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Thursday, June 23, 2022

The changing role of Christianity in British society

Jack Twyman questions the place of Christianity in contemporary society.

In 2018 a survey found that 70% of young Brits aged 16–29 had no religious affiliation. Yet the country as a whole remains firmly religious with the large majority (59% as of 2011) identifying Christian. It seems that we are at the pinnacle of a great social upheaval; Christianity remains firmly imprinted in the national psyche, even as it fades from its once prominent position. Understanding in which directions society will go as it breaks free from religion is of utmost importance to social planners, politicians, and all of us. Britain is entering the beginnings of a social experiment like no other. Atheism looks set to become the biggest group belief. And so, we need to find another way of living. Another way to ‘love thy neighbour’. Another way to find a purpose in life. This development is perhaps particularly surprising given the way that Christianity is so tightly integrated into many British institutions and much of British culture. 

My childhood is emblematic of the Christian-oriented upbringing that many in this country experience. I went to a Church of England primary school and was brought up with Christian values, forced to recite the Lord’s Prayer and sing hymns, regardless of what my true beliefs actually were, and regardless of the fact that my peer group encompassed a variety of faiths.  Quite how this is allowed in our supposedly secular state is baffling. The double standards with attitudes to Islamic schools is obvious, with much controversy and debate surrounding their presence, while many Christian schools continue with none of the sort. Christianity is presented as persisting in the performance of the national psyche, whether that be church bells ringing or Christmas festivities.

The celebration of Christian festivals, particularly Easter and Christmas, has become normalised in our multicultural society. A comparison with how the holidays of other religions are treated illustrates the point; for example, many people see Jews celebrating Hanukkah or Passover as a primarily religious activity, regardless of whether the Jews in question identify as religious or not.  By contrast, celebrating Christmas or Easter can be seen as totally secular just because of how much Christian traditions are normalised as part of British culture, and plenty of non-Christian or non-religious households feel comfortable decorating a Christmas tree, when it (probably rightly) would feel strange for them to light a chanukiah. For me, growing up, every Christmas, there would be the annual school nativity play, in which the nativity story was presented as fact. And then Father Christmas would deliver your presents. When Santa Claus was shown to be a marketing ploy and nothing else, your faith which had developed as a child went under the most stringent of tests. Is it a coincidence that most people lose their faith in their teenage years? The ONS 2011 census showed a dramatic difference between a larger percentage of people who identify with a faith from 0-15 years old and then a drop of over 50% in the 16-24 category.

I recently went to a church service out of curiosity as to how Christianity is being practised today. As I sat in there, I was told that “To be a Christian today means to be an exile, much like Peter was”. It shocked me that this was being openly preached. Did he forget that our head of state is Christian? Or that our school terms revolve around Christian holidays? Or that the flag of our country is derived from the symbol of a Christian saint? It was as if everything I had studied and read about the hardlining of Christian identity was appearing in reality. As I sat there my suspicions felt confirmed. Regardless of the joy of the worship songs, or the promised feeling of belonging, I couldn’t escape feeling that it was for me an uncomfortable precedent.    

As a gay person I don’t always feel comfortable with religion. I know how much it’s been used to persecute fellow members of my community, and how it continues to torture them through conversion therapy. Yet I can still see the attraction of it; religion can be a means to do good, or at least to provide a moral framework.  Without this guideline where do our ethics come from? Kindness? Compassion? It’s a dilemma that we have yet to fully embrace. One group that seeks to undertake this challenge is the Humanists: a broad global movement with a common goal of building a community with shared values but without a religious aspect. Humanists UK defines a humanist as someone who “trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works, rejects the idea of the supernatural, makes ethical decisions based on reason and empathy, and  believes that human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.” It sounds rather good, and they claim to have millions of followers in the UK. Surely caring for the planet and others is a noble endeavour?

Yet it is precisely in the empowerment of individuals that issues arise. Who defines what is relatively ethical, and how can we know that they are right? On the other hand, while religion can help to define a group’s ethics and so act as a source of peace and cohesion, it also can divide and has served as the justification of many horrors. Take apartheid in South Africa; it was justified by the Afrikaners through religion. At the same time, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which helped the country come to terms with the past and move on based its messages on the Christian principle of forgiveness. But did they really need Christianity to forgive? Did they even have a moral obligation to forgive? Humanists would question this. 

