The Guardian view on 'post-Christian' Britain: a spiritual enigma | Editorial

The majority of us do not belong to any religion. But for most, atheism is not an option either

A few years ago, one of Britain’s leading sociologists published a fascinating paper on the rise of “no religion” as a self-designation in social surveys. More and more “nones”, reported Prof Linda Woodhead, had declared themselves “in a slow, unplanned and almost unnoticed revolution”. A new cultural majority was emerging with no connection to organised religion.

The most recent census may prove to be a tipping point of sorts in that national journey. The results will not be published for months, but it is being predicted that, for the first time, the number of Britons describing themselves as Christian may dip below 50%. In 2001, when the question “What is your religion?” was first included, the figure was 72%; by 2011 it had fallen to 59%. Meanwhile the proportion of “no religions”, or “nones”, rose from 15 to 25%. These statistics, stark as they are, may significantly underestimate the phenomenon. When the 2018 British Social Attitudes survey asked the less loaded question: “Do you regard yourself as belonging to a religious group?”, only 38% identified as Christian. A whopping 52% said they were “nones”.

For demographic as well as other reasons, the proportion of the British population identifying with minority religions, such as Islam, is likely to continue to rise. But as Christianity’s Holy Week begins, these are sobering considerations for Easter worshippers. And the statistical direction of travel won’t change. Just as Christian belief was once passed down through the generations, the baby boomers’ great rejection of organised religion has gained unstoppable momentum among their millennial children and Generation Z. Post-Christian Britain is now a fait accompli.

What that means for Britain’s spiritual sense of itself is harder to judge. The secular campaigners at Humanists UK rightly argue there are significant implications for religious education and public funding in areas such as pastoral care. In Wales, a landmark Senedd bill passed this month makes space for a new “religion, values and ethics” course, which will include humanism. But in a broader sense, all bets are off.

During her research, Prof Woodhead devised what she called a “Dawkins indicator”, named in honour of Britain’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins. Measuring factors such as hostility to faith schools, she found that though “no religionists” were more socially liberal, only a small minority were militantly secular and less than half considered themselves atheists. The largest bloc was made up of “maybes, doubters, and don’t knows”, plus a group who did believe in God, a higher power or in “something there”. The younger the cohort, the smaller the proportion of atheists.

Which makes the future rather interesting, from a transcendental point of view. Could Britain become post-secular as well as post-Christian? At least a few cultural markers tantalisingly point in that direction. Take, for example, audience engagement with the second series of Fleabag. Intense interest in the illicit love affair between Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s millennial hedonist and a Catholic priest suggested a fascination with how ethical imperatives play out in an individualist age. A taste for the religious sublime has contributed to a startling 21st-century surge in popularity of early Christian composers such as William Byrd and Palestrina. Pre-Covid, pilgrimages were even back in vogue, to an extent that would have astonished Geoffrey Chaucer. The rise of artificial intelligence poses metaphysical questions about the nature of the human soul, as touched on in Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun.

Perhaps the atheist Philip Larkin got to the nub of it 70 years ago, when communal Christian worship still flourished. In his poem Church Going, Larkin wrote that such places have an aura because they satisfy in us “A hunger … to be more serious”. Congregations may have since thinned out, but spiritual hunger is part of the human condition. It will find other outlets and means of expression in the years to come.

Contributor

Editorial

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