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  1. The Weekend Essay
12 February 2023

Britain’s crisis of unbelief

In a nation that binds spiritual and temporal power, will the end of the old metaphysical order threaten the state itself?

By Madoc Cairns

In the autumn of 1969, during the darkest days of the conflict in Northern Ireland, James Callaghan, who was then the Labour home secretary, and the Reverend Ian Paisley, loyalism’s most extreme and charismatic leader, sat down together in Belfast. Struggling to persuade Paisley that civil rights for Catholics posed no threat to the Protestant majority, Callaghan appealed to one of the few commitments the two men had in common: their Christian faith.

“Look here, Mr Paisley,” Callaghan, a ­devout Baptist, is reported to have said, “aren’t we all children of God?”. Paisley, heir to four centuries of Calvinist theology, was horrified. On the contrary, he replied, “we are not”. The meeting became a debate on the order of grace and the nature of salvation. The peace process stalled once again.

The story is apocryphal, as good stories often are. But based on what is known of Callaghan and Paisley, it is possible that it happened. What makes the exchange uncanny is how foreign it sounds, as if it took place in a different country altogether. In one sense it did. The Christian culture of belief the two men shared has almost entirely collapsed.

The Conservative prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is Hindu. From Labour’s foundation in 1900 to its election defeat in 2010, almost every leader professed the Christian faith. Since then, not a single one has. Paisley and Callaghan’s theological debate seems to ­derive not from our immediate past but from the annals of a lost civilisation.

The latest data released from the 2021 census shows that, amongst under-40s, those of no religion outnumber their Christian peers. Amongst twenty-somethings, the trend is even more pronounced with more than 50 per cent having no belief; Christians number just three in ten. A report published in November stated that Christians are now a minority in England for the first time in 15 centuries, a reality that feels less like a death sentence and more like a coroner’s report. The belief-system that shaped every aspect of life – public and private – on the British Isles since the fall of the Roman empire is becoming extinct.

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The speed with which the census data passed from public consciousness was itself testament to just how secular Britain has become. Within living memory most denominations were growing their memberships at a pace unknown for centuries. Six decades on from Christianity’s postwar peak, churches are shuttering at a record rate. The historian Callum Brown has argued that in the 19th century, when Britain remained a fervently religious country, Christianity’s perceived decline led to national outcry. In the 21st century, the UK’s fall into unbelief exercises only a ­minority.

Responses to the apparent decline of religion echo those of the 19th century. Secularists and their critics speak alike in the language of loss; the “long, melancholy, withdrawing roar” the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold heard from the “sea of faith” still thunders in the ear. Non-religious, post-Christian, secular: our terminology is informed by absence. The very structure of the census lent itself to this framework: faith is a box to tick, a single, simple assertion of belief.

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But according to the philosopher Charles Taylor, religion does not work this way. Neither does secularism. Religion isn’t an extraneous attachment grafted on to the day-to-day, but something that constitutes the “social imaginaries” through which we order and understand our lives. Belief isn’t simply a question of what a person believes. Religion isn’t a difference of opinion – a choice amongst other choices – but a radically different way of making sense of the world. In 1500, unbelief was nearly unthinkable; five centuries on, it is axiomatic. For Taylor, it is not our opinion of religion that has changed but the way we interpret reality itself.

It is because of religion’s role in creating shared realities, Taylor argued, that understandings of secularism as a “great subtraction” are flawed. There is no core rationality waiting to be excavated from our social selves; no natural moral order to give structure and meaning to our lives. The materialist, secular world we live in – what Taylor called the “immanent frame” – wasn’t uncovered during the Enlightenment. It had to be invented. “Everything about ‘Western modernity’,” Taylor wrote in A Secular Age (2007), “including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.”

Western societies were never disenchanted, in other words: the conflict between belief and unbelief over the past half-millennia isn’t a story of unbelief’s victory and religion’s defeat. It is a story of mutual transformation. New forms of religion and unbelief proliferate, mutate, cross-pollinate. Secularity doesn’t mark the point where one world-view replaces another but the point where a unified social imaginary collapses altogether. Taylor called this a “nova”: different, sometimes wildly incompatible visions of the world sharing the same social and political ground.

Taylor’s ideas can help us decipher Britain’s own religious past – and its future. In 1500, the social imaginary of British Christians was broadly similar to the worldview of the society they inhabited. The most and least religious Britons shared the same moral universe. Concepts such as grace, sin, heaven and hell were reference points for a religiously-inflected common sense. Even as that alignment weakened, the two worlds overlapped institutionally; in schools, parliament, universities, in ceremonies of state and rites of passage.

