The biggest stories are often those that are most weirdly underplayed. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, said recently that Christianity in Britain was “almost vanquished”. The response was little more than a muted murmur from sundry columnists and leader writers and a routine confrontation on Newsnight. And yet the words, coming not from some Anglican trimmer but from a full-blooded prince of the Roman Catholic Church, were astounding. They implied that Britain was about to become a post-Christian society.
Maybe, you could argue, the Cardinal was just being realistic. Only 7 per cent of the population currently attend church and the graph slopes relentlessly downwards. In 20 years, the figure will be 1 per cent. In spite of the high-profile – and currently televised – efforts of the evangelical Alpha course, Christianity is about to become a marginal sect.
To a large extent, it already is. Thanks to our education system, young people know almost nothing of the faith. I have spoken to some of those who saw the light through Alpha. Before attending the course, all they knew was that a man called Jesus died on a cross. Of his formative effect on the culture from which they sprang, of the theology of salvation, they knew nothing. Thanks to Alpha, these few may linger in the pews; but to their contemporaries, churches will be indecipherable monuments of a forgotten faith.
Some, in reponse to the Cardinal’s words, blamed the church itself. It is no fun; it is irrelevant; socially and culturally it is beside the point. This certainly explains the success of Alpha – the course goes out of its way to stress the fun and personal urgency of the faith. But it is surely trivial when set against the glaringly obvious point that people don’t go to church because they don’t believe. If they did, then the reward of salvation would plainly outweigh the tedium or rigour of church attendance.
Intellectuals, concerned about the effect of a widespread loss of faith, often respond by arguing we should behave “as if” it were all true. Science and scepticism may have subverted the possibility of literal faith, but the social cohesion provided by ritual observance and moral rigour is too valuable to be lost. Christianity could be retained as a normative force, an ideal of goodness against which we could measure our collective conduct. Speaking of the life of Christ, the atheist Dennis Potter said: “As a model of what human behaviour can be like, it still stands supreme.” And another atheist, Jonathan Miller, has pointed out that the human truth of the Christian story is a creation of genius.
“Jesus of Nazareth,” wrote Rebecca West, “sits in a chamber of every man’s brain, immovable, immutable, however credited or discredited. The idea of Christ is the only inheritance the rich have not stolen from the poor.”
Surely this much, at least, must be preserved. But how? “As if” is too much to ask of a sceptical, anti-historical population. If it’s not true, why bother with “as if”? Why not just live a life in the light of the truth? There are too many myths, stories and distractions to compete with the life of Christ.
Christians may still console themselves by writing off Britain and most of Europe as bad cases of rampant materialism. Christianity is booming in Latin America and Asia. In the United States, more than half the population worships regularly. The latter truth is concealed from us by the secular elites of the east and west coasts – American TV shows and films, The Simpsons excepted, almost never show people going to church.
But the broad truth is that secularity and wealth tend to go side by side. As David Starkey has argued, the great faiths of the world were founded in conditions of scarcity. Amid plenty, belief declines.
But the Cardinal was speaking only of Britain, and he was, I think, identifying a specific transformation that is happening now. This was missed in the weak response to what he said, because behind the words of the commentators was the feeling that this was an old story. The same headlines were being written more than 150 years ago.
We all know of the multiple crises of faith that afflicted the Victorian imagination: the discovery by geologists of “deep time”, a chronology that made nonsense of literal attempts to date creation; Darwin’s revelation of the connection between all living species; the critical biblical scholarship that cast doubt on its historical truth; and so on. And we all routinely speak of the secularising trend of the 20th century.
Many have feared this development. Matthew Arnold saw a world without faith as one in which there was “neither joy, nor love, nor light,//Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain . . .” And William Jennings Bryan fought the Scopes “monkey” trial in Tennessee precisely because of his conviction that Darwinism’s anti-religious message led directly to the carnage of the First World War. But nobody has seriously denied the reality of the process and, as a result, we assume that faith lost the war against atheism some time ago.
I believe this is false and that the victory has only recently been won – which is why, I suspect, the Cardinal chose now to speak out. Church attendance alone is not the point. Rather, we should look at the presence of Christianity within society.
It is now forgotten, for example, that the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism produced a revulsion against the humanist rationalism of the Thirties and Forties and turned many back to religion. There were mass conversions at Oxford in 1947, when Bishop Stephen Neill’s mission to the university packed the Sheldonian for five nights in succession. Throughout the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, this was definably a Christian country. People knew what the faith involved, and the idea of the Sermon on the Mount as a statement of the highest human good was widely accepted. Non-believers would routinely, like Potter and Miller, acknowledge the greatness and cultural centrality of Christ.
In the Eighties and Nineties, this all began to change. I could speculate endlessly about the causes of this change – but it is probably enough to say that ignorance about Christianity, a franker celebration of materialism and various competing faiths, from New Ageism to hard scientism, all played their part.
Whatever the cause, we have now reached the point where nobody could seriously claim that this is still a Christian country. We can still make the sophisticated point that the culture – its literature, art and institutions – is steeped in the faith. But in the lives the British now lead, there is almost no trace of Christianity.
We are embark-ing, therefore, on a historically un- precedented experiment. There has never been a truly secular society. The secularity of communism was an illusion for two reasons. First, Marxism’s historicism and emphasis on salvation were utterly rooted in Christianity; and second, faith was reborn so strongly in the Soviet bloc after 1989 that it is clear that the whole anti-religious experiment had been a colossal failure.
In contrast, the secularity we are embracing is emerging, irrationally, from below rather than being imposed, rationally, from above. We are voting with our feet and our credit cards to live outside the community of faith.
We cannot yet know what this means. What it does not mean is that we shall live without belief. People are not like that. Scientism and other superstitions have already seized millions of converts and, doubtless, there will be many stories of weird sects and cults. But what it does mean is that the idea of a common culture, founded on a more-or-less single belief system, will be lost. This must point to an increasing atomisation of society, a loss of coherence as we find ourselves unable to appeal to a mutually agreed ideal and descend further into a form of public discourse founded solely on absolute refutation.
Many will celebrate the advent of the post-Christian society. They will point to Israel and Northern Ireland as living examples of the cost of faith. They are misguided because, if I am right in saying that we have only just embarked on the experiment of abandoning Christianity, then we cannot yet know the cost of secularity. I believe it will be high, far higher than we can yet imagine.
Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is a brave man to confront the beast that now slouches towards Bethlehem to be born. We were cowards not to pay more attention.