The role of the church in British communities has been entrenched as a seemingly immovable presence for centuries. Even in Oxford, while the built environment and land use has changed drastically, a quick look at old maps will show that the churches that pervade the city today have been present for nearly a thousand years. The decline of churches and the conversion of many into new spaces – take Freud bar in Oxford for example – have had profound consequences for the societies they inhabit. For instance, the death of social network programming in south-eastern US with the decline in churches has worsened the situation of some of the most vulnerable in society. During the evacuation of Afghanistan in August 2021, churches in the UK played an important role in taking in Muslim refugees and providing basic essentials for them. Of course, community centres also played an important role in this, suggesting that better funding of community centres and schemes – a vital necessity in the face of declining church numbers (only 1% of the population now regularly attend a Church of England Sunday service) – could fill the void left by the decline of religious institutions.

I respect the view that there is much wisdom to be learned from the Bible: many valuable lessons about how to live a fulfilled, and contented life. But is the meaning still true when separated from the faith they originate from? In many cases, I think yes. Being respectful, kind, caring, and helping the less fortunate are all noble endeavours. But it is simultaneously true that the Bible has been used to impose stringent controls over people’s behaviour and identity. Here it is clear to see that the way faith is upheld shifts with the time. For younger generations some ‘theological’ debates are no longer relevant: do I care that some religious texts allegedly say that homosexuality is wrong? Absolutely not. My identity is neither validated nor invalidated by scripture. In the words of the US Secretary of Transport Pete Buttigieg, “If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade […] if  you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator”. Yet there are many religious gay people out there; they combine their faith with their true identity in a way that I think is pioneering.

Regardless of the growth of atheism in Britain, the relevance of Christianity in the world at large today is doubtless. Since the beginning of the Ukrainian invasion, the Russian Orthodox church has played a significant role in sustaining public support for the military effort. Indeed, since Russia’s post-Soviet reformation, religion has become a powerful form of social control. Conservative Christians have seemingly hijacked national sentiment in the US. It turned sharply to Christianity during the Cold War, to combat the ‘godless USSR’; this  resulted in President Eisenhower changing the national motto from ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (From Many, One) to ‘In God We Trust’. The sentiment clearly persists in the ‘radical left’ narrative pervading conservative airwaves today; being aetheist can be political suicide in the US.

Christianity will still persist and like anything under a perceived threat, it is ripe for the pressures of extremism to pervade it. The rise of white Christian nationalists in the Western world will continue to pose an issue for national security; we can already see how conservative Christians have seemingly hijacked national sentiment in the USA. Is using religion to justify attacks on civil liberty or bodily autonomy really religious in origin? I think most would agree that Christianity has been distorted and moulded to suit the political motives of these groups. One thing is for certain: we are firmly entering the post-Christian era in the UK. Will we have an atheist Prime Minister in a few years? The leader of the opposition and labour party, Sir Keir Starmer, is an atheist, so it is a real possibility. What the country decides to do with the religious relics that scatter the physical and imagined fabric of the country will determine to what extent Christianity fades from our collective psyche.

Christianity has played a unique role in my life. I was brought up a Christian, I was christened, attended Church services, and was instilled with Christian values for the entirety of my primary school days. It was the realisation of my sexuality that ran parallel with my realisation that religious folks who espouse homophobia have no basis to their argument. Their belief is just a belief, because for me my existence is reality. Ultimately this undermined my faith in its entirety. And I began to see the often patriarchal nature of Christianity (with God as the ‘King of Kings’) as evidence for it being a social tool and not something I wanted to be part of. Christianity is still the world’s largest religion and its influence is huge. Yet in the changing trends of religious belief in this country, it is shifting out of its position of dominance. Perhaps this reflects the freedom of thought we enjoy nowadays and our largely improved situations compared to our historical counterparts. Is it not in the face of suffering or sorrow that religion becomes most attractive? 

Image credit: Dillif / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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