this literally means. Perhaps Nelson Jones’ analysis of the findings in his New Statesman article is an appropriate way to sum up the current spiritual climate:
‘We could well, in fact, be looking at the kind of “benign indifference” that Kate Fox, in her bestselling Watching the English, identified as the default national response to matters of spirituality and religion. Theos can portray their findings as a challenge to the New Atheists, imagining that they are on a mission to convert a naively believing world to godless materialism (as a minority of them, perhaps, are). But if anything it’s even worse news for traditional religion. It seems that the churches have shed their congregations despite the fact that atheist materialism remains a minority taste. What this suggests is that much of religion’s former success derived from social convention rather than inherent human spirituality, which can survive anything, including disbelief in God.’
There is however a further point that should be added. The Theos survey would appear to suggest that for many there is a natural inclination towards spirituality at some level. Overall the proportion of people who are consistently non-religious – i.e. who don’t believe in God, never attend a place of worship, call themselves non-religious, and don’t believe in life after death, the soul, angels, etc. – was very low, at about 9%. With the decline in those aligning themselves to a religion, we might expect to see a similar decline in spiritual beliefs, but the survey’s findings do not bear this out. The over 65s are noticeably more likely to have religious beliefs but below that there is little difference between the age groups. In fact those under 45 are much more likely to believe that they have experienced a personal miracle.
All of this leads to something of a paradox for the Church and the Christian faith in this country. It is by far the most popular religion and those who see themselves as Christian outnumber those who do not by some way. And yet when it come to talking about the Christian faith, though many would accept there is a spiritual side to life they have no framework to hang this off that has any substance or Biblical basis. For them Christianity has not been rejected; rather, it is a mystery.
We are now living with the consequences of the Church’s past failures to be an effective witness, but the result now presents an opportunity for it to reach out to a people who still crave something more than just a physical existence. The message of the Good News of Jesus is just as powerful and beautiful as it ever was. The challenge for the Church is learning once again how to effectively return to its roots as a missionary community in a society that has forgotten what it is looking for.