By the time Paisley and Callaghan debated the nature of grace, religious disaffiliation had begun in earnest. But belief and unbelief remained mutually comprehensible; sleeping in separate bedrooms, living in the same house. The divorce is now complete. “Nones”, those people with no doctrinal affiliation, don’t just disagree with the religious; they’re unlikely to even understand them. Substantial numbers of under-55s struggle to distinguish Bible stories from the plots of superhero films. And what they don’t understand, they don’t care for: 55 per cent of Britons think religion does more harm than good in the world. More Britons think aliens have visited Earth than have a positive attitude towards religion.

As unbelief changes, so does belief. Christianity isn’t in decline, Taylor thought, so much as it is transforming. A society indifferent to religion gives believers a sense of their own distinctiveness; a hostile one can encourage a sense of collective identity. As Christianity moves from the centre of power to the margins, old incentives to conform to social and political norms disintegrate. The regular slots allotted to Christian figures on radio and TV; or the residual political influence of Anglican prelates, habitually raise the blood-pressure of embattled humanists – and some Tory cabinet ministers. But public platforms are conditional on public goodwill.

A believer who used Thought for the Day on Radio 4 to warn that the majority of human beings are destined for hell – historically a mainstream Christian belief – wouldn’t be invited back to present again. Twenty-six bishops sit in the House of Lords, but they rarely act as a coherent bloc – or vote at all.

Social privilege breeds social conformity; a post-Christian Britain might find the opposite is true. Someone with no stake in the cultural and political mainstream is someone with no love for it. As old institutional ties weaken and disappear – and as British Christianity becomes a religion of immigrants and ethnic minorities – movement between the believing and unbelieving worlds will slow; perhaps halt altogether. Christians will be poorer, less powerful, less numerous than ever before. And likely more extreme.

[See also: Christians can’t blame anyone else for the decline in belief]

As the theologian Linda Woodhead argues, for the past half-century fundamentalism has been rising in almost every major British church. Pope Francis’s pontificate has been defined less by his own reforms, such as relaxing rules on the reception of communion, or tightening restrictions on the Latin Mass, than by the strength of opposition he has provoked amongst traditionalists. Under Justin Welby’s term as Archbishop of Canterbury, the influence of evangelicals over the Church of England has prompted accusations of a “hostile takeover” by low-church activists reshaping Anglicanism in their own image.

Such claims are overstated. What is true is that Anglicanism’s few modern success stories – in conversions and fundraising – are found in evangelical congregations. Success buys influence. Headlines about woke clerics and gender-neutral prayer occlude how effectively evangelicals have forced compromise on Anglicanism’s liberal mainstream.

With the end of the Church of England’s status – and funding – as the state church now a foregone conclusion, the most ­conservative elements of the Church of ­England are the best placed to survive the ­collapse of her old institutional power.

That institutional power is already being undermined by believers themselves. Small pentecostal congregations are growing as traditional denominations fade. Alienated from their own leadership by abuse scandals and doctrinal disputes, those Christians remaining in the old hierarchical institutions are often self-taught: formed by the internet before they’re led by their pastors. Top-down models of “community leadership” beloved by New Labour are still appealed to, but with diminishing returns: the generals have fewer and fewer armies between them, and the troops are growing mutinous.

And with the decoupling of Christians from their institutions, traditional barriers enforced by church leaders, between laity and clergy, or religion and politics, have begun to dissolve. Thirty years ago, an Anglican layman who was ordained by a breakaway sect, having been refused ordination by the hierarchy of the Church of England, would be at best considered a crank; at worst a spiritual danger. But Calvin Robinson – the 37-year-old GB News host, Free Church of England deacon and right-wing commentator – has been feted by conservative Christians; the opprobrium of Anglicanism’s leadership considered a mark of distinction, not cause for shame. Robinson’s mixture of clerical attire and culture-war politics is as much a product of secularism as the average unbeliever.

Although it is a rising trend in Britain, political Christianity is unlikely to achieve the electoral success here that it enjoys in the US. But the American case – where a rapidly secularising society has, counter-intuitively, created a deeply religious politics – illustrates the contradictory, creative process of secularisation that Taylor described. And Taylor’s “nova” might still change British politics. After all, as the Catholic philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote in his 1981 essay “Anxiety About God in A Ostensibly Godless Age”, the crisis of faith is also the crisis of unbelief. In a nation where spiritual and temporal power is tightly bound together; where the crown still rules with an authority derived explicitly from God, the end of the old metaphysical order threatens the end of the British state itself.

A few months before the census results were released, shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth, Keir Starmer – as steadfast an unbeliever as Callaghan was a Baptist – led the Labour Party conference in singing the national anthem. Imploring a God he doesn’t believe in to bless a monarchy he hasn’t always liked, Starmer almost certainly thought nothing of it. In the moral universe he inhabits, words are just words; they don’t ultimately matter. Ian Paisley saw things differently. On the contrary, he might say to Starmer: ultimately, they’re the only things that do.

[See also: The rise of non-religious Britain]

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere