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  • Writer's pictureBrian Mountford

Religion and its Future

My experience of religion

We don’t choose our parents or the time or the culture we’re born into. You might be born into a wealthy family or find yourself the child of a single parent struggling to make ends meet on state benefits. You might be nurtured as a Christian or Muslim, or be one of the majority who grows up with no religion at all.

The stage on which I made my entrance was 1950s post-war Britain, my parents ardent members of a Baptist/Congregationalist church, where my father played the organ. Our lives were shaped by the seasonal narrative of the Christian story: Advent, Christmas, through Easter, Whitsun, and Harvest, and on into the November time of remembrance. But this wasn’t extraordinary: it was a social norm reinforced by the daily hymn, reading, and prayer with which every school day since 1948 began, and from which only Jews were exempted. School Assembly might have been a chore and lacked spiritual depth, but it underwrote the ideas that the Bible and God were building blocks of national life. On Sundays all shops were closed and anyone seen walking in the streets was more than likely on their way to church.

In my childhood the church was at the centre of our social lives. My parents belonged to the church tennis club, the church dramatic society, church choir, and I belonged to the boy scouts, youth club, choir and played the piano for the Sunday school. The religion that lurked behind all this social activity rubbed off on my unsuspecting brain. It was a subtle indoctrination. Yet doctrine wasn’t a word I was familiar with at that stage. Our non-conformist services didn’t contain creeds, we didn’t study articles of faith or incant repetitions about Jesus being the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Faith was more experiential and communal, and, to a degree, a part of a class-based identity. Historically the non-conformist churches attracted the working and lower middle classes and felt a deep-rooted antipathy towards the Established Church of England. Apart from our minister there were only two other graduates in the congregation.

Doctrine entered by the back door and I realise now we didn’t spot the canny influence of hymn singing, through which ran a rich seam of contrasting theologies from the substitutionary blood sacrifice of ‘Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me’, to the broadly liberal ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’, containing the lines: ‘For the love of God is broader/than the measures of man’s mind’, suggesting that there’s more than one kind of imagery for trying to understand the nature of salvation. Although there was no prayer book or set liturgy, the shape of the service always took the same form – what was known as a ‘hymn sandwich’ – and the minister would pray, ex tempore, supposedly, with phrases which evolved into an identifiable religious-speak that lent itself to satirical rendition: ‘Father and great God, we do just pray thee for those suffering or laid on one side.’ The ‘do’ in that construction was scarcely emphatic, but became an ugly and lazy liturgical quirk: we do just ask, we do beseech, we do hope. It was the equivalent of today’s ‘like’: ‘we, like, just pray for x, y, or z.’ If there was reason to become Anglican, it was to exchange this Free Church vocabulary for the archaic but beautiful language of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.

As I look back, I try to disentangle how I thought then from how I think now, and worry that I might be reading a lifetime’s reflection into what I imagine I thought and believed as a teenager. But although the historical theological position of Congregationalism was Calvinist, that kind of dogmatism was trumped by another, developed by Martin Luther, the priesthood of all believers, which led to a real democracy in which each local congregation had the right to determine its own worship and even its own interpretation of theology and scripture without outside interference. I have little doubt that I was permitted and encouraged to think freely and liberally about my faith. The red lines were drawn on the ethical rather than the doctrinal front – no booze and no dancing (i.e. sensual contact) on church premises and certainly no sex outside marriage. Although the latter restriction was reinforced by fear and the lack of effective contraception as much as moral scruple.

At the age of nineteen I was confirmed as an Anglican. There were two main reasons: the music was much better and the status and living conditions of an Anglican clergyman seemed immensely superior to those of a congregationalist minister, which up to that point I had wanted to be. My motives were self-regarding and pragmatic, not primarily spiritual. When, subsequently, I heard clergy give sentimental accounts of their vocation, they never quite seemed to ring true: they were following a party line, spiritualising their decision to do a particular job and hiding their ambition beneath this holy mask. Besides there’s still a lot to be ambitious for – from a lovely house in fine grounds to a seat in the House of Lords. Not very long ago, I attended the institution of a former colleague as vicar of a parish in the London commuter belt. Addressing the congregation of what I assumed to be stockbrokers and the like, the bishop said that since they had gone through a long process of selection for the new vicar, they may be under the impression that they had appointed her, but they hadn’t; God had chosen her. And then the bishop added that she too had been chosen by God to be a bishop. I could sense the congregation thinking that if God was running the Church of England, why was it in such a mess.

