Is religion dying out?

Photo by Ben White, courtesy of unsplash

A number of scholars believe religion is dying out in UK society. The Christmas period has become a commercial, consumerist activity marked by irritating jingles in supermarkets and shopping centres, where God and Jesus play a minor role. According to the sociologist Brian Wilson, the nation as a whole has become ‘secular’. Religious thinking, practice, and bodies have lost social significance. Wilson refers to this process as ‘secularisation’. Supporters of this view contend that formal religious practice in the UK has steadily declined, with less than 7 per cent attending church every Sunday, mostly older women and the middle-classes. Women outnumber men by four to one. Attendance at the Church of England has fallen to 780,000 and is dropping by 20,000 a year.

A recent report ‘Living with Difference’, found that the percentage of the populace self-defining  as having no religion rose from 31 per cent to 51 per cent between 1983 and 2014. Furthermore, the institutional influence of the church has slumped over the past 200 years. The sending of traditional Christmas cards has fallen too. Last Christmas 100 million fewer cards were sent via Royal Mail. The soulless e-card is instead on the up.

Student entries for GCSE and A-level Religious Studies has fallen in the last year. In 2019, 241,749 learners sat the subject at GCSE level – down by 36 per cent.

Yet, others argue that religious sects and cults commonly known as ‘new religious movements’ are flourishing in Britain. True, organised religion has declined, but personal religion – in terms of a belief in the spiritual, and as a source of meaning for many – appears to be thriving in the UK. Witness the increase in meditation and ‘mindfulness’.

The growth of the ‘great world religions’ such as Islam in the UK complicates the idea that we’re living in a secular society. Britain’s Muslim population stands at 1.9 million.

To get an accurate picture as to what’s happening in our communities and society, we need to consider the perspective of post-modernists. Most social scientists agree that as a long-term trend religion in the traditional church has gone down across our nation, especially amongst Anglicans in the Church of England and to a lesser extent Roman Catholics. The influence of religion has declined in terms of church membership – fewer bums on pews – power, and ‘religiosity’.

But some academics question this. The historian, Hugh Glasner, doubts whether Britain has moved from a religious ‘golden age’. True, more people went to church in Victorian times; but that doesn’t mean they were more religious. Church going then was associated with respectability. Some people were forced to go by employers. Many people belonged without believing.

The current position of religion is far more complex. Spiritual beliefs are alive and well and are still the motivating factors in some people’s lives, even if they’re not expressed through organised churches or denominations. This has become pronounced during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The country’s lead authority on the subject, Professor Grace Davie, points out there has been a move towards ‘believing without belonging’.  People, when quizzed, still believe in God and Christ, but practise their faith outside formal religious organisations. For the American sociologist Peter Berger in his book, ‘The Desecularisation of the World’:  ”The world today, with some exceptions… is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.” Despite the mixed picture in Britain, 85 per cent of the globe’s population identify with a faith.

Six of 10 people across the UK still see themselves as belonging to a faith. Some may describe themselves as secular, but tick the Christian, Jewish or Muslim box on census. As Zaki Cooper of the Council of Christians and Jews points out there are 50,000 faith-based charities across the UK, making up almost a third of all registered charities. A variety of religious bodies still continue to contribute to the social and mental well-being of their neighbourhoods through volunteering, running food banks for the hungry, and other forms of philanthropy. With the welfare state breaking down they play a vital role in disadvantaged urban and rural communities.

Secularisation can’t be measured according to membership in mainstream Christian churches argues the sociologist Tony Giddens.  To do so ignores the rapid growth of non-western faiths and sects, and other religions. These are not the religions of the established church, familiar from 500 years of history. Rather in varied forms – including Islam and Christian evangelism, these faiths are insurgent and popular and gather in large congregations without any contact with State. For migrant communities in Northern large towns and cities, religion is a badge of cultural identity that can’t be left at home.

In a century of rapid change, instability and diversity, religion remains an important force in our society. For some it’s become ‘privatised’ and ‘individualised’ – witness ‘New Age’ religions with stress on the ”sacralisation of the self” and ”going within” with followers such as the film stars Tom Cruise and Shirley MacLaine. For older citizens it still provides answers to complex questions about life and meaning which can’t be explained by science, technology or education. And for younger people finding their way through life, it provides calm in a fast changing social and digital world, through cults, sects and New Age spiritual movements.

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