Spring 2014

Why Christianity Went Bust in Britain

How could a whole nation just seem to wake up one morning and simply not believe anymore?

By Craig J. Hazen

“The Death of Christian Britain” is a rather provocative book title. Did Christianity really die in Britain? I read this academic monograph by Callum G. Brown, a professor of social and cultural history at the University of Glasgow, when it first came out in 2001. It was a fascinating and sobering study that painted a rather desperate picture of Christianity’s current state and future in that country.

I followed the book reviews closely, especially those by Brits themselves, thinking that surely someone would complain about the title of the book because a pronouncement of death was a rather serious statement to splash on a book cover. But there were no complaints. It seems that it is a common idea in the U.K. that Christian Britain has died. Brown’s title was not really provocative at all.

Now, he did not mean that Christianity had disappeared in Britain. There are still some lively churches in the isles keeping the true flames of faith burning brightly — but they really are few and far between. The great cathedrals and churches that were center points of urban and rural life are almost all empty now. They are little more than tourist attractions — historical artifacts reminding visitors of a bygone era. What Brown means by “The Death of Christian Britain” is that the British people by and large have stopped identifying themselves with the Christian tradition. With that, it turns out, there is no argument. As one agreeable British reviewer wrote, “He does not claim that we are all atheists now, but asserts that a massive shift in our self-understanding as a nation has occurred, which has reduced Christianity to the status of an eccentric and irrelevant sub-culture in a dynamically plural society.”

There is another part of Brown’s study that is truly provocative. And that is the speed at which he claims this massive shift took place that discarded the national Christian identity. Upon his analysis, and against traditional theories, Brown believes Christianity was lost in a single generation and maybe in as little as a 10- or 20-year time span. His data is quite convincing on the question of the velocity of change. It was a catastrophic and abrupt cultural revolution. Of course, he then tried to paint a picture of how such a thing could happen so rapidly and he offered up a number of factors with special focus on the “feminization of Christianity.” But in his analysis he seemed stymied in one area: How could a whole nation just seem to wake up one morning and simply not believe anymore?

Brown’s training as a social historian, with expertise in counting and measuring people and behaviors, did not serve him well in his attempt to answer the question. But for those of us who study the history of ideas, the question isn’t quite as baffling. Christian beliefs and practices did stop relatively abruptly. But something that was not part of Brown’s study was that the intellectual seeds of Christianity’s demise had been sown for decades prior to this abrupt drop off. And these ideas that seem to render Christianity untrue and irrelevant came to full flower between 1960 and 1975 — a period of time that Brown identifies as the crucial period of demise. Atheist, agnostic, skeptical and pluralistic professors at all the great British universities had been hammering on the faith for years before this — and there were very few defenders in their midst. Indeed, one reason C.S. Lewis was such a standout in Britain in his day is that he was so unusual. There were very, very few believers willing to make an intelligent public case for Christianity — and that is still the situation today.

The great lesson to be learned is one that was taught by Richard Weaver decades ago: that “ideas have consequences.” Once the British people thought there were no good reasons to believe or practice Christianity, they stopped. Indeed, they even abandoned the Christian identity that marked them for more than a millennium. One can only imagine what might have happened if there were hundreds or even thousands of thoughtful Christian ambassadors in Britain like Lewis who were well trained and willing to make the case for Christ in all sectors of British society. I think there is good biblical warrant to think things might have turned out very differently in the U.K.

Our vision in the Christian apologetics program at Biola is to train up several generations of winsome, thoughtful ambassadors for Christ who can fulfill the Apostle Peter’s command to “be prepared always to give an answer, a reason for the hope that we have.” By God’s grace, if we are successful, perhaps no one will ever write a book titled “The Death of Christian America.”


Craig J. Hazen is the founder and director of Biola’s M.A. program in Christian apologetics and author of the novel Five Sacred Crossings. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

 

Biola on the Road

Join Biola University’s Christian apologetics program this summer in London as we partner with the remnant of believers in Britain to reestablish an intellectual beachhead for Christianity. The “Unbelievable? Conference 2014 — Reasonable Faith in an Uncertain World” happens on July 12 at Westminster Central Hall in the heart of London. Visit biola.edu/london for information.

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  • John Virgilio June 4, 2014 at 7:21 PM

    Excellent points Craig. It only makes sense that it had been eaten away at for years before the larger falling away. Nice catch. Very interesting subject, and yes, let us do our best to not let it happen here, as well as, reverse it there.