This is one example of the kind of questioning that’s become the heart of my faith and the core of the faith I’ve professionally defended through my career. Living with questions can be a risky strategy for a minister of religion because so many people want certainty, or at least to find a sense of security in an uncertain world. It can lead to the jibe from conservative Christians that you’re ‘all questions and no answers’. My response to this is somewhat aphoristic, in the sense that various thinkers have shaped my thinking with their own memorable bon mots. For example, in his ‘Pensées’, Blaise Pascal makes God say to the spiritual searcher, ‘you wouldn’t be seeking me if you had not already found me’ – otherwise, why would you bother? Surely, you wouldn’t search for something you believed didn’t exist. In the postscript to his novel, ‘Life is Elsewhere’, Milan Kundera says that ‘the novel of course does not answer questions. The questions are already an answer in themselves, for as Heidegger put it: the essence of man has the form of a question.’ Who am I? I like this confirmation that questions are fundamentally positive rather than the negative, and the implied suggestion that it’s mealy-mouthed to suggest otherwise.

Yet for me it’s a contemporary writer, and former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, who hits the nail on the head with his mantra that ‘the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.’ (Cf Paul Tillich’s ‘Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.’ Ie faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin.) The warning here is against the kind of religious dogmatism that won’t listen to any argument that threatens it, even when the proponent knows they’re on intellectually dodgy ground. Holloway emphasises that being a Christian isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a binary choice; you don’t have to be either a believer or an atheist, one or the other, black and white. A Christian might sometimes think there’s a divine meaning and purpose to life and sometimes not, and often think both at the same time. It’s possible to be a believer and a non-believer at the same time and, while holding such an ambivalent position, to affirm a faith in an ultimate reality or shout out a ‘yes’ to the universe. That is a spiritual freedom we are entitled to, and if it runs against the tide of the Church’s more restrictive code of ‘beliefs’, then so be it.

Reading Richard Holloway’s book, ‘Waiting for the Last Bus’, I discover between pages 30 and 37 that he manages to explain what I’ve been struggling to articulate for some time: that recently the Church has become more conservative, more restrictive, and less intellectually vibrant, probably as a backs-to-the-wall reaction against to the assault of secular indifference and the philosophical/scientific critique of traditional belief. He writes: ‘The paradox is that it is the people who think religion is prose who keep it alive for the people who can only use it as poetry. When a religion is in decline, its prose becomes more defensive and assertive. But if it is not careful it loses the capacity for what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’:

…that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ P 30

Personally, I find ‘negative capability’ a rather cumbersome phrase, but it is often used and means, I think, that instead of trying to compartmentalise an argument into tight boxes, it is often helpful to recognise some matters might have to be left unsolved and uncertain. The problem for the Church is that it is becoming a club for people who want beliefs tied up in neat packages and who are unable to tolerate ‘religious versions of Negative Capability.’

In my Christian faith I’m looking for something other, counter, transcendent, transforming, and challenging. What I think Christianity primarily stands for is humility, self-giving, justice, loving your enemy, your neighbour as yourself, and looking for the values that last, trying to makes sense of the deeper question of what it means to be human. I’m saying that divine value can be discovered, but will arise in unlikely, unpredictable places, when one tries to live out the values that are most demanding of one. In a sense it’s what Christmas is about and why, I suspect, so many people who wouldn’t darken the door of a church for the rest of the year, turn out for carol services and Christmas Day, because they are interested in how the Word might be made flesh in the life of an impoverished family, and how transcendent value might be revealed in a counter-cultural way. Despite what most philosophers say, I am persuaded of transcendent value and meaning, by which I mean there is a meaning and purpose to life coded into the stuff of the Big Bang.

The atheist, Philip Larkin, gets all this profoundly in his poem, ‘Church Going’, where a casual visitor enters a musty church building and mocks all it used to stand for, but cannot resist the conclusion that

‘someone will forever be surprising A hunger in himself to be more serious And gravitating with it to this ground’

That hunger for seriousness, for what matters, is where I find myself compelled to search for God.

How I perceive my contemporaries’ view of religion

No view of religion in contemporary Britain can ignore the latest data (2017) on religious affiliation, from NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey, that 53%[1] of the people in Britain say they have ‘no religion’ and that of those, 70%[2] of the 18-25 age-group claim to have no religion. This stark statistic I can amplify anecdotally. In October 2018, I was Acting Chaplain of Corpus Christi, College, Oxford and my first encounter with the new intake of freshers was at the introductory ‘Welfare’ meeting, where I faced an auditorium full of eighteen-year-olds looking down challengingly at me from seats tiered as steeply as the Coliseum. When I stood up to speak, I sensed intuitively that I must begin by acknowledging we live in a multi-faith society, an international society, a post-religious society, where 70% of their age group in the UK claim to have no religion. The sight of nodding heads made me more relaxed. Thus, I acknowledged the unwritten terms and conditions on which I was to act as Chaplain.

