Adherence to faith in the UK is in decline. What does that say about Britain?

Sholto Byrnes assesses a new survey that finds most Britons are irreligious
LONDON Monday 29th April 2013. Westminster Abbey in London today(monday) where President Khalifa will lay a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior on Wednesday 1st May.  Stephen Lock for The National

If the Church of England was still "the Conservative party at prayer", the latest British Social Attitudes survey would make grim reading for prime minister Theresa May. It records that only 15 per cent of Britons now consider themselves to be Anglicans, down from 40 per cent in 1983. For those under 24, the figure is far worse: a mere 3 per cent are signed up to the established church of which the Queen is the supreme governor.

Anglicanism is no longer synonymous with Toryism, so Mrs May need not add this decline to her already long list of things to worry about. But it is a remarkable phenomenon, and part of a broader trend towards irreligiosity in the UK. An overall majority (53 per cent) now declare they have no faith at all. Not only is that a new record for the general population, but that figure rises to 71 per cent among 18 to 24 year olds.

Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, has been quoted as saying: “In this modern world people are more willing to be honest and say they have ‘no religion’ rather than casually saying they are ‘C of E’. This honesty is welcome." But that seems to be putting a distinctly euphemistic gloss on a report that suggests Anglicanism in Britain faces if not extinction, then at least reduction to a tiny rump; a sect of insignificant size when once it was a pillar of empire.

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Whatever one thinks of the Anglican faith, the prospect of its adherents almost vanishing is sad in terms of the cultural role the Church of England has played in English and British life. What happens to all those beautiful medieval buildings, the wonderful language and stirring hymns? If no one visits the cathedrals or sings the hymns out of belief, they can only survive as monuments to the past, studied in much the same way one learns about other past civilizations.

Secondly, why has it happened? It may well be something to do with Anglicanism being what the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett calls a "low cost" religion. It doesn't demand much of its followers, which means it's not as much a part of their lives and isn't as good at holding on to them.

But thirdly, and more importantly, what does it say about how the UK, and similar countries, understand the rest of the world, which if anything is becoming more religious? The latest survey from the Pew Research Centre estimates that what it calls religious "nones" (atheists, agnostics and people who did not identify with any particular religion) currently make up a mere 16 per cent of the world's population, but predicts that percentage will reduce further, to 13 per cent by 2060, with religious adherence advancing instead.

Moreover, in many countries there has been an observable rise not just in the numbers of  those of faith but in the importance of religion as a mark of identity. This can be seen in Muslim-majority states from Indonesia and Malaysia to Pakistan and Egypt, likewise Hinduism in India, and in the role of the Orthodox Church in Russia, which has enjoyed a renewed centrality as a custodian of national culture under Vladimir Putin. Even China’s president Xi Jinping has spoken in favour of traditional Chinese religion and constructing “positive and healthy religious relationships”.

I have suggested before that this trend may be partly a revolt against a secularism that elites had imported from the West, and then imposed on their countries on independence – so increased religiosity is to an extent a natural reversion, as it were, rather than a wholly new phenomenon.

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But what really matters is whether religious “nones” can have any serious understanding of what it means to have faith – and by that we are increasingly referring to what Mr Dennett would call “high cost” faiths. It was already clear that the “cost” of Anglicanism was indeed low compared to Islam, or even to Catholicism. As a former Catholic, I remember discussing this over 20 years ago with a Muslim friend. We were both perplexed by a church that didn’t seem to demand that you believe, or do, anything in particular.

But "nones" becoming an ever larger majority in the UK means the gulf growing even wider. This was demonstrated after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in 2015. The vast majority of Muslims condemned the loss of life. They did not think the cartoonists should have been killed. But most did not believe that they should have produced the offending drawings either - a distinction that atheists or the vehemently secular proponents of free speech could not comprehend.

Neither could they truly grant any meaningful value to Pope Francis's statement when he said: "You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others." They simply thought he was wrong.

You have to know - maybe to experience - what faith means to adherents of high cost religions to be aware of its centrality in their lives; and that what may be satire to the irreligious is no joke to the devout.

That the numbers of those who understand this, and who may soon have no friends or family who do either, are inexorably declining in Britain should be a cause for concern. I warned of a chasm of misunderstanding over this issue in these pages after Charlie Hebdo. It is vital that it is bridged if the world is to unite in a truly effective campaign to eliminate terrorism and extremism. We can only hope that this survey does not mean that the gap has widened and deepened still further.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

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Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National