The UK’s religions are bracing themselves for the forthcoming Census announcements, which in the Autumn are likely to show further decline in religious affiliation in England and Wales. It’s already declined in the Northern Ireland census; and it’s likely to do so here too, when Scotland reports next year. After years of America bucking the global trend, which shows that religious belief generally declines as countries become more affluent, data from the US now looks similarly gloomy.
The think tank Theos has conducted its own polling on the subject, and their report confirms that around half of the UK population now describe themselves as non-religious. But there’s something really interesting behind this data. It seems that many people haven’t given up on God, they’ve given up on Religion. In the Theos survey, they found that only half of the non-religious don’t believe in God. So while there’s a general decline in belief in God overall, it’s far less stark that the pollsters would have us believe.
It’s still bad news for religious institutions, though, and especially for the Christian churches, who’re particularly losing cultural affiliation. In the face of declining belief, many Churches were already behaving as though (as Terry Pratchett suggests in one of his books) the size of your God really is in direct proportion to the number of believers you have.
But perhaps there’s another way to tackle this. In 1950s Sheffield, there was also a panic about ‘godlessness.’ But their Bishop Leslie Hunter wondered if it was more about the Church’s godlessness than the people’s, so he founded a movement that went out into the steelworks and railway yards to find out how God was being experienced there. Like him, I doubt that God has shut up shop.
So where is God, if he’s not so often to be found in our churches these days? I think a lot of the non-religious would say that God is outside, working hard with the environmentalists and the street pastors, and the charities that work alongside those who struggle. We know from the foodbanks that religions are at their very strongest when they are there too; so I wonder where else we need to be, if we want to meet God these days.
I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.