In St Hilda’s College, where I also do some chaplaincy work, the room designated as the chapel has been demolished as part of a major re-development programme. Some Fellows think it shouldn’t be replaced, and were it to be so, ought to be a ‘Faith Room’ rather than a Christian chapel. Why should Christianity, and Anglicanism in particular, be privileged in this contemporary, secular society? If you were building a college today from scratch, would you include a chapel at all? Many of the objectors have of course never ever attended a chapel event and some blandly assume, in a Dawkins-like way, that what goes on there is a sinister attempt at brainwashing, the promotion of irrational belief in impossible things. Had we a historic chapel building and world class choir the argument wouldn’t so easily progress and, in any case, the aesthetic virtues of uplifting music would be seen as self-authenticating and as transcending the perceived small-mindedness of theology. It is clear Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, even in Oxford University where, until the late nineteenth century, you had to be an Anglican in order either to teach or study.

I’ve been struggling to understand in what proportions religion in Britain, and people like me who represent it, is faced with indifference, or antipathy, or untroubled ignorance. These are three very different things. Most seem to be happy to live and let live: if religion is your predilection, or your hobby, no one’s going to mind too much so long as you don’t thrust your beliefs down their throats. Antipathy is a minority view because few want to waste their energy on campaigning against it. As religion has become marginalised, this drip, drip of increasing indifference over the last three or four decades has naturally led to ignorance particularly of the Bible and its literature, but also of what a church actually looks like from the inside: what is the font, the pulpit, or the altar and what do they represent. And knowledge of, say, the Reformation, despite countless television programmes about the Tudors, is a mystery to most people possibly because the programmes celebrate Henry VIII’s sex life rather more than his theology. Such unfamiliarity with our religious past presents a barrier to understanding much of the literature and history and art which is our heritage and which has taken for granted, as a social given, the gospels, the commandments, the parish church, the sagas of the Hebrew Bible, and the parish priest.

However, if people are untouched by religion, I haven’t found them necessarily immune to what you might call spiritual values, and it’s not uncommon to hear someone describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’, by which they mean, I think, to go back to Larkin, they are occasionally surprised by a need to be serious in a consumerist, trivialising culture and to look for transcendent values that endure. They have an interest in what the theologian, Paul Tillich, called ‘ultimate questions’: Who am I? What’s life about? Does it mean anything? It’s easy to confuse antipathy towards religious institutions with indifference towards the spiritual. On the other hand, the theologian and psychotherapist, Mark Vernon, whose insights I admire, has suggested ours is a ‘flat’ society in which people can't even see through ‘spiritual eyes’; they have neither the intuition nor the vocabulary. I can see what he’s getting at, but I still think the raw material of ultimacy (the end, the final analysis) pushes people, however spiritually inarticulate, towards a search or desire for the transcendent.

Frequently now, I preach in rural churches near Oxford and find congregations respond enthusiastically to sermons that include critical discussion of basic theological ideas and Biblical criticism. This response isn’t merely from the highbrows – no one wants to be talked down to or treated like a primary school child. Actually, primary school children don’t like being talked down to either. I’m not saying a more intellectual approach would fill these churches, but it would be a start. A senior Oxford academic recently wrote to me lamenting what he regarded as the Church of England’s lack of interest in critical theology. To my mind he’s right: critical theology is essentially creative rather than a tropical storm threatening to sink the fragile ark of Christianity.

The Church needs to listen to this criticism and to tease it out of its supporters, and critical friends, because churchgoers are usually too polite to offer it straight up. When preachers serve up a mushy diet of hastily prepared piety and feelgood spirituality, their hearers, while affecting a pose of thoughtful attentiveness, see right through it and think that’s what the clergy would say, wouldn’t they. And it’s no good claiming that because the first Christians were uneducated fishermen and farm labourers, therefore it’s good to be fools for Christ in some sort of arrogantly counter-cultural way, only to be pushed in the present further and further towards the margins.

