Page last updated at 11:09 GMT, Monday, 10 August 2009 12:09 UK

What have the noughties done for God?

Robert Pigott launches Newsnight's review of the first decade of the 21st Century by asking whether God's new millennium has got off to a bad start.

The Noughties has been a controversial decade for religion. With secularism on the rise, churches closing down and religion finding itself increasingly at odds with artistic expression, atheists have seized the chance to promote their message of a godless universe. Has God's century got off to a bad start?

By Robert Pigott, Religious Affairs Correspondent

Standing in the little parish church in Thwaite in Suffolk you get a sense of the challenge facing religion in the noughties, or at least the established orthodox religion - Anglican Christianity - that has dominated England for 500 years.

For all of those five centuries the church of St George was the spiritual home of the people of this small settlement, amid fields of wheat and barley on the flat lands of East Anglia.

But last year it was declared redundant, like more than 200 other Anglican churches in England during the noughties.

Public scepticism

Other denominations have closed even more churches and chapels.

The decline in Christian influence goes much further than dwindling Sunday congregations.

A stern secularism has marked public life during the last decade, with legislation protecting minorities such as gay people against discrimination, which some Christians say undermines their freedom to practice - and even preach - a gospel that considers active homosexuality sinful.

Simon Jenkins says many people find traditional forms of religion less relevant

A government that famously did not "do God", introduced civil partnerships and abolished the law against blasphemy. It seemed to reflect a new public scepticism about the influence of organized religion.

Producer Stuart Denman and I spoke to the social commentator Simon Jenkins, an atheist who has nevertheless written one of the leading books about the country's best church buildings.

Simon Jenkins says people are ready to question religious beliefs.

"People are now saying 'I want the law to answer to me. I don't want to be told by a hierarchy, by a religious ruler, what I can believe, how I can behave'. Those days are over."

'Atheist bus'

The very nature of religion has come into question during the noughties.

The once unquestioning faith in the God described by Christianity has waned with increasing effect in the first ten years of the century.

We have entered an age of doubt, and during the noughties the doubters have proclaimed the demise of God increasingly assertively.

One sign was the presence on the streets of UK cities of the "atheist bus" - decorated with advertisements suggesting that God "probably" did not exist.

One of those who backed the bus was the author of The God Delusion, Professor Richard Dawkins.

He told Newsnight he had had to wait until the turn of the century to write his book.

"My literary agent advised me against writing 'The God Delusion' in the late nineties - and then in the mid-noughties he said 'now you should write it'.

He was thinking of the American context, and I think what happened was George Bush. I think in the Clinton era there was no feeling of an oppressive theocracy whereas under George Bush there actually was."

Reinterpretation question

Simon Jenkins said that even those who did not reject God outright were asking searching questions.

"I think the noughties demythologized religion. They took a lot of the mumbo-jumbo out of it. They stripped it down, and asked people who claimed to believe in God, what do you really believe in, OK?"

There is in all of us a longing for something greater. Christians... call it God - others don't know what to call it
Sister Wendy Beckett

That question has helped produce startling, dramatic, divisions in the churches, not least the Anglican Communion, with homosexuality the principal presenting issue.

The ordination of the Communion's first openly gay bishop took place in 2003, and the rest of the decade has seen a steady progress towards a permanent split.

At heart is a disagreement about how literally to read the Bible, and how open to reinterpretation it should be.

Sister Wendy thinks there is a deep longing in all of us for something greater

Defenders of the faith in the noughties - including Sister Wendy Beckett - insist that the authors of the "aggressive secularism" of the last decade, focus maliciously on the imprisoning features of religion that most Christians have long reformed.

Sitting in the sacristy of the chapel at her home at Quidenham Monastery in Norfolk, Sister Wendy constructed an image out of one hand, and cut it down with the other.

"It's what you're taught in debating. You build up a false image of what your opponent is saying, and then destroy it. Where do they get these false ideas? From what they have picked up in their culture."

But Sister Wendy is prepared to take an indulgent view of the recent tirade against religious faith, which she says is "written by people who know nothing of theology - poor lambs - I mean it's not their fault they're ignorant".

Then she offers a way of thinking about religion apparently made for an age of doubt.

"There is in all of us a longing for something greater. Christians and non-Christians too for that matter, call it God. Others don't know what to call it. You don't have to call God anything. God is just a word."

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