Britain today has become one of the most godless societies on Earth. Its principle ‘religious’ exports today are thinkers who despise religion. From Richard Dawkins, who has compared religion to child abuse, to my friend Christopher Hitchens, who titled his 2007 book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
, the British have cornered the market on being anti-God – at least the Christian and Jewish varieties.
While 92 percent of Americans believe in God, in Britain only 35% do and, according to Britain’s National Center for Social Research, 43% say they have no religion. The percentage of those affiliated with the Church of England dropped from 40% in 1983 to 23% in 2009.
In truth, though, if Britain’s Christian tradition is dying out, the leaders of the faith have only themselves to blame.
Europeans are in the habit of making fun of American evangelicals as backward religious knuckle-draggers who believe that Adam and Eve actually ate apples with a talking snake. But for all this condescension, evangelical Christianity in the United States represents the single largest voting bloc in the world’s main superpower. One out of five Americans identifies as a born-again Christian – something inconceivable in Britain. American evangelicals build mega-churches that draw thousands of worshipers, while British churches are empty. Leading evangelical pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen enjoy vast cultural influence among millions of Americans, while in Britain no religious figure could even hope to compete with William and Kate in exciting the youth.
One key difference is that in America, there is no official state
church. There is no archbishop of Canterbury, no chief rabbi, no
official defender of the faith.
Religion lives and dies in America like a commercial enterprise, and is
therefore highly entrepreneurial. If pastors excite their congregants
with a message that is uplifting and relevant, they can be sure the pews
will be filled. If they deliver sermons that send would-be worshipers
into deep comas, their churches (and alms plates) will be empty.
My British friends argue that the demise of religion is a good thing,
proving sophistication in sharp contrast to the religious hobos of
America, who speak in tongues and talk to dead people.
I beg to differ. In his 1997 book A History of the American People
historian Paul Johnson makes the case that the remarkable growth of the
US, from pioneering backwoodsmen to the most powerful and innovative
nation on Earth, was fueled largely by religious fervor. From the piety
of the Pilgrims to the faith-based values of the country’s founders, to
the belief in manifest destiny and even the marketing of Coca-Cola as
“the real thing,” Americans tamed the wilderness with the faith that
their nation is a new promised land, destined to illuminate the Earth
with the torch of freedom and the light of human dignity.
British influence in the world, in contrast, has gone off a cliff over
the past century. I would argue that the new, militant atheism that is
becoming characteristic of Britain is a key reason. Atheism is a
philosophy of nihilism in which nothing is sacred and all is an
While it has some brief, flashy moments, life is purposeless and meaningless.
There is no soul to illuminate and no spirit to enliven – just decadent
flesh. Human love is a prank played by our genes to ensure the
propagation of the species, and poetry and faith are shallow
distractions masking the inevitability of death . Men are insemination
machines incapable of ever being truly faithful, and women are
genetically programmed to seek out billionaire hedge-fund managers, the
better to support their offspring.
This decline of faith and optimism may account for why Britain – once
the most advanced nation on earth, which gave the world parliamentary
democracy and inimitable centers of higher learning – is today more
famous for exporting reality shows like Big Brother
and Project Catwalk
For while religion affirms the infinite dignity of the human person,
its absence robs life of its sanctity. Universal exploitation and
humiliation for fame and fortune are the inevitable outgrowth.
Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, ending it completely three
decades before the US, with Christian abolitionists like William
Wilberforce taking the lead against that abomination.
But a century later, Britain is better known for football hooliganism,
the gratuitous degradation of women in its most-circulated publications,
and one of the highest out-of-wedlock birthrates in the world.
True, America has many of these same problems, and a great deal more of
its own. But the spiritual underpinnings of the American republic ensure
that values are constantly debated, and that soul-searching is a
never-ending element of the national discourse.
It just goes to show how important it is to “keep the faith.” Were
Britain to rediscover its own, it might find a lost sense of mission and
a once-glorious sense of purpose.
The writer is the author of
Honoring the Child Spirit: Inspiration and Learning from Our Children and Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.