According to recent census reports, Christianity is now a minority in the UK. Those identifying as Christian has fallen below 50%. “Christians” are still the largest grouping at 46.2% with 37.2% describing themselves as having no religion at all and the rest being split between other significant faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
Humanists have been quick to jump on the results and use this to argue for a move to a more secular society. For them this would involve things like disestablishing the church of England and removing requirements for acts of religious worship in schools. Now, whilst personally, for entirely different reasons, I would like to see the church disestablished and an end to referring to Britain as a Christian country, I don’t think those survey results provide quite the support for that argument that humanists would like.
Here’s why. First of all, Humanism/Secularism is not the neutral middle ground/unifying option that postmodern society likes to assume. It is a creed in its own right. This also means that we cannot simply assume that those expressing “no faith” are humanists and definitely not that they are atheist. In fact, the terms are rather woolly. Just as many of those who identify as Christian rarely if ever attend church, are unlikely to have read the Bible and certainly would not have a grasp of or belief in the Gospel, so too we should not assume that the “nones” are a cohesive group. The figure will include atheists but also those who retain some form of belief in God’s existence and even in Jesus. They may well celebrate Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter and even if their emphasis is more on family and food, they will still have a residual awareness of what underpins the holidays.
If it comes down to what may provide for a tolerant and inclusive society where those of other faiths are free to hold to them, then English Christianity has in many respects provided a better basis for that over many years than secular humanism has. So, in terms of what is best for a cohesive society where rights are respected, then at a civil and cultural level, I would argue that Britain is better off for retaining its Christian identity.
However, as a Christian, when it comes to my concern for the Gospel, then I would prefer us to move away from the idea that this is a Christian country. I believe it helps us to have a more realistic and honest appraisal of where people are in terms of faith. It is no longer possible for people to assume that they are Christian because they live in a Christian country and their parents are Christian. This is forcing people to assess for themselves who they are and what they believe. Therefore, I see the reduction in numbers of nominal Christians as a positive, just as I see the reduction in numbers attending liberal churches to be positive.
Secondly, it helps us as Christians to have a truer appraisal of the situation. We can no longer be complacent. We are helped to have Gospel conversations with people because they are increasingly less likely to assume that our message is not for them because they are already Christians.
Thirdly, it will guard us against the temptation that those in the US still face. The idea that we should divert our energies onto a culture war to preserve a Christian nation must be long abandoned here. Our focus should be on sharing the Gospel. Our churches need to see themselves as missional rather than established.