To return to the student nervousness about religion, I think their first fear is of moral censure: that religion, and its representatives, will likely condemn or belittle the ethical paradigms they take for granted, such as the LBGT+ culture. In second place is the perceived battle between science and religion. It seems to me the dominant intellectual paradigm is that of empirical science, of demonstrable proofs and mathematical logic (Secular Reason?). Whereas, religion is popularly regarded as pre-modern, mythological, morally unreconstructed, and to a degree concerned with believing absurd claims such as belief in God itself, that Jesus physically rose from the dead, or that the prayers of the saints can actually earn metaphysical favours for Christian believers. This crude setting of religion and science at loggerheads with one another is escalated by fundamentalism within religion, which often makes believing in the impossible a badge of honour for faith.

Maybe, in trying to be dispassionate, I’ve emphasised the negative views of my contemporaries on religion. But, then, the statistics of ‘no-religion’ and falling church attendance requires explanation. Naturally I know many people who profess a Christian faith and who put that faith into practice in a wide variety of charitable ways in providing food in food banks, working in agencies for the homeless, visiting the sick and housebound. In fact, Christian social action often appeals more to those ‘in search of God’ precisely because it doesn’t require speculation about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but fits those more basic Christian injunctions to love your neighbour as yourself and when someone asks you for your coat to give them your cloak as well.

What’s next for Religion?

Maybe futurology is a fool’s game but it’s still worth playing. Why, for example, would anyone ignore predictions about the greatest threat to our planet at the present moment, global warming? Scientists and campaigners are giving dire warnings of rising temperatures, melting ice-caps and rising sea levels, over-fishing, over-deforestation, and the likely extinction of thousands of species radically destroying the biodiversity on which a healthy planet depends; even then some stubborn politicians remain fervent climate-change deniers. Here the scientific data is comparatively simple – more CO2, more warming. The Bible is ambivalent: on the one hand the creation story in Genesis seems to hand sovereignty over all living things to humankind; on the other, New Testament parables suggest we ought to be good stewards of a creation God has entrusted us with. But for all that, the Church, which has benefitted financially so much from its ownership of great chunks of rural England and is the promoter of harvest festivals, has made very little political impact on the campaign to save the planet. The same is true too of Judaism, where the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, celebrates the fruit provided by the land to a nomadic people. So, religion’s claim to be the principal celebrant of food and the bounty of nature will be undermined. Whereas predicting economic and social trends is much more uncertain, as evident in the Brexit debate. The late Dick Chorley, Professor of geography at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, was an expert on weather and when we used to ask him how it would turn out tomorrow, he’d reply with a wry grin that most probably it would be the same as today. Statistics bore him out.

When it comes to the prospects for religion, the starting point might also be that one might reasonably expect the future to bring more of the same: the slow decline of Christianity in the West, with occasional trend-bucking exceptions within cathedrals and conservative evangelical communities, and pockets of vibrant Islam and Hinduism within the ethnic communities of particular major towns and cities. At the same time, worldwide, Islam is growing fast and is expected to reach numerically the same size as Christianity (30%) by 2050. One can expect the expansion of Christianity in African and Chinese churches, not least as a factor of their population growth. And when it comes to more-of-the-same, it is hard to see religious fundamentalism compromising with western liberal values, particularly when it underpins a conservative political state like Saudi Arabia or Iran. However, by 2019 62% of the 7.5 billion people on the planet will use a mobile phone and the liberalising information thus available is irrepressible. Mind you, the same tool gives mighty scope for right-wing extremist propaganda as well.

Whatever the cause of the decline of religion in the West, it seems to me Christianity is in crisis. When you mention Christianity to people, either in one-to-one conversation or in public debate, they draw back distrustfully as if they think it offers no way forward, and that its various promises of fulfilment have nothing to back them up. At the same time, a very high proportion of the population can’t get through the week without taking a drug, either prescribed, legal or illegal. There’s a mental health crisis. In 2019, 62% of students at my Oxford college claimed to have, or to have had, a mental illness problem. It seemed an extravagant claim, especially since many considered that exam nerves legitimately came into the equation, but, whatever you make of the statistic, it underlines the idea of a societal mental health crisis. I think it’s what you might call the background noise of stress that feeds the problem: too many people, always a clamour and a competition, the global climate crisis presenting a real threat to anyone under about fifty-years-old, global mass surveillance and the subsequent loss of privacy, lack of exercise, Artificial Intelligence and its threat to take away our autonomy (i.e. decision-making), the rumbling threat of war as continents compete for limited resources, and the loss of personal contact as relationship becomes more and more digitalised.

