The God-shaped hole in our lives

We like to think that religion counts only when we need to choose a good school for our children. Ye

The same thing happens in both the first and second episodes of BBC2's new comedy series Rev. St Saviour's, a run-down inner-city church with usually a tiny congregation, is suddenly filled with newcomers. In the first episode, Reverend Adam Smallbone is baffled by an invasion of rich, middle-class families. In the second, he lends his Sunday service to a fashionable evangelist who fills the place with partying kids and a smoothie bar.

In each case, Smallbone drives out the invad­ers. He will not be corrupted by the money of the aspiring middle classes, who, it turns out, are only there because they want to get their kids into the local C of E school. Nor will he tolerate the cold bigotry that lies not far beneath the surface of the evangelicals' smiles. Instead he will return to his almost empty services and to the maddening eccentricities and demands of his poor parishioners.

The BBC's last comedy take on the Church of England was the unfunny Vicar of Dibley. It was not about faith at all, but about soppy niceness, local "characters" and the mild novelty of a woman vicar (Dawn French). There is no faith involved in the character of The Simpsons' Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, either, nor in Channel 4's Father Ted. Belief has been an encumbrance for comedy priests. But Smallbone is different. He is passionate. He prays intently. His relationship with God is the heart of the matter and we are intended to approve of this relationship.

James Wood, the writer of the series, plainly knows where he stands. In the first episode, builders moon and abuse the vicar, jeering and calling him the vicar of Dibley. Finally, Smallbone loses his temper, rips off his dog collar and tells them to "fuck off". Dibley is dead and religion, it seems, is not quite as far down the BBC's agenda as we thought it was or, perhaps, as the BBC thinks it is.

So is the bien pensant attitude to the established Church - condescension, baffled dis­interest, outright contempt - being revised upwards? Not if you are a footballer. During the World Cup, some of the England team sang the national anthem and some - notably Wayne Rooney - did not. What did they mean by this? That they would not wish well to the Queen, head of the established Church, or they would not bow the knee to God or their country? Or, either way, that they did not belong anywhere? Meanwhile, players from the Catholic countries crossed themselves as they ran on and off the pitch and offered thanks to God for every goal. The English showed no signs of praying to anyone other than their agents, or, in Rooney's case, Alex Ferguson.

Britain, it is commonly said, is a secular society. In strict constitutional terms, this is completely wrong. We have an established church and a national church that embody, in theory, the nation's faith. Legally, we are not just a Christian country, we are a Church of England country and Adam Smallbone is an agent of the state.

But this may reasonably be seen as a relic from another age, an antique eccentricity like Channel 4's Countdown or Bruce Forsyth. The reality is that, except for the odd blip caused by evangelicals and middle-class school-grabbers, fewer people attend church each year - 15 per cent of the adult population attends church regularly. One million churchgoers fell away in the 1990s alone. The fall has slowed thanks to the enthusiasm of some ethnic minorities - roughly half of London's church congregations are black - but the trend is clear: at some point in this century most churches will be empty.

Furthermore, we have become a much more diverse society. What sense can contemporary British Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or even Catholics make of the idea of one local sect being elevated to the highest ranks of the state? Or, perhaps more importantly, what sense can any tolerant, liberal-minded atheist make of it? Religion, thinks the liberal, must be a matter of individual conscience, not of state approval.

This discontinuity produces friction and the occasional flare-up, usually reported with outrage in the Telegraph or Mail. Local councils have been the focus of recent cases. The new lord mayor of Leicester, Colin Hall, dropped prayers at council meetings, announcing his decision in the journal of the city's Secular Society. "I personally consider that religion," he wrote, "in whatever shape or form, has no role to play at all in the conduct of council business. This particularly applies in Leicester where the majority of council members, myself included, do not regularly attend any particular faith service."

Enfield Council, meanwhile, swapped prayers for poems. Anybody still wanting to pray could do so in the mayor's chambers. In Bideford, as is so often the case in Devon, the situation is somewhat different. There the National Secular Society is seeking a judicial review of council prayers, arguing that they are a breach of human rights legislation.

Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, responded by saying Christians should not be "sidelined" for their faith, and attacked the habit of renaming Christian festivals as culturally neutral celebrations. The Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish, became the lead spokesman against the prayer spoilsports. He said prayers are "a public act which reflects the self-understanding of the English nation, and of its governance as being by 'the Queen in parliament under God'". Others can simply say "Amen" if they feel so inclined.

Either Christianity is transcendentally true or it is culturally true as the moral and historical basis of this nation. Either way, prayers are valid. Or religion as a whole is false and this locally elevated sect is an abomination, therefore its rites should be relegated to the private places of the superstitious.

The issues are large, but, let's be honest, their expression in contemporary Britain is comic. This is all more Dibley than Smallbone, squalls in teacups. On the surface, the source of this comedy is obvious. There is simply nothing here to be taken seriously. The Church does not exist in the lives of the overwhelming majority, so both passionate advocacy of prayers and an equally passionate rejection are absurd. But to dismiss the conflict in those terms is to miss the point entirely. Intelligent, sensitive people on both sides do care about these things. This is an argument about something - but what?

The National Secular Society campaigns for the total withdrawal of the state from any religious commitment, connection or sanction. It does so for, it says, democratic reasons and also because the NSS "asserts that supernaturalism is based upon ignorance and assails it as the historic enemy of progress".

This is nonsense. Christianity was deeply involved in the European systematising and cultivation of science and in the continuous economic growth of the past 200 years. This is not to say that it should be so implicated in the next 200 years. Perhaps something else should take its place. This brings us back to the question - but what? The NSS can only offer arm-waving generalities. They feel false because they are unrooted and, therefore, impractical and unpersuasive. Soldiers don't die for democracy or freedom, or happiness or well-being; they die for the guys next to them. They die, in other words, for something much more intimately intangible than anything imagined by the NSS. They die for friendship and, by extension, a culture, a society. Ask any soldier.

