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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 February, 2004, 14:32 GMT
Why Britain doesn't go to church
By James A Beckford
Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick

Fewer and fewer Britons go to church but interest in spirituality appears to be growing - whether it is in astrology or yoga, New Age thinking or native religions.

Durham Cathedral
Some medieval cathedrals such as Durham still dominate the skyline
An opinion poll carried out for the BBC programme "What the World thinks of God" shows organised religion remains strong in the US and the Islamic world. Professor James Beckford of the University of Warwick examines the changes in society and asks why.

The decline of Christianity in Britain is nothing new.

More than 130 years ago, the poet, Matthew Arnold lamented the retreat of "the sea of faith".

Since Dover Beach was written, how much further has "the sea of faith" retreated from the shores of Western Europe? Not completely, but certainly a very long way.

Extract from Dover Beach

The sea of faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled;

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Matthew Arnold, 1822-1888

Medieval churches dominated the landscape just as Christian ideas used to dominate our lives.

In today's world - in everything from economic affairs and personal morality to political, legal and cultural ideas - modern liberal Britain has new inspirations and new icons.

And traditional religion, it seems, is only for the few.

A large and growing number of people profess very few beliefs conforming to Christian orthodoxy.

Even fewer participate in the activities of Christian organisations.

There are of course still traces of Christian influence, but their significance as the driving force and guidance system of social life has plummeted. This is 'secularisation'.

Does this herald the end of religion or the death of God? No, it means that the major Christian churches are losing their former power - more rapidly in some places than others - and that competition is intensifying among the suppliers of would-be alternatives and replacements.

The race is on to re-package 'spirituality' and 'religion' for a generation of consumers who do not see themselves as church members; and if organised religion continues to fail to meet their needs, then others will provide.

What does this new generation of consumers want? There are clues in what they consume already.

Even though religion is not the most important institution or factor in social life it continues to be 'used' in many forms.

A mourner places flowers for Diana, Princess of Wales at Kensington Palace
Thousands of flowers were dedicated to Princess Diana
At the time of Princess Diana's death, millions wanted to lay flowers or sign books of condolences. In tragedy and disaster, religion is still a major source of symbols, sentiments and ceremonies.

Pick and mix religion

But religion is also used for other purposes - the expression of joy as well as despair; or as therapy to fit around a busy, stressful life.

At the modern supermarket of faith, the consumer seeks to pick and mix religious items to match their commitment and interest.

And that brings dangers.

What should count as 'real' religion at a time when the sheer diversity of religions on offer may appear overwhelming?

Without clear guidance and regulation, who will protect the consumer from 'bogus' religions linked to exploitation or other crimes?

World trends

But the situation of religions in Western Europe is not representative of the world as a whole.

The influence of Christianity and of other major religions on the lives of individuals is increasing in many places; and it remains strong in the USA and in countries where Islam is the dominant faith.

American Christianity is more deeply rooted in society.

Levels of belonging and of donating are higher.

And it doesn't end at the church door.

Across the southern Bible Belt and in the Midwest, churches mobilise volunteers in health care, in care for the elderly or in social welfare programmes.

It's an important presence in American civil society.

A series of images created for What the World Thinks of God

In much of the Islamic world too, faith remains strong. Religion is inseparable from the State, politics, local communities, education and social welfare.

Personal and public morality still reflects Islamic values. The religious movements which are thriving in Europe and elsewhere typically demand high commitment for high reward.

They are often involved in the community and fulfil a wider social function.

Even here in Britain, it is mainly the conservative Evangelical churches which buck the trend of decline, continuing to fill the pews, while more liberal churches decline.

For religions in Europe the warning is clear. Engage with communities and the new generation of consumers or risk losing market share.

Nicky Gumbel, founder of the Alpha bible teaching course, will be writing about attempts to re-engage Britain's lost congregations. And Dr Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention (America's largest Protestant denomination), will be writing about faith in the United States. Both articles will be published on the What the World Thinks of God website ahead of the programme.

What The World Thinks of God will be broadcast as follows:


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