In the midst of this corporate neurosis, instead of turning to religion and spiritual values for meaning and purpose, one of the things people in Britain have recently looked towards to explain their lives is politics, siding with either the Leave or Remain sides in the Brexit debate and, finding there a vacuum, and what they see as a lack integrity, feel angry because their views and wishes are not being taken seriously. Hidden beneath the Brexit row is a radical protest against the inequality of our society, which the educated elite is thought callously and cruelly to ignore. At least religion is more gentle, if seemingly ineffectual in the present climate.

One might reasonably expect technology and the global reach of digital communication to drive the economic development of nations at the present rate or faster. If it does, it’s likely there’ll be an increase of secularisation in developing countries, parallel to what we have seen in the West. But there remain serious questions whether global growth is actually physically sustainable. New technologies using non-carbon producing energy may be able to change that, but it looks increasingly clear that the present world population cannot continue to live at the present level of consumerism and survive.

I recognise it is over-simplifying to equate secularisation with economic growth. China, for example, as a communist state has marginalised religion as a matter of political ideology. Now that its economy is booming and it’s able, for example, to build a mega-city of fourteen million people in just four years, suddenly replacing rural countryside with acres of skyscrapers, many people experience a vacuum of meaning. This vacuum can sometimes be filled by churches, which provide not only a framework for philosophical meaning, but more importantly a community for people suddenly isolated in a concrete jungle.

None of this takes into account what might happen to religion if there were to be a major political upheaval, whether caused by migration, climate change, energy-shortage, terrorism, or some crazy autocrat pressing the nuclear button. In some of those outcomes, notably terrorism, religious/political ideology might have been a motivating factor anyway, but on the positive side religion, in its organised form, might help to ameliorate crises through giving emergency aid, caring for victims, and providing appropriate rituals for burial of the dead, remembering victims, and seeking peace and reconciliation. Often in extreme situations, people turn to religion for stability, in search of values that transcend the miseries and challenges of a crisis. This was clearly visible in New Zealand in the aftermath of the Christ Church mosque massacre of March 2019.

A more extensive study of possible future impacts on religion would no doubt include politics, information technology, Artificial Intelligence and the likely consequent loss of jobs, gene editing, globalisation, migration, climate change, water and energy shortage, terrorism, organised crime, nuclear proliferation, Third-World poverty, drugs, and the likelihood of seismic shifts in the understanding of physics and biology. But these factors will affect everyone regardless of religion and the effect on religion will only be tangential. To understand more about the quantum building blocks of life and the beginning of the universe will do no more than provide a further commentary on ancient stories, written within a culture that understood itself as part of a three-tier universe, but won’t invalidate those ancient narratives, which carry a self-authenticating poetry.

Within the field of ethics, the medical technology to edit genes, design babies, and enhance human bodies, together with artificial intelligence that extends the power of the human brain (or reduces the need to use it) will have implications for thinking about the theology of the ‘self’, which traditionally Christianity sees as being ‘made in the image of God’, and has been a key to theological thinking: God loves you as you are because God gave you the potential to be a fine human being and, therefore, has great expectations of you. As St Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:10, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’. In the future a person might ask, was I designed by my parents to fulfil their picture of an ideal child? Am I therefore a consumer product? Or, alternatively, can I only be a happy human being if I have a perfect body?

In the political arena, there may well be an upsurgence of right-wing authoritarianism and isolationism, often accompanied by intolerance of religion or the imposition of a particular doctrinaire religion. Christianity would, in principle, advocate inclusivism, social integration, mutuality, and promotion of the common good, although, historically, organised religion has failed to live up to its own standards, as in the Second World War when Christians prevaricated in the face of the Nazi persecution of the Jews and the blanket bombing of civilians by both sides, and then found themselves in denial about their responsibility. As far as new thought-shifting discoveries are concerned, religion has faced plenty of these before: Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud, Textual Criticism (of ‘sacred’ texts), the sexual revolution - the legalisation of homosexuality, the contraceptive pill, gay marriage. In a sense what is there that scientific or philosophical critiques can do to religion that they haven’t done already? The genie is out of bottle. And this creates a dilemma for organised religion: to face the fact or pretend it never happened.

