The recent British Social Attitudes Survey shows that more people now regard themselves as having no religion than being Christian. The Guardian today offered a leading article on the subject saying, in essence, that the church has blown it. Meanwhile an opinion piece has appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website saying that it’s not too late, we just need more evangelism – understood as advertising the good news.
Let me offer another angle.
The Guardian is right to say that there are many good and liberal minded people who find the way in which the church has failed to move with the times in terms of gender equality and the acceptance of diversity in the area of sexuality to be deeply off-putting. It’s wrong to say that this is primarily a problem for the church’s reputation with the young. There are plenty of silver sceptics out there when it comes to religion. Religion – even ‘no religion’ – is not a subject to be ageist about.
The Telegraph is right to say that the church needs to wake up, but wrong to say that evangelism, based on the model of advertising, is the answer. That could conceivably be the right answer if the church had a product. But it doesn’t. And it doesn’t have a product because God is not a thing. Theologians have been saying this for a very long time, and Rupert Shortt has summarised the argument and pointed out many of its implications admirably in his recent book, God is No Thing.
These are definitely difficult days for religion. But the difficulty is not the one anticipated by just about everyone since the late ninetieth century. Namely that the tide of religion would flow out, and the tide of a new secular era would flood in. On the contrary, what has happened is that religion has had an extraordinary if very strange and skewed resurgence. So that today those who self-identify as religious are more or less forced to place themselves within a frame on which the horizontal boundaries are created by new atheism and the vertical ones by radical fundamentalism.
What new atheism and radical fundamentalism have in common is a good deal of historical amnesia, not to say selective memory. And the problem is that once you accept that this is the framework in which you must find yourself as a religious person, you are caught in the same, unforgiving trap. This is cruelly sad, as the real frame of reference for ‘religion’ has been created by centuries of subtle theological reflection, sacred ritual, charitable action, poetry, art and architecture – all of which seek to help us grow wiser about our relationship with the transcendent, with each other and with ourselves.
But we have all but jettisoned any respect for this huge map of cultural treasure and replaced it by a fascinated focus on a very noisy and ill-tempered squabble.
It is this that makes the ‘no religion’ option such an attractive one, not only on a questionnaire, but also when thinking about how to describe one’s personal quest for meaning and purpose. It also lies behind the rise and rise in the number of people who self-identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’.
I wish all the SBNR folk well, but I am sorry if they exclude themselves from the kind of connections with religious practice that seem to me to be so integral to being serious about spirituality. That crucially includes commitments that are deeper than feelings, both when it comes to the company one keeps, and the time for which one adheres to practices which may, in the short or medium term, seem unrewarding or pointless. Indeed, true religion offers its rewards slowly, silently, socially, and often uncomfortably.
This is one reason why evangelism in the form of advertising is so definitley not the answer. Certainly the author of the Telegraph article refers to the importance of significant times of revival, but I don’t believe that the church ever moved from decline into growth by focusing on telling people things. The first priority of the Wesleys was not ‘church growth’, for instance, but holiness. Now that’s not a word that works very well today, but it’s an important part of the mix – especially if you recognise that today the word ‘holiness’ is better rendered ‘spirituality’.
But whether you call our ineffable struggle with transcendent mystery ‘holiness’ or ‘spirituality’ the word still needs to be qualified. Let me suggest ‘ethical’ or, if that is too priggish, ‘engaged’ as possible adjectives. Or maybe we could have both.
It is only when religions are truly understood by their practitioners, and those who observe them, as focused on engaged and ethical spirituality that they will have either credibility or integrity. If that tide turns, and I suspect it is already turning, the ‘no religion’ box will begin to lose its attraction. Until then more and more people will put their cross in the ‘no religion’ box, not really knowing what they do.