‘Beginning of the end’ for Western religion

Losing faith: For Richard Dawkins, God gives “answers which are not answers at all.” © Getty

Should we care that organised religion is dying out in Western societies? A survey published earlier this week revealed that levels of religious belief in Britain are at an all-time-low.

In the last 100 years Britain has changed beyond recognition. It has won two world wars, lost a global empire and constructed a vast welfare state. Yet according to a recent article in The Spectator, “perhaps the biggest single change in Britain over the past century” is something completely different: the decline in religion.

A report published this week suggests that this decline is happening across the West. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) revealed that 53% of Britons and 22% of Americans describe themselves as having no religion. In the UK, this is the first time that non-believers have outnumbered religious people.

What could explain this? Studies have found that many people are reluctant to commit to organised religion. For example, a survey carried out in the USA in 2012 by the Pew Religion and Public Life Project found 37% of those polled said they were “spiritual but not religious”.

It is clearly possible to keep society together without religious institutions: 72% of all marriages in England and Wales in 2013 were civil ceremonies. And yet many charities and primary schools in Britain still rely on the support of organised religion.

Yesterday in The Times, Daniel Finkelstein suggested that the decline of religion could create a hole which is filled by anything from extreme nationalism to Bolshevism. Alternatively, Nick Spencer from the Christian think tank Theos has said that this hole may simply leave society “less unified and welcoming”.

For young people especially, James O’Malley argues that technology could fill that void. “Isn’t Apple the real religion these days?” he wrote on the website Gizmodo. “By the time everyone’s grandparents have moved from the pews into the graves surrounding the church, the closest thing we might get to blessing the meek might be giving them a thumbs up on Facebook Messenger.”

God is dead

“This is great news!” cry some. There is no place for religion in modern society. Just look at all the harm that institutional faith can do. It has inspired countless wars throughout history, killing millions of people. Even today, radical groups like ISIS show us that religion can be twisted to justify unimaginable evil. It is obvious that we can live in a civil way without religion. The world is better off without it.

“You’re wrong,” argue believers. Religion brings reassurance and comfort to millions of people suffering from illness and poverty. In addition, churches give people a place to make friends, and help them feel like they belong to a community. Religion was also a big motivation for some of our greatest heroes: Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce and Harriet Tubman. It is a force for good.

You Decide

  1. Do you think religion is more useful than it is harmful?
  2. It is 2067, the year which The Spectator suggests will be the end of Christianity. Has society changed for the better?

Activities

  1. Make a pros and cons list of the impact of religion on people’s daily lives.
  2. Carry out your own survey amongst people you know, asking whether they would describe themselves as having a religion. Try and ask as broad a range of people as possible (for instance: people of different ages, genders, jobs). Share your findings with your class.

Some People Say...

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Blaise Pascal, 17th century French theologian

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Over 50% of British people now say they do not have a religion, according to the recent NatCen British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA). Young people in the West are the least likely group to be religious, with only 45% of 18-30 year-olds in the USA claiming to have no doubt about the existence of a god.
What do we not know?
What the main reason for this decline is. Some have argued that it is due to each generation being less religious than the previous one. Others claim that it is due to failing confidence in the church, or controversies involving the church, or the belief that the church is out of touch with the values of a modern society.

Word Watch

Welfare state
Britain became a welfare state in the 1940s when it created the National Health Service (NHS), based on the principle of medical care for all, free at the point of contact, and began offering benefits like child support.
First time
This is the first time that more than 50% of Britons say they do not have a religion. The same survey carried out in 2015 revealed that 48% of Britons do not identify as religious.
Civil ceremonies
Non-religious marriage ceremonies.
Extreme nationalism
Extreme devotion to your country and its leader, leading you to believe that your country is better than others.
Bolshevism
A form of communist government adopted in Russia in 1917
Martin Luther King
King campaigned for civil rights in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s.
William Wilberforce
A campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade in early 19th century Britain.
Harriet Tubman
Tubman helped the fight against slavery in the American civil war of the 1860s.