A landmark in national life has just been passed. For the first time in recorded history, those declaring themselves to have no religion have exceeded the number of Christians in Britain. Some 44 per cent of us regard ourselves as Christian, 8 per cent follow another religion and 48 per cent follow none. The decline of Christianity is perhaps the biggest single change in Britain over the past century. For some time, it has been a stretch to describe Britain as a Christian country. We can more accurately be described now as a secular nation with fading Christian institutions.
There is nothing new in the decline of the church, but until recently it had been a slow decline. For many decades it was possible to argue that while Christians were eschewing organised religion, they at least still regarded themselves as having some sort of spirit-ual life which related to the teachings of Jesus. Children were asked for their Christian name; conversations ended with ‘God bless’. Such phrases are now slipping out of our vocabulary — to wear a cross as jewellery is seen as making a semi-political statement. Christians are finding out what it’s like to live as a minority.
Just 15 years ago, almost three quarters of Britons still regarded themselves as Christians. If this silent majority of private, non-churchgoing believers really did exist, it has undergone a precipitous decline. Five years ago, the number of people professing no religion was only 25 per cent.
In March, the American Journal of Sociology published research and analysis by David Voas and Mark Chaves, showing that the United States, because of its high levels of religiosity compared to other Western nations, can no longer be considered an exception to the secularization thesis. From the study:
We have established three central empirical claims. First, religiosity has been declining in the United States for decades, albeit slowly and from high levels. Second, religious commitment is weakening from one generation to the next in the countries with which the United States has most in common, and generational differences are the main driver of the aggregate decline. Third, the same pattern of cohort replacement is behind American religious decline. This decline seems to have begun with cohorts born early in the 20th century. At least since then, strong religious affiliation, church attendance, and firm belief in God have all fallen from one birth cohort to the next. None of these declines is happening fast, and levels of religious involvement in the United States remain high by world standards. But the signs of both aggregate decline and generational differences are now unmistakable.
In other words, Britain is way ahead of us, but we are on the same downward course.
As you may know, I’ve been at a conference this weekend in which the Benedict Option was the theme. I learned a lot, and got some good, constructive criticism from some of the panelists. Some others, though, seemed to me to be determined to reject the thesis without ever really grappling with it or (more to the point) without recognizing the problems it tries, however badly, to address. Stuff along the lines of:
Me: “I’m not saying that we have to all head for the hills. I’m not saying that we have to all head for the hills. Head for the hills? I’m not saying that. Some might feel called to do that, and God bless them, but I think that is neither feasible nor desirable for all of us. To repeat: I’m not saying that we all have to head for the hills.”
Critic: “You’re saying we have to head for the hills, and that’s just crazy.”
Leaving aside the legitimate criticism of the Benedict Option concept, made in good faith — and there is plenty of it, and I’m grateful for it because it helps me learn and refine the model — my guess is that a lot of people who fiercely, even angrily, reject the very idea of the Ben Op find it unthinkable that things in America are not always going to be more or less okay for us Christians. And/or, they cannot accept the possibility that whatever goes wrong cannot be fixed within the system we have now. If my analysis is correct, then a lot of things that they believe are true about the way we Americans live no longer are true, and the response required is a radical one along the lines of what I propose in the Benedict Option. Because that is emotionally and conceptually repulsive to them, the Benedict Option must be nonsense. That damn fool building the ark over there ought to wise up and realize the rain is bound to stop, and besides, it has never flooded in these parts.
Well. First, even if religious liberty jurisprudence were to freeze in place today, and we orthodox Christians were able to hold on to the liberty that we have, we would still need the Benedict Option, because the government is far from our biggest problem. We live in a culture that has shattered, and is shattering to religious truth. In other words, we live today in what Zygmunt Bauman has described as “liquid modernity”:
Liquid Modernity is sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s term for the present condition of the world as contrasted with the “solid” modernity that preceded it. According to Bauman, the passage from “solid” to “liquid” modernity created a new and unprecedented setting for individual life pursuits, confronting individuals with a series of challenges never before encountered. Social forms and institutions no longer have enough time to solidify and cannot serve as frames of reference for human actions and long-term life plans, so individuals have to find other ways to organize their lives.
Bauman’s vision of the current world is one in which individuals must to splice together an unending series of short-term projects and episodes that don’t add up to the kind of sequence to which concepts like “career” and “progress” could be meaningfully applied. These fragmented lives require individuals to be flexible and adaptable — to be constantly ready and willing to change tactics at short notice, to abandon commitments and loyalties without regret and to pursue opportunities according to their current availability. Liquid times are defined by uncertainty. In liquid modernity the individual must act, plan actions and calculate the likely gains and losses of acting (or failing to act) under conditions of endemic uncertainty. The time it takes to fully consider options and make fully formed decisions has fragmented.
This is a very different Dark Age than the one that followed the fall of the Western empire, but a Dark Age it is, insofar as you can describe a Dark Age as an Age of Chaos and Mass Forgetting. And it will require a new, and quite different, St. Benedict for Christians to resist it, and ride out the flood.
The story above about faith in Britain, taken from the Spectator, reminds me of an English friend here in America who, with her husband, left her native land to settle here, in part because she wanted to give her children a better shot at remaining Christian than they would have if they stayed in Britain. She chose to go into exile from the country of her birth, the country she loves, because she recognized that some things are more important. From the long view, she has bought her family line some time — a generation, probably two — before the same flood that has drowned Christianity in Britain reaches catastrophic levels here. We had all better make good use of the time we have been given to prepare. Voas and Chaves, who are among the world’s leading scholars on this kind of thing, say that this process, which is carried along by very deep cultural currents, starts, it is very difficult to reverse.
I would add that yes, the United States has gone through periods in its past (e.g., the Colonial period) in which religious observance was not particularly robust, and those periods were reversed through revival (Great Awakenings). Britain has had the same experience. But the condition of liquid modernity, I argue, makes it highly, highly unlikely that we are going to see a repeat. God may send us this great grace, but we must prepare for much worse. As the poet Terence addresses his jolly critic in the well-known A.E. Housman poem (cited by Hope College’s Jeff Polet in his remarks at this weekend’s conference):
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
I am eager to hear in this thread from UK readers of this blog who are observant Christians. How do you regard the present and the future, in terms of your faith? How are you preparing your children for it?