Our retreat from Christianity doesn’t mean we’ve lost our sense of morality – The Guardian

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A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was
So mused Philip Larkin in his 1954 poem Church Going, about a visit to an empty church, to take its measure as someone without faith. He finds little of meaning within, and yet recognises also the significance of the building to the nation’s history and culture, perhaps even to human nature:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete
Almost 70 years later, we are still grappling with the conflicting emotions with which Larkin tussled in his poem. What is the role of religion in our secular age? What does it mean to be a believer? And to not believe?
A recent poll of Anglican clergy for the Times showed that only a quarter think that today’s Britain is a Christian country. Almost two-thirds believed Britain could be called Christian “only historically, not currently”. The poll showed, too, majority support for priests to be allowed to marry gay couples, and for the church to drop its opposition to premarital sex.
None of this should be surprising. We already know from the 2021 census that the proportion of people who identify as Christian in England and Wales has, for the first time, fallen below half, while the numbers professing “no religion” have rapidly increased. We know, too, from many surveys, that most Christians in Britain, both church-attending and non-practising, support gay marriage, and often hold views contrary to church teachings. In some ways, the Times poll reveals a clergy reflecting their congregation.
Many commentators saw in the poll, as they did in the census results, the ongoing social and moral decay of Britain. “That cracking sound you’re hearing,” wrote Daily Telegraph columnist Celia Walden, is “Britain’s moral backbone crumbling into a thousand pieces”.
The retreat of Christianity is, for some, inseparable from the decline in the numbers of “white Britons”, both being the consequence of mass immigration undermining the traditional character of British identity. “The changing religious make-up of Britain,” the Conservative commentator Douglas Murray suggests in his book The Strange Death of Europe, maps on to the “major ethnic changes” brought about by immigration.
The irony is that without mass immigration, Christianity would be in an even weaker place. Immigrants, especially those from Africa and east Europe, have long played a major role in helping sustain the faith. It is one reason that, as a report by the Christian thinktank Theos observes, Christianity has its most solid foundations not in some white, Tory shire but in that liberal Babylon, London.
If the demography of Christianity is changing, so more broadly is the nature of belief and unbelief. A decade ago, Linda Woodhead, now professor of theology and religious studies at King’s College London, conducted a series of polls on the moral views of believers and unbelievers. Perhaps the most striking results lay in the sources to which believers turned for moral guidance.
Just 1% of Anglicans and Catholics looked to scripture for moral direction, and only 3% and 8%, respectively, sought its Christian teachings or traditions. Instead, 34% of Anglicans and 29% of Catholics relied on their “own reason and judgment”, and around a fifth of both groups set store by their “own intuitions or feelings”.
One way of understanding these figures is as revealing a greater willingness on the part of people to think for themselves, and to use reason to guide moral decision-making. Woodhead’s surveys also expose, however, the corrosive effects of a more individualised society and the erosion of collective mechanisms for making moral decisions. Christianity, the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has observed, is becoming detached from its traditional historical and social moorings, being reconstituted instead as part of the culture of “expressive individualism”.
For some, such as Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle, this loss of influence of traditional Christianity is responsible for the decay of Britain’s moral framework. Without feeling that “we are being watched and judged from above”, he writes, “we subside naturally into narcissism” and “amorality”. It’s a view of morality as a kind of prison and of humans as dissolute and venal, willing to do the right thing only if they know their actions are being policed. A cynic might suggest it inevitable that a figure such as Liddle would come to such a view. Nevertheless, the idea that without religion there are no moral limits because, to slightly misquote Dostoevsky, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted”, has much wider purchase.
Yet the history of Christianity itself shows that it is not belief in God that defines our moral values but our moral values that shape the way we think about God. Christians (like those of many faiths) once enslaved fellow human beings, burned witches and killed adulterers, believing such practices to have divine sanction. Few Christians today would regard such practices as morally acceptable. Not because God has changed his mind but because humans have.
Collective social struggle – from campaigns to abolish slavery to battles for women’s rights – have been underpinned by moral considerations while becoming also the source of moral development. Such struggles have transformed our moral universe, and in so doing transformed, also, what believers imagine God deems to be good.
Today, such collective movements for change lie largely in disarray. The corrosive effects of social atomisation and fragmentation that in part have led to the withering of traditional religion have had an even greater impact on secular social movements, from trade unions to political campaigns. This in turn has helped distort our moral compass.
It is striking that many of those who bemoan contemporary moral decline are also at the forefront of the demonisation of people on the margins of society or of those struggling for social change, from asylum seekers to benefit claimants, from trade unionists to protesters. If we want to take a stand against moral decay, there is no better place to begin than to challenge such demonisation.
Like Larkin, I enjoy visiting old churches and imbibing the resonances of history and tradition. It is not, however, in the empty pews that we should seek the causes of our moral predicaments.
Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist


Written by: Christianity Today

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