  • Glyn Owen June 6, 2014 at 2:21 AM

    I'm British, and I stopped believing in God when I stopped believing in santa and the tooth fairy. all religions are the same, in the sense that they were thought up thousands of years ago, as stories made up for the campfire, so people could try and make sense of things they didn't and couldn't understand as we do today. In my opinion anyone who still believes in any omnipotent being is primitive and holding back society, we would be a lot more caring without all these vengeful gods. and we'd be best part of a thousand years more technologically advanced

  • Louise Smith June 6, 2014 at 12:48 PM

    Does the book suggest why?
    I know many people who believe in a divine or a spirituality, so it is not that we have turned our backs on the spiritual There are many reasons that the English view Christianity in the way they do..I would list a quite a few but doubt folk would read it. I would be interested to know what he thinks

  • David Stephenson June 6, 2014 at 12:52 PM

    Dear Glyn, I too would like to see an end to all these god's we seem to spend time with and dare I say even worship. However I have to conclude that there is a creator whether or not people believe in Him. Everywhere I look I see evidence of His creation. I weep for the way society is heading - not a brave new world but a fool-hardy, selfish and power hungry world. Thank God that He is ultimately in control.

  • Gary June 6, 2014 at 3:42 PM

    I'm not a Christian, but it staggers me that there ignorant people who dismiss Christianity out of hand, mock it's influence and at the same time crow about minority religions. Christianity is at the core of our nation, our culture, our heritage , our laws. It progressed our country way ahead of others after the Reformation and helped push the West hundreds of years further forward than the rest of the world. It continues to shape our goodwill and yet Islam is known as the religion of peace, nobody dare speak badly about it but will happily insult Christianity quite viciously. Christianity seems to me flawed, always was, but it does good all over the world. Tell me which Islamic charity helps people in Christian countries or helps non Muslims in mixed countries!?
    None.
    What religion has thousands upon thousands of atrocities carried out each year by its followers?
    I don't care that you're not Christian, but show it some respect because it made this country great.

  • Edwin Deady June 7, 2014 at 12:30 AM

    This article and presumably the book itself overlooks the fact that there has probably been a sceptical approach to Christianity in Britain ever since it was introduced 1900 years (?) ago. First, sanctions that compelled people to pretend to a faith were abolished then social pressures went. The Enlightenment helped as well.

    Evidence? Men hanging around in the Churchyard until the mass bell rang then dashing in to partake in the Middle Ages along with stories of cynicism and satire about church people, see Chaucer, for example.

    Why, if faith were so universal, were fines and punishments needed to compel people to church? The idea of a universal Christianity is as delusional as the faith itself.

  • Chandra Sehar Richard John June 7, 2014 at 12:39 AM

    Mr.Gary's comments are highly appreciated.

  • Keith West June 7, 2014 at 8:08 AM

    Some interesting comments for once. Whenever any issue related to faith, particularly Christianity, is raised in the public arena it is noticeable that atheists immediately pile in with objections, ridicule and much uninformed and backward-looking mantras: It's all nonsense, who could ever believe in a sky god, religion is the sole cause of all the world's problems... etc. What rarely occurs is informed debate or even discussion. Most, but not all atheists, are woefully ignorant of the Bible and quote only those passages which suit their purpose, usually out of context often betraying a naive approach to what the Bible is. The idea of reading a philosophical treatise, poetry or literature with the same one-dimensional attitude would be considered ridiculous. No one but the most extreme evangelicals believe the literal truth of much of the Bible, which is a collection of origin myths, historical elements passed down by word of mouth, poetry and contemplation of man's place in the world and universe.

    The New Testament, however, is different from the Old Testament and most other books considered holy, since the life of Jesus mitigates, enlightens and fulfils much of the OLd Testament. Most of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles were written within 35 years of Christ's ministry and three of the four gospels describe a real personality - like a hologram from differing perspectives. It is the life and example of Christ which the New Testament establishes as the core of Christianity which renders literal understanding of the written text redundant, except for its record of that life and its influence on the disciples and followers.

    Christianity is no more under attack than at any other time in its two millennia history. It has always remained a minority faith - as someone else has said above, when Christianity became a state religion it was codified and confined to dogma and required blind unquestioning adherence. As the enlightenment questioned dogma, it did those of true faith a great service, as did scientific research and theories of evolution by undermining rigid dogma and, in effect purifying the faith by making blind adherence unnecessary. It is religions which adhere to the book, religious codes which are wide of the mark.

