Faith No More: How The British Are Losing Their Religion

Counter-cultural religion, Christian or Muslim, is thriving in the UK. But the God that many people still more or less believe in won’t be found in Church of England services

For the past two or three hundred years, at least since the civil war, most British Christianity has been like that. Then, in the last 50 years, it fell off a cliff.. In the last 30 years alone attendance at mainstream churches has just about halved. The way this has happened is also important: adults did not stop going to church, but they failed to transmit the habit to their children and now they are dying out. The culture has changed and the Christianity which was so deeply rooted in the old culture has had its roots torn up.


The British have lost faith in religion much faster and more completely than they have lost faith in God. The most recent survey to show this comes from Win/Gallup, which found that Britain appeared one of the most irreligious countries on earth, with only 30% calling themselves “religious”. On the other hand, only 13% said they were atheist – compare this with the Chinese figure of around 60%. It may be that the English, especially, regard atheism as a kind of religion, or at least a manifestation of an unhealthy interest in religious questions. But I think that the explanation is more complex. British Christianity is in trouble because Britain itself is disappearing.

Immigrant religion is still thriving here, whether it is Christian or Muslim. But that is because it has an entirely different relationship to the surrounding culture. Religion comes in at least two sorts: cultural and counter-cultural. The second kind is all about belief. People who are religious in a counter-cultural way know what they believe, and could argue it out with people who disagree. This kind can be extremely strong, and it also draws strength from being in a minority. Someone whose beliefs, and still more clothes or habits cuts them off from wider society can often find their identity intensified and their belief more fervent as a result. Think of the fervour of Jehovah’s Witnesses, ultra-orthodox Jews, or Hare Krishnas in our own society and the steadfastness under persecution of minorities like the Ahmadiyya in Pakistan and Iran.

The second sort is not about conscious belief at all, but about assumptions: the things that everybody knows are true without ever needing to think about them. The American worship of their own constitution is another excellent example. You’d have to be a very strange American indeed to doubt that this was the most important document in political history and the best possible guidance for human life and society. The fact that this belief is quite hard to justify rationally doesn’t diminish its strength at all.

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