The problem with the NSS, as well as today's wave of militant atheists, is that they are defined by negation. They know what they don't want, but what they do want is just the nice, happy things that everybody else wants. Furthermore, they always make the patently false assumption that it is primarily religion that makes people do bad things. Think of your own examples of non-religious evil and then consider that at least the Christian Church nurtured Dante and Titian.

The problem in all these rows is that nobody ever says what they mean by "secular". France is a secular state. It was established specifically to thwart the political ambitions of the Catholic Church. Its revolution was anti-religious. The US is also a secular state. The First Amendment specifically prohibits an established faith. But this was done to protect religion. America remains "one nation under God" and the most religious developed nation on earth. In other words, secularity is not one thing and it is certainly not a simple case of ditching religion.

The further problem is that merely becoming secular in any form does not solve any problems. France felt justified in banning the hijab in state schools because it offended against the established principle of laïcité, the removal of religious signs and practices from all state institutions. Britain has not banned the hijab in schools, because that would offend against freedom. Both freedom and the state's laïcité are secular ideals, but they conflict. Deciding which comes first is not possible within the terms of the system.

It is obvious that with the secular system, as with mathematics, as with anything, you have to stand outside it to make it work. But where and on what do you stand? Asking that question defines the predicament of contemporary Britain in a nutshell.

And in answering the question, it is as well to remember what the word "secular" means. It means, literally, "of the age" and refers to earthly time. God is outside time and, therefore, secular came to mean the things of this world rather than the next. In a climate of belief, this duality is, in the words of the philosopher and the greatest contemporary thinker on secularity, Charles Taylor, an "internal dyad". You cannot have one without the other: each defines the other.

In the climate of unbelief that started in Europe in the 16th century and is now so dominant in Britain, it becomes an "external dyad". You must have one - secularity - without the other, because the other is deemed not to exist.

But the internal dyad, in my terms, serves an obvious and vital purpose. It provides the ground on which you stand outside the system. In effect, it provides the opportunity to criticise all secular systems.

This can be done without resorting to the specifics of a faith. So, for example, rather than banning the hijab in schools by appealing to the authority of specifically secular institutions, the French could have asked themselves what was different about the world today as opposed to the one in which those institutions were founded. They could have stood outside the system, but without standing at the pulpit.

The big difference about today, Taylor argues, is diversity. An institution founded to oppose the dominance of one faith is not necessarily the right one to balance the competing demands of many faiths and a multitude of private convictions. You don't need to be religious to hold an absolute moral point of view that is essential to your identity. Ask any real vegetarian or green. Such convictions - and there are ever more - also make demands of any secular system.

In Britain, we dodge and weave, perhaps because we are, as we have been since the Industrial Revolution, the most modern country. We cannot appeal convincingly either to old secular or ancient religious institutions. We are in the no-man's-land that will one day, if the prophets of secular progress are right, engulf the world. So where will the British run with this ball that is neither French nor American? Much depends on the extent to which we can see the problem.

To his credit, Britain's leading atheist intellectual, Richard Dawkins, does, though perhaps indirectly. In his book Unweaving the Rainbow, he argues against the powerful Romantic idea that scientific explanation disenchants the world. He says the wonders revealed by science are as wonderful and as poetic as anything in the pre-scientific world-view. In other words, he accepts the necessity of wonder itself, an attitude that is, in my terms, non-secular. He is plainly wrong if he thinks science can claim a monopoly of wonder, as his later attacks on religion seem to suggest.

The average Brit seems unmoved. In the public sphere that he inhabits, religion appears as a marginal or absurd intrusion. Alastair Campbell said "We don't do God" on behalf of his boss, Tony Blair. His boss patently did and does, but, in electoral terms, Campbell was fully aware that doing God would be a vote-loser, a sign of, well, weirdness. He was acknowledging demographic reality.

Yet, though I do not wish to hang too much on either the Reverend Smallbone or football, I suspect there is a growing awareness of what we might be in danger of losing. The England World Cup team all too obviously lacked ethos, meaning and community when contrasted with the solemn crosses and prayers of those other, usually Latin, nations. And we are definitely supposed to be on Smallbone's side when he rejects the self-seeking cynicism of the baby-boomer middle class or the savage exclusions of the evangelicals - they want to have one of the regulars banned because he pinches an evangelical's bum.

Rev is spot on with the education issue. As the baby boomers, who never even thought they would grow old, finally face death, they are starting to ask what, if anything, there is to pass on by educating their children in the "best" schools. If any of that involves our great cathedrals or even our history, then the account of Britain as a nation made by Christianity must be included.

Britain is certainly very secular as the word is conventionally understood. Our native churches are marginal and unattended, and appeals to anything larger than ourselves tend to be greeted with howls of individualistic outrage. But Britain cannot be secular, in my sense of the word, because the secular society is at least as dysfunctional, and probably incoherent.

All systems operate by reference to things that are not subject to the rules of the system. Secular time must be tempered by some sense of the timeless. This can be put in the con­temporary terms of network theory. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler write in their book Connected:

One way to make social networks stable is to arrange them so that everyone is connected to a node that can never be removed . . . If God were seen as a node on a network, large groups of people could be bound together not just by a common idea but also by a specific social relationship
to every other believer.

God the node will not, in the foreseeable future, rebuild C of E congregations. But He may rebuild something and define the intangible space in which we begin to make sense to each other. It is either that or bad football, fake faith, shopping and The X Factor. I think I'd be with Smallbone on that one.

Bryan Appleyard's most recent book is “How to Live Forever or Die Trying: on the New Immortality" (Pocket Books, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain