On a recent episode of the Beyond Atheism podcast, one of the hosts said something of the nonreligious that really crystalised an issue I’ve been thinking about. “We’re going to take over”. By which they mean, not that a secret atheist cabal is about to seize power and make humanism the state religion of any Western country, but just that societies are going to keep getting less religious and that brings changes far more profound than simple the number of people in Church on a Sunday, or who say they believe in a god on a survey.
We can debate different measurements of the breadth or depth of Britain’s emerging nonreligious majority. But few can argue that this is one of the most significant social and demographic changes in our history with huge implications for public policy and civil society. This shift raises questions we all have a stake in answering.
One aspect that atheists, humanists and secularists – at least those outside religious communities – may not have given enough attention is what happens to faith groups, and how they might relate or adapt to this shift. If these groups don’t engage with this shift, they will lose their chance to help shape that future.
This article focuses on the largest Christian denominations where the UK’s religious decline have been most evident, and which are most used to the trappings of majority privilege. So, what strategies could they adopt?
1. Ignore their decline
This week, the head of England’s established church insisted they are “not on the way out” despite figures next year expected to show a 70th consecutive year of declining attendance.
2. Reverse their decline
People tend to leave organised religion, or never become religious for three main reasons: (1) intellectual objections, (2) moral objection, or (3) finding religion irrelevant. Despite huge investment in evangelism and proselytisation, across many denominations, Christian groups have been almost totally unable to reverse this decline. The only groups growing are relatively small ones often mealy feeding off the larger groups. The CofE have invested £240 million since 2017 in trying to “plant” new churches and attract younger worshippers, with very little impact and even their head of evangelism seems to acknowledge this is a doomed project.
3. Entrench their privilege
Along with just ignoring their decline, this seems to be the main strategy of the CofE and larger denominations. The CofE have received £750m in public money over the last five years, maintain a special position in Parliament, and control or influence thousands of state schools. They can’t attract young people to worship but can keep the mandate on worship in schools. The decline in religion has in many ways not affected religious influence in government. The problem for the churches is the same faced by political parties who decide to abandon appealing to the majority in favour of rigging the system to stay in power, once you go down that path it is hard to stop.
4. Embrace minority status
Britain’s faith groups may have little to fear from minority status. Secularism and the separation of church and state protect pluralism and minority beliefs. The nonreligious tend to be much more tolerant of minority groups. Humanists don’t get together to burn heretics. Even if religious people become a smaller and smaller minority in terms of population percentage, they will still be a large group. In my article on how many nonreligious groups we need, I point out that despite being less than a fifth the size of the nonreligious population, non-Christians support thousands of faith organisations. Our society has thriving communities organised around all sorts of niche pursuits and fringe interests.
5. Retreat from society
This would be the more negative flip side of the last strategy. If they realise their limited appeal to and declining influence on wider society, religious groups could embrace fringe status. They could become increasingly insular or cult like.
Many Christian denominations adapt their beliefs to a modern understanding of the world, moving towards a secular more naturalistic or allegorical understanding of religion could just be one more evolution. Many people connected to faith communities already have a humanist worldview or secularist politics. Why not embrace that? Religions could adapt to secular society by losing the off-putting religious aspects and keeping the social structures. Imagine a Church of England run Sunday Assembly or secular Catholic congregation. Religious groups could become hugely influential civil society groups, using their organisational skills, experience and vast financial assets for genuine good.
7. Find a new role
From a business perspective, the problem facing churches is that they have a range of secondary products – community, charitable activities, interesting buildings to visit etc. – that are somewhat popular. But despite all their efforts they are increasingly unable to leverage this to promote their primary product, religion. If a coffee shop was selling more books than coffee, and their drinks were both ethically suspect and unpalatable, at some point they’d just become a bookshop. Rather than trying to use social service to bring people into religion, why not just do it for its own good?
8. Support institutionalised nonreligion
One way that the CofE have maintained their privileged position and power is by astutely sharing some of it with other religions, thereby reducing the tendency of minority religions to favour a more secularist approach. This is less successful for the nonreligious, who are by their nature less institutional. Getting a seat for humanists at the table of local committees discussing religious education for example. But if religious groups were to better involve institutional nonreligious or irreligious groups in interfaith networks and their influence on government, they could maintain legitimacy and potentially undermine nonreligious support for secularism.
9. Support nonreligious literacy
We hear a lot of talk about the importance of religious literacy, including from many nonreligious groups. In fact the nonreligious are often better versed in religious knowledge – at least with respect to the plurality religions. But I’m struck by how often and how extensively religious leaders and engaged followers are ignorant of nonreligious worldviews and outlooks. To engage positively with the post-religious society, faith communities may want to give equal focus to nonreligious literacy.
10. Become genuine moral leaders
The Catch 22 for religious morality today isn’t the Euthyphro dilemma, it’s their relationship to secular morality. If religions embrace secular moral progress – and all do to some extent – then they can claim credit for it but don’t really have anything distinctive to offer. If they reject secular moral progress they can be distinct, but are generally distinctly regressive. For all their focus on moral rules and claims of superiority religions aren’t a good self-correcting system for moral progress. But there’s no reason they couldn’t reinvent themselves.
Thanks for reading
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Photo information: Photo of An Empty Church, RODNAE Productions