Christianity is in decline. According to the recent census, more than 4 million fewer people said they followed the religion than in 2001. Furthermore, 14.1 million people, roughly a quarter of the entire population, now claim no religion at all. If trends continue, the number of non-believers will overtake Christians by 2030.
The decline of Christianity is not only visible in Britain; it is being witnessed in all OECD states. In the US, one-fifth of the population – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today.
These statistics have got a lot of people riled – not least in the established Church. Yet, it should be remembered that Christianity is as foreign as Islam or Hinduism. The earliest confirmed evidence of Christianity in Britain is found in a statement by Tertullian, from around 200 AD. He spoke of the ‘haunts of the Britons, inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ’.
There is a correlation between economic development and the decline in religious fervour. Though the western world has seen a fall in religious affiliation, religion in the developing world is flourishing. Between 1970 and 2009, the Muslim population increased threefold to 1.57 billion. The majority of Muslims live in Asia and Africa.
But this growth is not confined to Islam. In Africa, there has been terrific growth in Christianity. Only nine million Christians were in Africa in 1900, but by 2000, the number was estimated at 380 million.
When looking at religion in Britain, one gaping anomaly is the increasing popularity of Islam. There are 2.7 million Muslims in Britain, up from 1.55 million in 2001. Of course, the major cause of this increase is immigration, not British people discovering Mohammed. There is, however, evidence that the Muslim population is becoming more zealous. A recent poll found that 4 out 10 British Muslims want Sharia law introduced into parts of the UK. Crucially, the percentage is closer to 50% for Muslims under 24.
This religiosity can be explained by the way the British Muslim population has been isolated and attacked in the mainstream press. Segregation has made Muslims more insular, and it is hardly surprising that younger Muslims are developing a ‘battlefield’ mentality.
But fifty years from now, Islam will be heading the same way as Christianity. No religion is immune from the creeping impact of science, technology and common sense. It is surely not long before the same crisis of confidence sweeps the Muslim world. And with most of the world’s conflicts waged in the name of religion, should we not be relishing this secularisation? This was, in large part, why Charles Bradlaugh established the National Secular Society in 1866.
Foreign religions – for that is what all major religions in Britain are – will come and go. All are plagued by the same inevitable demise. Knowledge is the ability to read, comprehend and follow the teachings of a given religion. Wisdom is the ability to live without religion, whilst at the same time adhering to the fundamental principles of good citizenry. There will come a time when we no longer need the ‘manual’, whether that be the Quran, Bible or the Gita.
At this juncture, it is appropriate to ask: what, if anything, could replace religion? The answer is that faith may well remain relevant. Also, the basic principles espoused by the World’s major religions (and by Confucius before them) will be important. However, the archaic traditions, dogma and doctrines of religious life have no place in mankind’s future. These have always created a barrier between people and their God(s), and serve only to benefit the coffers of ‘holy’ institutions. As of 2005, the Church of England had financial stocks and bonds valued at £3.9 billion, with an annual income of roughly £900 million.
So much for these imported religions, but what of Britain’s own religion? I am referring, of course, to Pre-Roman Paganism (nothing to do with those cider-swilling hippies who flock to Stonehenge).
Paganism is a flexible religion free from dogma and outdated traditions. One is free to worship Gaia – literally ‘the earth’ – in the way which best suits him or her. It is about the personal connection between man and his God(s), there are no clergymen or choristers. Even Winston Churchill – a member of the Albion Lodge of the Ancient Order of Druids – dabbled in Paganism.
Many Pagan symbols are visible today. The Christmas tree, wedding ring and fish symbol – all considered integral aspects of Christian symbolism – have Pagan origins.
For those concerned by global warming and resource exploitation, a religion which actively worships the planet is appealing. And at least our world is tangible, unlike that bearded fellow in the sky.