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The Death of Religion and the Fall of Respectable Britain

Christie Davies

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At the end of the nineteenth century, there were comparable levels of religiosity in Britain and the United States. The British lived in a culture in which the assumptions of Protestant Christianity were taken for granted. Few people believed strongly, but everyone believed a little. Throughout the population there was a somewhat vague general acceptance of central Christian beliefs, a strong respect for sacred things, a liking for church-based rituals to mark the turning points in life (and particularly its ending), a moral code of helping others that was rooted in Christian ethics, and a liking for and ability to sing hymns, both of which had been learned in Sunday School. Even football crowds sang "Abide with Me" or "Bread of Heaven"; today they sing songs full of thoughtless blasphemies, obscenities, and thought-out sexual and racial abuse to upset their opponents. Regular attendance at Sunday School was a standard part of most people's youth, and it was the place where standards of respectability were inculcated. Britain's was a society with a remarkably low and falling incidence of violent and acquisitive crime, illegitimacy, and addiction to opiates. Public drunkenness was a problem, but it was gradually ceasing to be so; by the 1920s it had all but disappeared.

This is the world Britain has lost. The first turning point was the First World War. Before that war there was already a degree of uneasiness about the strength of religion in Britain; after the war it was clearly in decline. The decline of religion was slow and punctuated by periods of recovery, such as the early 1950s. From the mid-1950s onwards, however, the previous prevailing religious culture collapsed, and by the millennium Britain was one of the most thoroughly irreligious countries in the world. Less than half the population believes in God. For many of those who do believe in God, their belief is not in a personal God who is a guide to conduct or a source of solace but a mere impersonal and irrelevant something-or-other.

In 1901-1911, half the British population under fifteen was enrolled in Sunday School; in 1957 three-quarters of those over the age of thirty had attended Sunday School at some time in their lives. By the end of the twentieth century, less than 10 percent belonged to a Sunday School. An entire culture had been lost. In England in 1913, 70 percent of all live births were baptized in the Church of England; in 1956, it was still 60 percent, but by 1997 it had fallen to less than a quarter. In the 1950s in Britain two-thirds of those questioned said they believed Jesus was the son of God and only a fifth expressed disbelief. By the 1980s, less than a half of those asked said they believed this and nearly 40 percent said they did not believe. In the 1950s most people believed in the central tenets of Christianity or at least went along with the dominant belief of their culture. By the 1980s, this was no longer the case. By the end of the millennium, many Christian denominations in Scotland, as well as in England and Wales, were predicting their own imminent demise in the twenty-first century. A few evangelical, Pentecostal, and fundamentalist groups thrive, but they lack numbers, have little influence on the wider culture, and are ignored and even snubbed and discriminated against by the secular liberals, who control broadcasting and education.

Read the entire article on the New Criterion website (new window will open).

Posted 12/17/04

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