  • Anthony June 8, 2014 at 7:02 AM

    As many people have said and will continue to say, Religion has always had its doubters. For a great deal of history, people were forced to engage in Christianity. Now, that it's a choice; many are choosing not to believe and that's fine. I don't know if there is a higher power; we never will. It is possible that all of Religion is a myth, but all of the contradictions do not disprove its existence.

    The contradictions highlight the fact that it was written millenia ago in a different context and is constantly being interpreted. Does Religion contribute to all of the world's problems? No. If anything, the spirit of Religion teaches you to help. If we let go of Religion will we become more advanced? Perhaps, take China and Japan for example. All I know is that Religion is likely to stay for quite a while.

    We should live be the following principle: Do good because you will feel good, because that's the right thing to do. If you're doing good just to get to paradise; perhaps you're doing it for the wrong reasons. I hope that there is an afterlife and those who are truly deserving will get there. If not, all I can hope is that we eventually find a way to allow science, Religion and spirituality coexist without causing so many problems. I hope, because it's an idealistic fantasy.

  • Jacqui June 8, 2014 at 2:06 PM

    Gary there have been plenty of atrocities carried out in the name of Christianity also. I totally disagree that Christianity has made our nation (Britain) great.
    I generally find that most atheists have a better knowledge of the Bible and its content than most Christians who simply recall the verses they hear in church.
    Keith West if the Bible is a collection of myths etc. please explain how its readers are to determine which parts to follow and which to ignore? Why would God be ambiguous? That just allows Christians to pick and choose (won't stone adulterers, will penalise homosexuals etc)
    With a lack of evidence supporting the existence of a god I will apply the reason that I apply to any other situation to reach a reasonable conclusion that there isn't one. Convenient, isn't it that the 'right' religion just happens to be the religion of your parents or your country's religion? It was merely introduced to 'civilise.'

  • Julia Duin June 12, 2014 at 11:12 AM

    Maybe the Brits need to experience a few generations of living under the laws of an Islamic caliphate until they come to their senses as to which faith really is the religion of peace. Ask anyone living in Iran these days as to what they think of their charming government.

  • R.S.S. June 17, 2014 at 4:51 AM

    Jacqui you said: "Convenient, isn't it that the 'right' religion just happens to be the religion of your parents or your country's religion?"

    Jacqui, I grew up in a secular home with no religious texts and became a Christian in my adult years. Christianity is the only cohesive, complete worldview system that makes sense.

  • Candice Litrenta June 23, 2014 at 10:34 AM

    I am from California in America and I became a Christian when I was 20 and in 82-84 I went to Bible studies in peoples homes daily and I was married, had 2 kids and then the Devil got involved, made me doubt my trust in God and lured me into my own thinking and then the marriage fell apart, my kids ended up being raised not by me and my ex but adopted out due to a circumstance caused by both of our failure to stay with God, but then that was not enough, we saw inconsistent behavior of spiritual leaders so I stayed on my own and got involved with my own life pretty much leaving God to His self and me to mine. Well my friend gave me a dvd called the Secret and I pretty much got very good results from understanding that because it taught me what faith was from a scientific basis.....But that still only took me so far......God is now opening my eyes because all of the two years I did that Bible study it was on prophesies of the end times and now I feel as though this IS it.....It really says one generation will not only see the whole thing go down but be able to understand the Bible as no one in previous generations did....You look for yourself and you will see......It is all happening....Good and Bad

  • Vitor Nascimento June 23, 2014 at 4:09 PM

    Hello Mr. Brown and Mr. Hazen,

    We are living in the era of tv series. Just as there are many series about vampires and zombies, why don't we start a series that promote Christian attitudes and put it into channels as HBO, Telecine, etc.

    The movies presented in the past as "The Ten Commandments" and others used to promote religiousness on channels that were presented to everyone. There were only a few number of channels. Today if you want to present a movie about God, you need to present it in a religious channel.

    So it is also responsibility from the artists to seek works that promote the Christian life.
    If we can remember, the last great movie about Jesus was in 2004, "The Passion of Christ".

    Best Regards,

    Vitor

  • Jimmy Watt September 23, 2015 at 1:30 PM

    I think Hazen is partly correct in claiming the change in Britain was due to the liberal scholarship that challenged the veracity of Christian claims, but that scholarship had been in the making for several hundred years, well before C.S Lewis, and was as much German as British. The abrupt nature of the British change in attitude was precipitated by changes in modern communications that placed a higher value on the fruits of scholarship and spread it more widely.

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