For the Christian religion with its back to the wall of tradition against the secularism of the West, there’s a deep-seated reluctance to engage with prevailing intellectual or ethical trends for fear that its theological foundations will be shaken. Much safer to be proudly counter-cultural and justify your position on the grounds that moral and intellectual trends are here today and gone tomorrow, whereas ancient teachings, embedded in divine texts, transcend time. The trouble is many of those who take the trouble to think about it have come to realise the whole system of Christian doctrine is a human construct with a history as much influenced by politics as spiritual insight, and that in many ways the Bible itself doesn’t always support orthodox doctrine. For example, only John’s gospel presents Jesus as the incarnation of a pre-existent heavenly being in human form and nowhere in the New Testament can you find a fully orthodox theory of the Trinity or Incarnation. These doctrines are the outcome of human debates and power-struggles in later times. And so the Christian response to modernity is strained; there’s a dissonance between the world of religious belief and the world of modern knowledge, which clergy and religious leaders find difficult to solve and to come to terms with.

As a result, in the popular mind Christianity equals a literalist version of itself: science seems to oppose it, it’s ethically out-of-date, and, in the word of one of its greatest critics, delusional. I argue science and religion are compatible because they both search for truth and understanding of the universe, and I think this anti-intellectualism on the part of the Church simply acknowledges that the main challenge to religions is intellectual. The Church runs away from it because it hates listening to criticism, blithely assumes it possesses the truth, is scared the bottom might fall out of its ark, and, because the clergy are psychologically (and professionally, in the sense that promotion depends on it) in bondage to orthodoxy, they’re frightened to let doctrine be in dialogue with twenty-first century thinking. People want to be allowed to think for themselves and rather than taking pride in being counter-cultural I think religion ought to be more enculturated, engaged with things as they are rather than with things as they were. Which is not to say religion needs to compromise with secular society, or be reductionist, or not to test contemporary secular assumptions. Religions need to have a robust and open debate with society, being willing to give and take in the cut and thrust of discussion, recognising that it certainly doesn’t possess the whole truth. You might object that ‘society’ just isn’t interested, but, as I said in the second section of this essay, my experience is different and I find a widespread fascination with the philosophy of religion and meaning of life questions.

Of those who fall into the spiritual-but-not-religious or no-religion category, a proportion find a kind of ‘religious’ expression in music, poetry and the arts: the concert hall and the theatre become their churches and their ‘religious’ experience a stimulation of the imagination, a provocation to explore the depths and ultimacies of human experience. In whatever form a glimpse into the transcendent comes, it needs to stir the imagination. The Church has become nervous about imagination, because it fears that implies all it believes is imaginary. But imagination, being able to find images for experience, is part of being able to mature into one’s true self and part of getting in touch with reality. Einstein fantasised about travelling on a beam of light and the result was his theory of Relativity. He wrote, ‘I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’

In its rituals and music, the Church is able to express great beauty and grandeur. Glory. What is missing in the rural churches I visit is Glory – the excitement of beauty and its ability to lift you out of yourself into another plane or a sense of transcendence. But even glorious ritual can lose its lustre by being too often repeated. You only know glory by experiencing everyday ordinariness. I also think you can have the ritual and still keep a fluid, interrogative relationship with creedal assertion – besides the language of religion is poetry.

Beliefs and Identity

In my first draft of this essay I made much of an idea that beliefs and identity are distinct motivating factors in religion. On the one hand you have the intellectual framework of a religion, constructed with theological ideas about the nature of the universe and the goal or purpose of human life. In the case of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the so-called ‘Religions of the Book’, this intellectual construct being grounded in ancient texts considered by many as divinely inspired and therefore authoritative; in Christianity, beliefs being formulated into creeds to be recited in worship and adhered to. On the other hand, we have the communal, emotional, social, tribal, and ethnic-identity aspect of religion, vividly illustrated by the Jewish concept of their being ‘God’s chosen people.’

Now I know a lot of people who are interested in the beliefs, and the aesthetics/poetic and ethical side of religion without actually belonging to a religious community. They are intrigued by faith, searching for God, like Pascal, but put off precisely by the counter-cultural, dumbing-down obstinacy of the church establishment. So, I’m quite keen to separate beliefs from identity, yet I recognise the categories of beliefs and identity are blurred at the edges and feed into each other, and that if religion isn’t communal it cannot function or persist long-term, as the spiritual thoughts of isolated persons. On their own people can think about religious questions and derive benefit from doing so, but, without community and ritual, the body of belief is weakened. The French sociologist of religion, Émile Durkheim got this in his 1912 definition of religion: ‘a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e. things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.’[3]

[1] 04 September 2017 The latest data on religious affiliation from NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey

[2] The figures are published in a report, Europe’s Young Adults and Religion, by Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in London. They are based on data from the European social survey 2014-16.

[3] Durkheim: The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Book 1, Ch.1

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