Religion is on the wane in Britain. Instead of gloating, secularists need to come up with something to replace it

Stained glass window showing the Lamb of God
This can make you live longer

In the decade between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses, the number of Britons calling themselves “Christian” dropped from 37,338,000 to 33,243,000; a drop of 12 percentage points, from 71 per cent of the population to 59; since the population was growing at the same time, it’s a big drop, of nearly 18 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of people answering “no religion” leapt (and it is fair, really, to say “leapt”) from 7,709,000 up to 14,097,000, almost doubling in absolute numbers and up two-thirds as a percentage of the population.

Given that, according to humanist groups, the question (“What is your religion?”) was weighted towards religious groups, as it assumed that the respondent had a religion, it’s not unreasonable to think that these numbers are only part of the story. The British Humanist Association points out that in 2001 “only 14.6% of respondents in England and 18.63% in Wales ticked the ‘No Religion’ box. But according to the 28th British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA), published in December 2011, 50% of the British population do not regard themselves as belonging to a religion.”

It’s tempting, as an atheist and rationalist, to crow about these figures: to shout something about the slow death of magical thinking, or the rise of reason. But it’s probably worth someone in the non-God camp to point out that it’s not a universally good thing, that as with almost everything it’s a complex picture.

The trouble with the religion debate in this country is that it is so furiously black and white. Religion is either the greatest poison in the world and the source of all evil, or it’s the only foundation of moral behaviour: atheism is either freedom from the chains of ignorance or it’s a licence to rape and murder and steal. But obviously neither of these starkly opposed positions is completely true.

It should hardly need saying that moral behaviour can exist without a belief in God, so I won’t go on about it, except to say that a) if the people who think it can’t are honestly saying they’d be going out robbing shops and killing grannies if they didn’t think God would punish them for it, then that’s a very sad reflection on their consciences and b) the idea that, say, rape is only bad because God says it’s bad is seriously ugly anyway. The point I’d like to focus on, because it’s always more interesting to examine the assumptions of one’s own “side”, is the idea that religion is always bad.

There are certain problems that religion brings; I don’t think it’s controversial that it often entrenches certain social attitudes, such as anti-gay prejudice or discrimination against women, that most people nowadays are uncomfortable with. It also encourages a sort of us-and-them attitude – Sunni v Shia, Protestant v Catholic, Christian v Muslim – in which an in-group is at least partly defined by the out-group, the people they’re not.

None of that, really, is in dispute. What’s worth saying, though, is that as well as the (in many people’s opinion) negative social attitudes it can entrench, it also has clear and well-documented social benefits. Communities based around a local church (or mosque, or synagogue) are more likely to know each other, more likely to help each other in times of crisis, generally more likely to behave in socially positive ways. Religion, according to the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, builds up “moral capital“: norms and practices that encourage cooperation within groups, by making people think of themselves as part of that group, rather than an individual. Some of those norms and practices (avoiding pork, or eating a biscuit that represents the Son of God) might seem bizarre to outsiders, but they bring the group closer together. It’s the flip-side of the us-and-them attitude; religion might or might not be bad for your attitude towards “them”, but it’s generally good for your attitude towards “us”.

Not that it’s exclusive to religion, of course. Regular social contact with your neighbours, the building of social and moral capital, the creation of a group in which you subsume your individuality and can work for a common good, can all be achieved in other means: it might sound a bit flippant, but football supporters might feel something similar. The British Humanist Association, which runs church-like regular meetings for humanists, and groups like the Quakers, with their emphasis on community rather than the “religious” side of religion, could build social and moral capital without the need for God or the supernatural. But the point is that right now, as Haidt says, that “religious believers … are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people” (in the United States, at least). This needs to be acknowledged. If religion really is waning in this country (and it seems to be: the number of Muslims is growing, but nowhere near fast enough to replace Christianity), then the challenge for atheists, humanists and others who think it’s possible to be good without God is to build a way of bringing communities together as Christianity has in Britain for centuries.


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