Linda Woodhead

On Tuesday I attended Linda Woodhead’s lecture ‘Why “no religion” is the new religion’ at the British Academy in London.

Linda is a sociologist of religion at Lancaster University and surveys how people describe their religious beliefs and affiliations. The latest news is that ‘nones’ (no religion) have been growing, and last month for the first time they hit 50% of those surveyed.

It is not that atheism is growing; that’s pretty static. Most of the ‘nones’ reject the category of ‘secular’ as well as ‘religious’. They believe in something or someone; they just do not identify with any religion as such. A quarter of them report using some spiritual practice. They are happy for religious leaders to speak out in public, but do not accept their authority. Instead they make up their own minds. They are all (100%!) liberal in matters of personal morality, compared with 83% of the British population as a whole. They are predominantly young.

These changes contrast with other countries. Both in the USA and in the Scandinavian countries, the percentages who identify themselves as religious are much more stable. So why are the ‘nones’ mushrooming in Britain when they are not significantly growing elsewhere? Linda’s proposal is:

It is not just that people have become less religious but religion has become more religious.

In other words British church leaders are tightening up what it means to belong to their church. The people describing themselves as ‘nones’ would have described themselves as Church of England two or three generations ago. That description has been taken away from them as the churches have increasingly defined themselves in opposition to British culture, most obviously with respect to women and gay people.

Andrew Brown of the Church Times and the Guardian:

Only last week, Justin Welby was boasting to the other leaders of Anglican churches that the Church of England had secured exemptions from equalities legislation – and then complaining that he operated in an “anti-Christian culture”. What does he expect, when the church he leads systematically violates the moral intuitions of most of its own natural constituency?
Under those circumstances, it’s not really surprising that no religion has become the new religion, while ‘religion’ has become something that other people do.

I also want to ask: is it such a bad thing, even from a committed Christian point of view?

I was ordained in the 1970s. In those days the Church of England stuck to the authorised services. The congregation recited the Creed every Sunday. They didn’t have to think about it. Nobody made them squirm if they didn’t believe it. Most didn’t care. A few spotted things they disagreed with.

Liberals like me were hopeless at increasing our congregations, largely because our priorities lay elsewhere. Others threw all their efforts into increasing congregation numbers, perhaps convinced that attending church services was the most important thing for their parishioners to do. In church after church, congregations were encouraged to distinguish the ‘real’ Christians, the ‘sound’ ones, from the ‘so-called’ Christians who only went to church to recite formulaic prayers and didn’t ‘have Jesus in their hearts’.

A minority bought into this more demanding form of Christianity. No doubt much needed to change, many lives were changed for the better, and some congregations increased.

However the majority, who were not prepared to buy into a more demanding form of Christianity, were in effect being told they were no longer good enough. A short time ago somebody described what happened in her church:

The new vicar told us that if we didn’t believe literally in the bodily resurrection of Jesus we might as well get up and walk out there and then. So I did. I haven’t been back since then.

In effect people have been pushed to make a decision. Will they believe and do all the extra things demanded by the local clergy, or accept that the mould was changing and they no longer fitted?

A policy like this is bound to backfire sooner or later. It should be obvious that making people feel excluded will eventually empty the pool from which to attract new converts.

In this context, what does the growth of ‘nones’ really mean? Linda explained that the relevant surveys showed how people identify themselves – in other words, how they want to signal who they are. So people are increasingly preferring to think of themselves as ‘no religion’ rather than Christian.

This would be an understandable response to the tightening up of the churches. For many, perhaps, the change of self-description is nothing to do with God or Jesus; it’s more about not wanting to support discrimination against women and gay people.

Does it matter? Are they losing something important?

For church leaders anxious to stop the decline in churchgoing numbers, it’s a worry. In addition there is a common view, going back to the Reformation debates, that being a Christian is a matter of every individual having a committed faith in traditional doctrines.

Clearly the ‘nones’ do not think this matters, and neither do I. I suggest that belief matters in two ways. One is that if you believe, as I do, that Christianity in some form or other is true, then it’s a good thing if each society accepts this truth. It isn’t necessary for every individual to know a lot about it, any more than every car-owner needs to know how their car works. What is needed is that there is somebody we can turn to when in need.

The second is that our beliefs affect our actions. The person who believes God hates Muslims will behave differently from the person who believes God loves everybody. Some beliefs about God help us live better lives, some do the opposite.

Beyond these two, I don’t think we should put pressure on people to believe things which have no practical relevance to their lives. Most people today simply don’t need to know whether Jesus rose from the dead, physically or otherwise. If the message from the churches is that people who hold no opinion on such matters are ‘nones’ instead of Christians, I don’t think God will mind.

Better still, perhaps the ‘nones’ can remind church leaders of something they tend to forget. Religious disputes usually increase dogmas. We believe this, they believe that; if you want to be one of us, you have to believe this and deny that. As dogmas increase, believers are tempted to forget that we are talking about a reality far beyond human understanding.

There are some features that believers do need to attribute to God. Like, for example, ‘God is love’. But not many. Most of what God is like is beyond our understanding. Perhaps the ‘nones’ can remind us that the labels we stick on ourselves are less important than the humility to admit how much we don’t know.